Belgian trade unions strike against energy costs and inflation from Ukraine war


Belgium’s largest unions took to the streets of Brussels on Dec. 16th to demand higher wages, a cap on energy prices, and more bargaining power. This strike came on the wave of other labor actions in Belgium, including a national strike and a three-day rail strike. Organizers say that workers’ real wages are being diminished by runaway inflation driven by rapid increases in the costs of energy due to the war in Ukraine.

Director, Camera, Editing: Brandon Jourdan


Transcript

Reporter:  In the midst of freezing cold temperatures, thousands of workers from throughout Belgium took to the streets of Brussels, demanding a cap on soaring energy prices, higher wages, and more bargaining power for trade unions.

Denis Selimovski:  So people are here today because they cannot pay their bills anymore. The prices are going up everywhere and in everything, especially energy prices. And we cannot go on anymore. So we are fighting today to have better wages, to have it so that the prices can be controlled by the government and limited to a certain point, because right now it’s very difficult to finish the months.

Reporter:  The mobilization organized by the Socialist General Labor Federation of Belgium, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions, and the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium was the latest action in an ongoing struggle over the rising cost of living.

Roel Huibrechts:  We are here for more money, so that energy will be available for everyone, so that the wages are put up, so that they know that we don’t agree with their management.

Reporter:  Protesters also took action to demand an end to the 1996 Wage Margin Act, which severely restricts union ability to negotiate better wages.

Alain Bodson:  We are here today mainly because of the loss of purchasing power. We have regulations and Belgian law that prevents us from negotiating wages, the so-called law of 96. It is a law that dates back to 1996. But especially today, we realize that more and more people in Belgium do not have the means to pay for energy to heat their homes and freeze to death at home. So it is no longer tenable, it is no longer acceptable. We really need the government to give us the means and give us room to renegotiate wages and salaries upwards.

Protester:  Protest against the government! Our pensions and our salaries are declining. All the prices are increasing. The electricity, the gas costs, all increasing. We have to protest today!

Denis Selimovski:  So we want, first of all, to increase the wages so that the unionists can negotiate freely the wages of the people without the government involvement. And secondly, we want the prices of energy to be limited to a certain point. And also, we want to tax the profits of the energy multinationals. They have a lot of benefits. They also need to participate in society and help the workers.

Reporter:  Due to the action, there was significant disruption of public transit, with only one tram running in Brussels, and 60% reduced air traffic at Brussels’s main airport. The action highlighted the increased financial burden felt by Belgian workers. Inflation in Belgium is rising higher than the EU average. Energy prices in Belgium have been increasing more than in neighboring countries. According to the VREG, in May 2020, the average price for electricity was €848.07 per year, and for natural gas, €926.88. In September 2022, the price for electricity was €3,257 per year, and for natural gas, €8,103 per year. This coincides with a sharp increase in supermarket prices.

Protesters:  [chanting] Too expensive! Too expensive! Energy is too expensive! Make the shareholders pay!

Alain Bodson:  What we really want from the government is that it does everything to ensure that, at the least, at the European level, we cap the price of energy. And at the very least, if they do not reach agreement at the European level, that they do it in Belgium, whatever it costs.

Reporter:  Belgium has a system of wage indexation guaranteeing that if the cost of living goes up, salaries, pensions and benefits also increase. Unions argue that the next indexation in January does not address the rise in fuel and energy prices, which have led to a decrease in worker purchasing power.

Denis Selimovski:  For about two years, electricity prices and gas prices have been going up almost each month. So every time we think the prices have reached a new threshold, they go up again. And we cannot go on anymore. So we really need the government to hear the working class, to hear the people that they cannot pay their bills anymore. And the wages are too low.

Reporter:  The action is the latest in a strike wave that included a national strike and a three-day rail strike in November after multiple large strikes in 2022.

Denis Selimovski:  This is the latest action of a long campaign regarding the purchasing power in Belgium. We had a national strike in November. We had another national manifestation strike in September. So every other month, more or less, we continue the actions.

Reporter: With inflation increasing and energy prices rising due to the Ukraine war, the demonstration is likely a preview of actions to come in Belgium.

Denis Selimovski:  Because we don’t feel heard by the government, we don’t feel heard by the bosses of the companies. And as long as we feel that it is necessary to continue the actions, we will continue. And as long as people are getting poorer while the bosses are getting richer, then we will continue the actions.


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Brandon Jourdan

Brandon Jourdan is an independent filmmaker, journalist, and writer. Jourdan has contributed to the NY Times, CNN, Arte, Reuters, Babelgum, Deep Dish TV, Democracy Now!, the Independent Media Center, Now with Bill Moyers, Foreign Exchange, and Free Speech Television. He co-founded the Global Uprisings film series, producing over 20 short documentary films covering the large-scale uprisings, occupations, protests and revolutions in Egypt, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Spain, Greece, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Turkey and the United States. His films have played in various international film festivals and exhibitions including the 2006 Whitney Biennial: Day For Night, the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver International Film Festival, the Aljazeera International Film Festival, the Contemporary Art Meeting Point in Athens, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona.