Building public opinion behind the 35-hour week campaign

Download article in original language : BE9711124NFR.DOC

In October 1997, prominent trade union and academic figures issued a call for a massive reduction of working hours in Belgium

Echoing the French Government's decision in October 1997 to reduce the working week to 35 hours by the year 2000 (FR9710169F) and similar plans in Italy (IT9710133N) prominent union and academic figures issued a call for a massive reduction of working hours in Belgium. The appeal, published in October, is entitled The 35-hour week in Belgium too (Les 35 heures en Belgique également/De 35 uren week ook in België).

The trade union signatories of the call included G Debunne, the former president of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV and several branch officials of FGTB/ABVV and the other main union confederation, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond/Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens, ACV/CSC), from all three regions of the country. Among these was Karel Gacoms, secretary of the FGTB/ABVV-affiliated Federation of Metalworkers(Centrale des Métallurgistes de Belgique/Central de Metaalindustie van België), who dealt with the dispute at Renault-Vilvoorde (EU9703108F), and union delegates from firms such as Volkswagen and Cockerill. About 10 academics from Brussels and Leuven universities and representatives of pressure groups and political parties have also signed this appeal.

The appeal, which was launched to build up public opinion behind the campaign for a reduction in working hours, has been distributed widely and calls on everyone to sign it. Its aim is to extend the debate beyond the negotiations between social partners.

During a press conference to publicise the appeal, Professor J Bundervoet (of the Katholieke Universiteit van Leuven) explained that: "reducing labour costs is not enough to create jobs. Less qualified workers must be reintegrated and work redistributed. Share-out measures, such as part-time work and early retirement have reached their limits. Without significant movement towards a collective reduction of working hours, unemployment will not be reduced."

For his part, JM Piersotte, national secretary of the CSC/ACV-affiliatedNational Federation of White-Collar Workers (Centrale Nationale des Employés/Landelijke Bedienden Central,CNE/LBC) stressed the difficulty of getting the idea of reductions in working hours accepted, even amongst the ranks of trade unionists: "Even at union headquarters, the economic argument and the employers' ideology have taken over the ethics. What remains to be done is to increase awareness amongst the grassroots. At Electrabel [the gas and electricity distribution company - BE9711125N] it took us six years to convince workers with secure jobs to choose to fight for the jobless rather than demand pay rises. "

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