Mass strikes across Belgium brought daily operations in cities across the nation to a grinding halt Monday as protests paralyzed air traffic and public transport and forced many government offices, schools, and businesses to close.
Monday's general strikes are the latest round of industrial protests to sweep the nation in recent weeks, following the new coalition government's announcement to implement a raft of controversial austerity measures.
Three of Belgium's largest trade unions came together to form "a common front," after prime minister Charles Michel's center-right government announced reforms that it claims would save the country 11 billion euros ($13.7 billion) over five years.
The budgetary measures, which have been met with staunch opposition across the country, range from raising Belgium's retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2030 to major cuts to public sector funding. The main point of contention, however, is the government's plans to scrap the law that mandates a 2 percent annual salary increase for Belgian workers in tendem with inflation raises.
Demonstrations against the austerity measures first broke out in Brussels in early November. The protests, which drew some 120,000 people to the streets, ended in clashes, with demonstrators setting cars ablaze and riot police dispersing crowds with tear gas and water cannons.
Marc Goblet, the secretary general of the Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique, one of the unions involved in organizing the strikes, told VICE News that the protests were triggered by the feeling that workers had been backed into a corner.
"The government never sat down with worker representatives, but did sit down with employer representatives," said Goblet, "so we had no other choice but to call for industrial action in order to be heard, and to organize roving regional strikes."
Since then, Belgian unions have staged a series of one-day strikes up and down the country every Monday.
Marie-Hélène Ska, the secretary general of the CSC union, which has also joined the "common front," told Belgian television channel RTBF that the strikes are the "most powerful" that the country has ever seen.
Reports of clashes and other violence emerged during mass strikes held in several regions today. In the western city of Mons, two men reportedly drove their truck through a line of strikers before jumping out of the vehicle and bashing protesters with metal bars. Strikers also reportedly set tires ablaze outside the Tihange nuclear power plant southeast of Belgium.
Belgian politics are marred by deep divisions between the wealthier and more conservative Flemish-speaking north and the poorer, more liberal French-speaking Walloons in the south.
Michel, 38, is Belgium's youngest ever prime minister, and the first French-speaking liberal politician to govern since 1938. His liberal Reformist Movement party is also the sole French-speaking party in a government coalition that includes three Flemish parties — the Christian democrat CD&V, the liberal Open VLD and the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) — which are pushing for the secession of the Dutch-speaking north from the rest of Belgium.
On Monday morning, hundreds of union demonstrators gathered outside the N-VA party headquarters in Brussels, chanting "N-VA, get out, Belgium does not belong to you."
N-VA party head, Bart De Wever, denounced the protests as a "political strike," and accused Belgium's left-wing socialist opposition of using the union as its "armed wing."
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