Trade unions outline priorities for next government term
Bart De Wever, President of the New Flemish Alliance which won the June elections in northern Belgium, has been appointed informateur by the King, and is consulting with key organisations to form a new coalition government. Mr De Wever has received a joint memorandum from the Belgian General Federation of Labour and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions outlining their hopes of ‘a greater contribution from people less affected by the crisis’.
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary rule based on proportional representation. The government, elected by the legislature, is usually a coalition combining different parties that have to agree on a general political programme. An ‘informateur’, traditionally appointed by the King, has to identify the potential coalition. He is expected to meet representatives of all political parties, social partners (workers’ and employers’ representatives), civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and work out common ground for a viable political programme.
After his party won the June 2010 elections in Flanders, Bart De Wever, President of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has been appointed informateur by King Albert II.
Trade unions’ common priorities
The trade unions’ joint memorandum, given to Mr De Wever by the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV), is entitled For solidarity and against growing inequalities (in French, 150Kb PDF). It outlines their priorities for the next four-year term. In brief, these issues are summarised below.
Strong, long-term growth and good quality jobs
The unions want politicians to focus, not on wage cuts, but on a more aggressive social and economic policy to encourage growth. They want support for workers, particularly younger workers, who are more vulnerable to unemployment. And they want to grow the economy in the industrial and services sectors; in export markets which have a very strong growth potential; and in ‘green’ technologies.
Strengthening the social security system with a priority on financing public pensions
It is essential to strengthen public pension funds in order to guarantee a better balance between individual contribution and collective insurance coverage. The unions suggest increasing revenues through new sources of funding, fighting tax evasion and increasing employment. However, they do not want the retirement age of public sector workers to be increased (currently 65 years), or cuts in the length of time for which unemployment benefit is paid.
Strong public services
The unions want more investment in public services and improvement of the status of public employees. They want the government to oppose, at a European level, the general trend towards privatisation and liberalisation of public services.
Protecting and developing trade union rights
Unions agree on the importance of continuing to develop social and economic democracy, in particular respecting the traditional bipartite collective bargaining procedure without the interference of public authorities. They want to strengthen their presence in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the protection of workers’ representatives. Above all, they say, the right to collective action and the right to strike must remain a national prerogative rather than a European one.
Fair budgetary policy
Trade unions insist that workers should not be worst hit by the financial and economic crisis. They particularly want low-wage earners to be protected as well as those on unemployment benefits. They also want those least affected by the crisis to contribute more.
A fair and more progressive tax system
FGTB/ABVV and CSC/AVC ask for a fairer collection of taxes, and a better distribution of tax revenue. They want tax evasion and fraud to be more rigorously policed. They also ask for lower income taxes with increased taxes on other kinds of revenues, such as assets. The abolition of notional interest deduction and the decrease of corporate taxes are also on their agenda.
Public authorities have to aim for sustainable development by adjusting the tax system, developing better energy policies (such as supporting renewable energies and financing home insulation programmes), plus better regulation of the gas and electricity markets, and increasing public transport.
Solidarity between communities and reform of the state
When discussing the reform of the state to allow for more regional autonomy, trade unions want the government to prioritise increasing the federal budget such that it will bear 90% of the cost of ageing (retirement and health care)
The unions outline the need to keep a national social security system and to maintain labour rights and the collective bargaining system at sectoral and at national level. Finally, the unions insist on maintaining the close collaboration of national, regional and local governments and on preventing taxation dumping (dumping fiscal) between regions (taxation or fiscal dumping refers to the act of attracting trade or investment unfairly by offering lower taxes).
Playing an active role at European and international levels
Belgium took over the presidency of the EU Council on 1 July 2010. Unions feel this is an opportunity for the Belgian government, together with the social partners, to influence EU policies as well as international institutions and cooperation. The unions have made a number of proposals for action.
Priorities for the EU level include:
- a coordinated crisis recovery plan;
- a better balance between economic, social and environmental targets of the Europe 2020 strategy;
- common public services rules;
- a revision of the European directive on working time (Directive 2003/88/EC);
- measures to prevent taxation dumping, such as a minimum threshold in corporate taxes, and social dumping;
- a tax on financial transactions;
- better regulation and monitoring of financial markets.
Priorities for the international level include:
- greater efforts to reach the target in aid to developing countries of 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP);
- a better focus of Millennium Development Goals on developing employment and social security systems to fight poverty;
- better integration of standards for decent work;
- more humane immigration policies and the regularisation of illegal immigrants living in Europe.
Achieving consensus between the N-VA and trade unions will not be easy as they have very different views. On 30 June, Luc Cortebeeck, the national CSC/AVC Secretary, told newspaper La Libre Belgique: ‘The N-VA socioeconomic programme is closer to the views of employers and the Flemish middle class.’
He continued: ‘Do we want to dismantle the early retirement scheme? Shorten the duration of public unemployment benefits? Curtail the right to strike and industrial action? Of course we don’t! But all these points appear in the programme of the N-VA. Those who believe that Mr De Wever is a nice and moderate informateur do not know him.’
The views of N-VA and FGTB/ABVV are also very different. Rudy De Leeuw, President of FGTB/ABVV, told the newspaper Le Soir on 30 June that: ‘The divergences are still very significant and the solution is not yet in sight.’
Marie van den Broeck, Institute for Labour Studies (IST), Catholic University of Louvain (UCL)