Belgian unions set to mobilise against another legal attack on the right to strike in Europe

2 Jun 2023

Belgian unions, including affiliated trade unions of the ETF, will mobilise and take action next week in defence of their right to strike and in opposition to a bill presented to the labour committee of the Belgian parliament on Wednesday, June 7.

Hidden beneath the discourse of “protecting freedom of expression of all citizens and the freedom to demonstrate are under pressure”, the justice bill would allow for a ban on demonstrators convicted of misbehaviour at demonstrations that Belgian unions fear will be enforced as an effective blanket ban on trade unions demonstrations.

This comes after a Monday, May 22 2023, united national demonstration against legal attacks on the right to strike in Belgium. Belgian courts, under the discourse of  “the right to work” and “the right to do commerce”, issued a preventative order to ban striking by Delhaize workers –  Belgium’s 2nd largest supermarket chain – at supermarkets and distribution centres, an order that was enforced by bailiffs and police. Delhaize workers have been engaged in action in the country since the March 7 announcements to franchise 128 of its directly-operated supermarkets, leading to the reduction wage, limited trade union representation, and abandonment of the existing collective bargaining agreement.

Unfortunately, this is just another episode in the series of ongoing attacks on the right to strike occurring at greater frequency and in increasing severity all across Europe.

The continuing chaos in aviation – caused by staff shortages, which in turn are the consequence of sub-standard wages and conditions, as well as limited training of new personnel – has seen an increasing threat on the right to strike for air traffic management (ATM). Ryanair has been ramping pressure on the European Commission demanding that overflights be protected from strikes by ATM, following the lead of  Airlines for Europe, that represents Ryanair as well as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, who issued a similar call in April. Meanwhile, these companies, along with policy-makers, continue to ignore the real problem present in transport work, substandard working conditions that make the sector unattractive.

In response to the extensive collective action in the rail and transport sector and the pervasive supportive mood for it, January witnessed the presentation of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill to the UK parliament. This bill aims to curb strike action, criminalise and punish striking workers, and limit the effectiveness of all types of strike action by mandating minimum service levels (the bill was returned to the UK House of Commons on April 26 2023, by the UK House of Lords). It is a plain attempt by the government to undermine and villainise collective action and the trade union movement that has tapped into the general mood of dissatisfaction.

Companies are becoming bolder in their tactics for profit maximisation through undermining working conditions and wages and are now seeking and, unfortunately, achieving legal guarantees – in the form of legal limits on the right to strike –  to reap these profits at the expense of workers and democracy overall. Ryanair recorded a profit of €1.4bn for 2022 recently (close to its record of €1.45bn), while Europe’s largest trucking company, Lithuania-based Girteka Logistics, announced a record €77.9 million in net profit for 2021.

This trend extends, perhaps unsurprisingly, to international institutions as well. The European Commission’s Single Market Emergency Instrument (SMEI), published in September 2022, aims to remove the legal protection of the right to strike, considering it a hindrance to the functioning of the European single market and an obstruction to the free movement of goods. This has not only legitimised the overall erosion to engage in collective action but spells disaster for transport workers. Transport is inherently transnational work that is defined by low wages, long hours and bad conditions, isolation, complex subcontracting chains, and the prevalence of bogus self-employment, which have so far acted as a huge barrier for transport workers’ collective mobilisation – a situation that is often exploited by unscrupulous employers.

The right to strike is a fundamental right of freedom of association and is essential for workers and their trade unions. Despite being recognised by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU) and protected by the Council of Europe European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), and the European Social Charter, threats to the right to strike continue from both private and public institutions and organisations.

The decision to strike is not taken easily by trade unions, but it remains the last resort when all attempts at dialogue have failed. The only answer to these threats is international unity, solidarity, and action in support of our fundamental rights and our European workers and trade unions. The ETF centres this struggle in all its work, as this is essential in the task of achieving fair transport in Europe and a just Europe overall.