Dockers and railway workers lead fierce opposition to right-wing coalition
BELGIAN trade unions opened a month of intermittent strike action yesterday by paralysing the port of Antwerp and slowing train traffic through much of the country.
Dockworkers walked out in the early hours and picketed the entrances to the huge docks container complex.
Docks pilots had commenced industrial action at 5pm on Sunday and navigation also came to a standstill in the ports of Ghent and Zeebrugge.
Unions also took action in Limburg, Hainault and Luxembourg provinces.
Passenger services across the country were also affected.
Antwerp’s main station was deserted with high-speed operator Thalys, which runs trains to Amsterdam and Paris, cancelling services from Sunday until today and diverting some other services.
The ASTB rail union also warned that it would launch a national stoppage on Thursday December 11 to force employers to renegotiate rates for rail workers.
It said it has been trying to negotiate with management since last September, but had the impression it had been talking to a wall.
Yesterday’s protest targeted the plans by the government of Charles Michel to raise the pension age to 67, carry out a 10 per cent cut in the public-sector wage bill, force long-term unemployed workers to work for their unemployment benefits, cut health spending and push through a €3 billion (£2bn) wage cut by delaying the indexation of wages.
Unions say that the cuts are unjust and that those on lower incomes would bear the brunt.
Port workers have been particularly angered by measures to delay pensions by two years until age 67.
Around 100 extra police officers were deployed across Antwerp, with the authorities claiming that they feared a repeat of the disruption that happened at the end of a national demonstration in Brussels on November 6.
On that day, a few hundred of the more than 150,000 demonstrators fought with police.
The new government is an alliance of Flemish nationalists and free-market Francophone politicians.
While Mr Michel’s free-market Reform Movement serves as a Francophone figurehead for the government, its main force is a coalition of right-wing Flemish parties led by the Flemish-separatist New Flemish Alliance (NVA), which is linked to the far-right Flemish Bloc.