One-day strike follows deadlock in banking talks

July 1999 saw a one-day strike in Belgium's banking sector. The action reflected frustration over the deadlock in talks over a new national collective agreement for the industry. Trade unions view a national settlement, rather than separate company deals, as essential, given trends towards outsourcing and loss of employee status.

Negotiations have been going on for several months between the Belgian Bankers' Association (BVB/ABB) and the various trade unions involved - ACV/CSC, ABVV/FGTB and ACLVB/CGSLB- on a new national collective agreement for the banking sector. However, the talks became completely deadlocked in June 1999. The trade unions had already called several short stoppages and lightning strikes, but discontent about the failure to secure an agreement continued to mount and a one-day national strike was organised by the unions for 9 July.

The lack of a national sectoral agreement is not an unusual occurrence in the banking industry, and during the past 10 years the banks have become accustomed to negotiating collective agreements with the unions on a bank-by-bank basis. However, the unions argue that the current sustained wave of reorganisations and mergers, together with the creeping trend towards compulsory self-employment within the sector, mean that a national agreement is more necessary than ever.

Three important areas of disagreement are ensuring that the gulf between the two negotiating parties remains too wide: a shorter working week; the trend towards outsourcing of services; and the loss of employee status for those working for the banks.

The trade unions are arguing for a reduction in working hours from 37 to 35 hours a week, which in their view must not be cancelled out over the course of the year by other measures (eg through shorter holidays).

More important areas of dispute are outsourcing and loss of employee status. The banks are increasingly and systematically contracting out support services - such as bookkeeping and information technology - to subsidiary offices set up by themselves, but which are no longer covered by the joint committees of employer and employee representatives which operate within the banks. As a result, the former bank employees who staff these services are being offered different terms of employment, against the wishes of the trade unions. At the same time, large numbers of branch managers are being forced to become self-employed, which again implies different terms of employment than in the past.

To counter these trends, which are seen as undermining and eroding employment within the banking sector and implying a deterioration in staff terms of employment, the trade unions are seeking to throw up a "dam", in the form of a national collective agreement. The recent stoppages and the national one-day strike are designed to demonstrate that they are serious. It remains to be seen whether this impresses the employers and causes them to change their minds.

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