Long-term union action at Electrabel to reduce working week

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From May to November 1997, two trade unions have been leading campaigns at Electrabel, the electricity generating and distribution company, to encourage recruitment through the introduction of the 32-hour working week.

For six months up to November 1997, two out of the four trade unions at Electrabel, the company which generates and distributes electricity throughout Belgium, have been leading campaigns to encourage recruitment through the introduction of the 32-hour working week (based on four eight-hour days). Action has taken different forms but has included 24-hour rotating strikes and demonstrations in front of the regional headquarters of a major bank, an Electrabel shareholder, with the support of intersectoral union organisations and a committee of unemployed workers from the Charleroi region.

In May 1997 a collective agreement was signed by Electrabel 's management and two minority unions, theFederation of Gas and Electricity (Fédération du Gaz et de l'Electricité, FEG), which groups blue-collar workers in this sector and is affiliated to the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond/Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens, ACV/CSC) and the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden, CGSLB/ACLV). The agreement provided for pay rises and the recruitment of 1,000 workers to make up for 2,500 workers planned to depart through natural wastage.

The National Federation of White-Collar Workers (Centrale Nationale des Employés/Landelijke Bedienden Central, CNE/LBC), affiliated to CSC/ACV, and GAZELCO (affiliated to the Federation of Public Services- Centrale Générale des Services Publics/Algemene Centrale der Openbare Diensten) part of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) both refused to sign the agreement. These unions calculated that Electrabel's 1996 profits amounted to BEF 30.4 billions and that some of those profits (about 3.17%) should be used to create jobs. They requested a progressive reduction of working hours down to a 32-hour week over a period of six years without loss of pay (but with wage restraint for six years), in order to recruit 1,700 people under open-ended contracts of employment.

The employers' organisation, the Union of Electrical Enterprises in Belgium (Union des Exploitations Electriques en Belgique) affiliated to the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO), has not ruled out discussions on the reduction of working hours but only within the framework of future sectoral negotiations in 1998 and wants no more union campaigning between now and then.

The state of tension at Electrabel - worsened by sanctions imposed on union delegates - has become so bad that the unions have drawn attention to the safety of its gas and nuclear installations which, they claim, might be adversely affected by the planned reorganisation.

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