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Trade Unions

Trade unions in Belgium are divided between competing confederations, which have clear political traditions. The two largest CSC/ACV and the FGTB/ABVV are linked to the christian and socialist movements respectively, while the smaller CGSLB/ACLVB is linked to the liberals. Despite this the unions are able to co-operate and around half the workforce is unionised – with union membership growing.

Trade unions in Belgium are divided between competing confederations, which have clear political traditions. The two largest, CSC/ACV and the FGTB/ABVV, are linked to the Christian and socialist movements respectively, while the smaller CGSLB/ACLVB is linked to the liberals. Despite this the unions are able to co-operate and more than half the workforce is unionised – with union membership growing.Figures from the unions themselves indicate that there are 3.5 million union members in Belgium. However, this may be something of an overstatement, and a recent study on union membership suggested that actual figure might be lower at around 3.2 million. In addition a large number of the unemployed belong to unions (unemployment benefits are normally paid out through the unions) and many workers retain their union membership after they retire. The same study found that on average between 2001 and 2010 31.1% of the members of the main confederations were not in work. These factors mean that the number of employed trade union members is lower than 3.5 million1 . Figures from the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density in Belgium at 50.4% (in 2011)2 .

 

There are two main trade union confederations in Belgium: the CSC/ACV from the Christian social tradition, with 1,661,800 million members (2012) and the socialist-linked FGTB/ABVV, with 1,503,7001,536,300 (20120). There is also the smaller liberal union confederation, the CGSLB/ACLVB with 289,700 members (2012). These figures all come from the unions themselves .3 Because of their broad support these three confederations have the status of “representative” unions. (Legislation providing a clearer definition of how the “most representative” unions are to be identified came into effect in December 2009.) As a result they can sign agreements and present candidates in works council elections. There is also a body for supervisors and managers CNC/NCK with less than 20,000 members, which has limited rights to represent this group of workers.

Trade unions in Belgium are divided between competing confederations, which have clear political traditions. The two largest, CSC/ACV and the FGTB/ABVV, are linked to the Christian and socialist movements respectively, while the smaller CGSLB/ACLVB is linked to the liberals. Despite this the unions are able to co-operate and more than half the workforce is unionised – with union membership growing.Figures from the unions themselves indicate that there are 3.5 million union members in Belgium. However, this may be something of an overstatement, and a recent study on union membership suggested that actual figure might be lower at around 3.2 million. In addition a large number of the unemployed belong to unions (unemployment benefits are normally paid out through the unions) and many workers retain their union membership after they retire. The same study found that on average between 2001 and 2010 31.1% of the members of the main confederations were not in work. These factors mean that the number of employed trade union members is lower than 3.5 million. Figures from the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density in Belgium at 52.0% (in 2009).There are two main trade union confederations in Belgium: the CSC/ACV from the Christian social tradition, with 1,661,800 million members (2012) and the socialist-linked FGTB/ABVV, with 1,503,700 (2010). There is also the smaller liberal union confederation, the CGSLB/ACLVB with 289,700 members (2012). These figures all come from the unions themselves. Figures from the recent membership study are slightly lower at 1,607,000 for the CSC/ACV, 1,324,000 for the FGTB/ABVV and 274,300 for the CGSLB/ACLVB. Because of their broad support these three confederations have the status of “representative” unions. (New legislation providing a clearer definition of how the “most representative” unions are to be identified came into effect in December 2009.) As a result they can sign agreements and present candidates in works council elections. There is also a body for supervisors and managers CNC/NCK with less than 20,000 members, which has limited rights to represent this group of workers.

One indication of support is the number of seats won in the four-yearly works council election. At the elections in 2012 the CSC/ACV won 56.1% of the seats (51.7% of the votes), the FGTB/ABVV 34.3% (35.6% of the votes), the CGSLB/ACLVB 7.9% (11.2% of the votes) and the managers’ CNC/NCK 1.0% (1.0% of the votes). Works councils must only be set up in larger companies – those with more than 100 employees. The figures for the elections to the health and safety committees, where the threshold is 50 employees, are similar, although somewhat more favourable to the CSC/ACV.

One special feature of industrial relations in Belgium is the divide between the French-speaking and Flemish or Dutch-speaking communities/regions, which affects all aspects of Belgian society. Employment law is still decided on a national level but the division between the communities has an impact on the relationships between the unions. One other result is that all the bodies and organisations connected with industrial relations have both a French and a Flemish name and abbreviations.

Support for and membership of the two main confederations is not spread evenly across the country. Traditionally the CSC/ACV has its strongest support in the Flemish speaking north, the FGTB/ABVV in the French speaking south. Despite this the 2008 elections for both works councils and health and safety committees confirm that the CSC/ACV has more seats and votes for both bodies than the FGTB/ABVV in each of Belgium’s three regions: Flanders in the north, Wallonia in the south and the capital Brussels.

The two main confederations are divided into separate unions. For manual workers in the private sector the division is primarily industrial, although there have been a number of mergers between industrial unions in recent years. The result is that the CSC/ACV now only has four unions for private sector manual workers, covering construction, metal and textiles, food and services, and transport and communication. The position in the FGTB/ABVV is similar.

Non-manual workers and private service workers are in separate unions in both confederations and both have a union for workers in public services. In addition, some of the unions that are affiliated to the CSC/ACV, are limited to a single language group. The largest CSC/ACV affiliate, the LBC-NVK, with 315,000 members, is the union for Flemish-speaking non-manual and services workers, but there is another CSC/ACV union, the CNE , with 160,000 members, which organises similar French-speaking employees. The liberal confederation does not have separate industrial unions.

During the course of In July 2013, under the guidance of the government, an agreement was reached between unions and employers to move towards equal legal status for it is expected that the difference in legal status between manual and non-manual workers. The first measures removing the distinctions between the two came into effect in January 2014 and, as the differences disappear over will be abolished and time, this may have an impact on union structures.

The CSC/ACV is more centralised than the FGTB/ABVV where individual unions have considerable autonomy. For example, the CSC/ACV has a single central strike fund, while each FGTB/ABVV union has its own strike fund.

The two main confederations come from very different traditions and still have differing political links. The FGTB/ABVV has ties with the socialist party. The CSC/ACV is part of the Christian workers’ movement, which also includes friendly societies and youth and women’s groups, and which in the Flemish north, though not in the French-speaking south, has decided that its political concerns are best represented through the Christian Democrtic Party. Despite these different political links the two confederations frequently work together successfully.

The unions have been able to increase their membership in recent years – in total it rose by 13% between 2001 and 20105 – and the overall proportion of trade unionists in the Belgian workforce has remained stable. As well as providing unemployment benefit and legal services to members the unions are in many industries able to offer members an annual union bonus, paid by the employers, which can account for more than half the unions’ annual subscription fees.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.