Flemish civil servants get extra pay rise in the wake of strike action

In March 2008, the Flemish government and trade unions representing Flemish civil servants reached an agreement providing for an additional pay rise of at least 2% for the period 2008–2009. The agreement followed a coordinated campaign of industrial action which lasted five days and took place in various regions of Flanders at different times. The industrial action included in particular strike activity by lock controllers, resulting in the obstruction of traffic at inland waterways.

Five days of industrial action

On 17 March 2008, Flemish civil servants initiated strike action in support of their claims for an additional pay rise (BE0607019I.). The three major public service trade unions – the General Confederation of Public Services (Centrale Générale des Services Publics/Algemene Centrale der Openbare diensten, CGSP/ACOD), the Public Services Union (ACV-Openbare diensten/CSC Services publics) and the Liberal Trade Union of Public Services (Vrij Syndicaat voor het Openbaar Ambt/Syndicat Libre de la Fonction Publique, VSOA/SLFP) – mobilised together in a unified front during the strike action. Each day, strikes were planned to take place in a different province.

Important events during the week of the strike activity included the blocking of locks at inland waterways and the participation of pilots at the sea harbours. The strike action at the locks caused tensions between strikers and bargemen, which inevitably attracted a lot of media attention. As soon as the Flemish government agreed to begin negotiations on a new wage agreement, the trade unions suspended their strike action on 20 March. On 21 March, only a limited protest manifestation was organised in Brussels to support the trade union negotiators. However, after only one day of negotiations, strike activity was resumed. Nevertheless, on 22 March, a final agreement was reached, thus bringing industrial conflict to a close after five days of strike activity.

Although, initially, the civil servants asked for a wage increase of 5%, their representative trade unions agreed to a 2% pay increase plus a reduced employee contribution to meal vouchers. On the government side, Minister-President of Flanders, Kris Peeters, and the Flemish Minister for Administrative Affairs, Foreign Policy, Media and Tourism, Geert Bourgeois, also promised that further talks would be organised, particularly on the way temporary agency work would be organised in the future. Temporary agency work in the civil service is under the current ruling only permitted in exceptional cases. However, increasingly more demands are raised from the political side to introduce temporary agency work on a much larger scale in the civil service. According to Mr Peeters and Mr Bourgeois, the new wage agreement will cost the Flemish government an additional €23 million.

Reactions of employer organisations

The Organisation for the Self-Employed and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Unie van Zelfstandige Ondernemers, UNIZO) reacted strongly against the strike action by Flemish civil servants. For instance, UNIZO considered the blocking of locks on inland waterways as economically unacceptable. The organisation tried to prevent these blockings by a court ruling, but did not succeed in doing so. In general, UNIZO also argued that the wage demands of civil servants were unfounded. The demand for a 5% wage increase would cost Flemish tax payers about €60 million. Moreover, rising inflation and higher prices for food and energy – an important argument raised by the trade unions in support of their wage demand – was not seen as a convincing argument by UNIZO. In this regard, UNIZO emphasised that civil servants receive wage increases through the system of automatic indexation when prices are rising too high. In light of this, UNIZO highlighted the fact that civil servants already received a 2% pay rise in February 2008 as a consequence of the automatic wage indexation system – a pay rise which they got earlier than other sectors of the economy, according to UNIZO.

The strike actions were also strongly condemned by the Flemish Employers’ Organisation (Vlaams Economisch Verbond, VOKA).

Both organisations questioned once again the current legislation in Belgium on the provision of ‘minimal services’ in the public sector in the case of a strike (BE0709039I, BE0705019I). Trade unions, employer organisations and politicians have already been debating this issue for some time, but have still not reached an agreement on what constitutes minimum services in the public sector in the case of strike action. In the midst of the conflict, the Association of Belgian Shipowners of Inland and Rhine Navigation (Vereniging van Belgische Reders der Binnen- en Rijnvaart, VBR) had tried to prevent the blocking of locks by asking the federal police to intervene, but they refused.

Commentary

The actions of the Flemish civil servants were to a certain extent a replication of unofficial strike action that had already taken place in the private sector (BE0802049I). Like those in the private sector, the majority of the most recent strikes among civil servants took place in the Flemish region. The strikes once again stimulated debate on guaranteeing minimum public services during a period of strike action. It is expected that the newly established federal government will eventually reach a new agreement on this matter with the public service trade unions.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven, (KUL)

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