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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.

Figures from the unions themselves indicate that there are 3.4 million union members in Belgium. However, this may be something of an overstatement, and a study on union membership in 2012 suggested that the actual figure might be around 10% lower.[1] 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 3.4 million. Figures from the independent ICTWSS database of union membership put union density in Belgium at 52.8% in 2016.[2] 


There are two main trade union confederations in Belgium: the CSC/ACV from the Christian social tradition, with 1,571,058 members and the socialist-linked FGTB/ABVV, with 1,535,308 (both 2016). There is also the smaller liberal union confederation, the CGSLB/ACLVB with 296,617 members (2017). 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.


One indication of support is the number of seats won and votes cast in the four-yearly elections for works councils and health and safety committees. In the 2016 elections for works councils, where the threshold is 100 employees, the CSC/ACV won 55.8% of the seats (51.0% of the votes), the FGTB/ABVV 33.9% (35.0% of the votes), the CGSLB/ACLVB 8.7% (12.2% of the votes) and the managers’ CNC/NCK 1.0% (0.8% of the votes). The figures for the elections to the health and safety committees, where the threshold is 50 employees, are similar, with the CSC/ACV winning 58.0% of the seats (51.8% of the votes), the FGTB/ABVV gaining 33.6% (35.8% of the votes), the CGSLB/ACLVB 8.3% (12.4% of the votes).[4]


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 2016 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 organised in separate unions, and there are separate unions for manual and non-manual workers, reflecting the legal distinction which still persists in a number of areas – notably collective bargaining and employee representation. This is despite moves since 2013 to remove some differences in working conditions, such as notice and probation periods and sick pay. The liberal confederation (CGSLB/ACLVB), in contrast, does not have separate industrial unions.


For manual workers in the private sector unions in the two main confederations are primarily organised on an industrial basis, although there have been a number of mergers in recent years. The result is that the CSC/ACV now only has four unions for private sector manual workers, covering construction and energy, metal and textiles, food and services, and transport and communication.  The position in the FGTB/ABVV is similar, with separate unions for metal workers, food and catering workers and transport workers, as well as a general union (CG/AC) which organises workers across a wide range of sectors, including construction, agency workers and workers in social care. CG/AC is the largest union in the FGTB/ABVV with 428,000 members.


Private service workers are in separate unions in both confederations. In the FGTB/ABVV, this is SETCa/BBTK, which has 422,000 members. However, in CSC/ACV there are two separate unions covering non-manual workers in the private sector, one for Flemish and one for French-speaking workers. The Flemish union is the LBC-NVK, with 325,000 members. The equivalent French union is the CNE, with 170,000 members. In addition, both confederations have a union for workers in public services and the CSC/ACV also has two unions for teachers.


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 three confederations come from very different traditions and have differing social and political links, reflecting the way that unions, mutual insurance associations, co-operatives, youth organisations and other groups were, at least in the past, divided into political camps or “pillars”.[5] The CSC/ACV is part of the Christian pillar, FGTB/ABVV belongs to the socialist tradition and the CGSLB/ACLVB is liberal. Despite these different political links the three confederations frequently work together successfully.


After a period when the unions were able to increase their membership – in total it rose by 13% between 2001 and 2010[6] – the last six years have been less positive, with the members of the three confederations together falling by 41,000 (1.2%) between 2010 and 2016, with the largest falls in the period 2014 to 2016. The CSC/ACV has been most affected by this decline, losing 93,942 members (5.6%), while both the FGTB/ABVV and the CGSLB/ACLVB grew by 31,561 (2.1%) and 21,276 (7.8%). The CSC/ACV suggests that some of the fall is a result of changes in the methods of counting affiliates but accepts that there has been a real decline, linked to a fall in the numbers able to claim unemployment benefit. The FGTB/ABVV, which, after growing between 2010 and 2014, lost members in the period 2014 to 2016, also accepts that changes in the rules on unemployment benefit had an impact on membership numbers.[7]


Unions provide unemployment benefit and legal services to members in Belgium. In addition, 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 union’s annual subscription fees.

[1]  Faniel, J. & Vandaele, K., 2012. Implantation syndicale et taux de syndicalisation (2000-2010), Courrier hebdomadaire, n°2146-2147

[2] J. Visser, ICTWSS Database. version 6.0. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS), University of Amsterdam. June 2019

[3] The figures for the FGTB/ABVV  and CGSLB/ACLVB are from their websites: http://www.fgtb.be/documents/20702/273071/Membres+2017/72c3d41f-6ab3-4a53-b65d-91ecc3e59bcc;  https://www.cgslb.be/fr/la-structure-et-les-chiffres-cles-de-la-cgslb#chiffres-cls The figure for the CSC/ACV is from a report published by the magazine Politique in June 2018: Syndicalisme : un mouvement social sous pression, June 2018 - N°104  

[4] Résultats définitifs élections sociales 2016,   Service public fédéral Emploi, Travail et Concertation sociale, Tables CE and CPPT, B6 and D1 http://www.emploi.belgique.be/defaultTab.aspx?id=45485  (Accessed 27.09.18)

[5] Jean Faniel, Corinne Gobin et David Paternotte, Les mouvements sociaux en Belgique, entre pilarisation et dépilarisation, Les @nalyses du CRISP posted 6 December 2017, www.crisp.be

[6] Faniel, J. & Vandaele, K., 2012. Implantation syndicale et taux de syndicalisation (2000-2010), Courrier hebdomadaire, n°2146-2147

[7] Les syndicats souffrent de l’érosion de leur base d’affiliés, Pascal Lorent, Le Soir, 7 Juin 2018

L. Fulton (2020) National Industrial Relations, an update. Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.