Defending the Right to Strike: the ‘Delhaize Case’ is not a European Exception
On May 22, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Brussels to defend the right to strike and support the workers of Delhaize, one of Belgium's largest supermarket chains. Delhaize employees have been on strike for months against the implementation of a franchise model expected to lead to layoffs, precariousness, and lower wages. Meanwhile the Belgian government is discussing legislative measures to curtail the right to strike - yet the ’Delhaize case’ is not a European exception.
In early March, the company announced its decision to sell 128 Delhaize-owned stores to independent operators, thereby putting more than 9,000 permanent employment contracts on the shelf. Even though the management assured that working conditions would not significantly change, in Delhaize stores franchised in the past, often more than half of the permanent jobs have been lost. Consequently this lead to an increase of low-paid, temporary contracts and the replacement of employees by student jobbers. In this way, the company plans to save 1 billion euros, to finance a share buyback program for its main shareholders, to whom Delhaize is already promising a 10.5% dividend increase.
A further consequence of the Delhaize's plans is that by entrusting stores of the brand to independents, all franchised stores operating with fewer than 50 permanent employees will not be able anymore to have a trade union delegation. This will subsequently massively weaken national Delhaize unions, leaving workers with almost no means to organize and safeguard their rights.
The protest last week showed not only how massive the mobilization against the company’s plans is, but demonstrated also how strong resistance against a model is, that is feared could set a new franchising trend in the whole retail sector in motion. Meanwhile, the Delhaize management has repeatedly proved its total unwillingness to enter into consultations with trade unions, intimidating demonstrators with the recourse to bailiffs and requests, validated by court orders, to ban picketing. In this heated context, the Belgium Parliament is currently debating a bill introducing new restrictions on public protest rallies into the penal code.
The FTGB, one of Belgium biggest trade unions, warns how the jurisprudence being built up in the Delhaize case could set a dangerous precedent for the future of Belgium’s trade unions. However, even though the Delhaize case can be seen as extraordinary in several respects, it also appears sadly in line with increasing attacks on the right to strike and take collective action, that can be witnessed in many other European countries.
In recent years there has been a growing social conflict rooted in the attack to the right to strike through judicial decisions and the introduction of laws aimed at restricting or greatly reducing its impact.
Emblematically, on the very same day as the demonstration against Delhaize took place, in London the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) held a protest during the vote in Parliament of the Conservative government’s Minimum Service Bill, widely known as ‘anti-strike Bill’. According to unions and human rights campaigners the planed legislation would greatly restrict the right to strike. TUC estimates that – if passed unamended – 5.5 million workers will see their right to strike threatened.
Similarly, during the last strikes and vast demonstrations against the pension reform in France, protesters faced heavy police repression and the requisitioning of workers in key sectors has become a common tool for the French government. Workers striking to make their demands heard are increasingly subjected to violent repression and discriminations towards employees engaged in union activities are multiplying. This is not the work of a few isolated individuals, but the result of strategies put in place by large companies and repressive judicial measures introduced by the French government, such as the controversial Loi Securité Global (‘global security bill’) passed in 2021.
In February this year, during heated wage negotiations between the main German trade unions and the national employers’ federation (Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände - BDA), latter arrogantly called for a restriction of the right to strike. Not to mention Italy, where attacks on picketers organized by workers have become almost the norm. Nonetheless, workers do not seem willing to give up claiming the streets, defending their fundamental right to strike.
These protests, as the repression against them, do not happen in a void. The increase in the costs of living due to inflation and the continuous polarization of wealth are inflaming social conflicts in many European countries. These are often resistance struggles against the falling purchasing power or against the deterioration of already harsh working conditions. The feeling of injustice is increasingly spreading among people throughout the continent. While many are forced to tighten their belts once again, dividends for shareholders and the arrogance of big companies grow in tandem - at the expense of the vast majority.
Against the backdrop of growing tensions, a question arises: How do European governments think they can reintroduce the old measures of fiscal control and cutting of public spending without expecting an outbreak of protests? How does the European central bank think it can continue to raise interest rates to stabilize rents and dividends at the expense of wages? Read in conjunction, it seems obvious that the crackdown we are experiencing will have as a counterpart to the obvious protests a tightening of repression.
During its opening speech of the demonstration in solidarity with Delhaize employees in Brussels, the president of the FGTB Thierry Bodson correctly underlined that the attack on the right to strike is an attack on democracy. The authoritarian drift of the political ruling classes in Europe, at the height of material conflicts, has become more and more common. While they lecture East-European countries on the rule of law with false consciousness, West-European governments are pursuing more veiled authoritarian policies.
In fact, the plan, net of historically given modalities, is the same in the East as in the West: to extinguish social conflict while guaranteeing the overbearing power of capital over labor, the interests and profits of a few on the backs of many. As the slogan written on a banner raised by demonstrators on the Brussels courthouse says: "profit partout, justice nulle part" (Eng. “profit everywhere, justice nowhere”). However, the thirst for social justice does not quench, and despite every repression, it will sometimes be forced to smolder under the ashes, but it will flare up again at every opportunity.