Belgian railroad workers protest austerity plans

Railroad workers and the services they supply to their passengers are under attack all over Europe. In September and early October, German railroad workers walked out. The third week of October, Belgian train engineers walked out in a series of spontaneous strikes and blocked the tracks in place like Liège and Charleroi.

They were upset that the government-owned Belgian railroad system, the SNCB, is planning on cutting its annual budget by at least 663 million euros ($842 million) from 2014 to 2019, which would involve laying off 5,000 workers and cutting service. The government is planning to make them work more while paying them less.

Belgium is a small country of 11 million people who speak either French in the south or Dutch in the north. It was one of the founding countries of the European Union, and its capital, Brussels, hosts the headquarters of both the EU and NATO.

Railroads are a very important part of Europe’s transportation system and in many countries are operated by a single, state-owned company. While the EU doesn’t have an official policy yet, it is clear that it intends to open competition to the state-owned railroad systems.

England is the shining example of how “liberalizing” a railroad system can be a huge capitalist “success.” There the railroads were broken into 25 different companies between 1994 and 1997. Tickets now cost four to five times what they did in 1994, and British railroads now have the worst on-time record of any European railroad system. Because the railroad companies don’t own their tracks, they don’t invest in safety, and major accidents have occurred in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2007. (Solidaire [PTB], Oct. 22)

The official Belgian trade unions were caught off guard by these spontaneous strikes. They are planning a big walkout on Dec. 15, and they urged the railroad workers to be patient and hold off until then. But the transport unions are planning some protests in November.

The company and the Belgian government are calling the walkouts “wildcat strikes” and plan on disciplining the workers who took part in them. They are claiming that more than 166,000 passengers were inconvenienced by these “unplanned, unannounced” walkouts, which Jo Cornu, head of the SNCB, claimed were organized by an “unofficial union.” (RTBF, Oct. 24) The workers who walked out refused to move the trains and also blocked the tracks, as seen in Belgian television clips on YouTube.

Earlier, Cornu charged that the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB), which he called a Marxist organization, had organized these strikes. In a communique PTB denied that it was “the base of the spontaneous strike actions at Charleroi and Liège” and urged Cornu to “challenge the austerity imposed on the SNCB by the government.” (RTL Group, Oct.21)