Monday, October 6, 2008

AFP: Brussels at virtual standstill as Belgium gripped by strike

BRUSSELS (AFP) — Brussels ground to a virtual standstill Monday with international train services halted and government offices closed as thousands of workers across Belgium protested against rising living costs.

The public sector in the seat of the main European Union institutions was the worst affected with some schools also closed alongside factories, a pattern repeated in other major Belgian cities and towns.

Belgian trade unions said employees in public services and industry were equally responsive in downing pens and tools.

"The day of action is a success," the major Christian union CSC proclaimed.

There were sporadic reports of ugly incidents at some picket lines as non-striking workers attempted to get to work while industry leaders voiced annoyance that profits would be lost at a time of financial crisis.

The trade union day of action saw nearly all public transport in Brussels grounded from late Sunday, with most tramlines paralysed and very few underground metro trains running.
In the midst of a financial storm sweeping through Europe, Eurostar trains to London and Paris as well as high-speed Thalys services to France, Germany and the Netherlands were not running.

Road traffic in the capital was also lighter than normal with many non-strikers opting to take the day off.

Rail services were also stopped in the southern region of Wallonia and were infrequent in Flanders to the north.

Only the banks made a point of opening, seeking to reassure anxious customers as the global financial crisis hits home.

In Belgium's second city of Antwerp, museums and libraries were closed while in Bruges all public offices remained closed.

Charleroi and Liege in the southern region of Wallonia were also affected.

The strike action took place the day after French bank BNP Paribas took a controlling interest in Belgium's largest banking group Fortis, which has been subject to three different bailout packages in a week.

Members of the liberal CGSLB union took to the streets outside the Brussels stock exchange distributing leaflets saying "Purchasing power, what's left? Peanuts."

"The message is clear," said the union's secretary general Philippe Vandenabeele.
"We are calling for better purchasing power for workers. There aren't the reserves left and it's time to think now of Mrs. Everywoman rather than thinking of the banks."

Thierry Bodson, general secretary of the Wallonia wing of the FGTB, one of the country's biggest trade unions, told local radio that one of the strikers' key demands was a reduction in energy costs via lower consumption tax on oil, gas and heating fuel.

While the level of protest differed from region to region, meaning the action fell short of a general strike, Bodson recalled that in June some 100,000 people had taken to the streets to protest against the steep rise in living costs.

In September, consumer price inflation in Belgium hit 5.46 percent.

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