National Strike Grips Belgium, Canceling Flights and Shutting Breweries

anastasios pallis

BRUSSELS — A national strike in Belgium over pay and working conditions has led to the cancellation of all flights in and out of the country, halted public transport, and prompted blockades outside factories, threatening to bring the country to a standstill on Wednesday.

The 24-hour strike began at 10 p.m. Tuesday, with Belgium’s three main workers’ unions galvanizing their nearly four million members — in a country of about 11 million people — to stop working.

“What we want is to tell employers, whoever they are, that we’re sick of them putting all the dough that we create in their pockets. It’s time to give some of it back to the workers,” said Robert Verteneuil, president of the General Federation of Belgian Labor, a socialist trade union with about 1.2 million members, on public radio Wednesday morning.

“People have a need to voice their malaise and their unhappiness with the current situation,” Mr. Verteneuil added.

Government workers also joined the strike, leading a number of public schools, nurseries and sports facilities to be closed.

Workers are protesting slow pay raises, which will be limited to 0.8 percent over the next year, he said, and are demanding that the government take action.

It is not clear, however, if any measures will be taken soon to address the workers’ demands because the Belgian federal government fell in December when it lost its majority in Parliament after its biggest coalition partner, the right-wing Flemish party, left in opposition to the planned signing of an international agreement on migration.

The country is being led by a caretaker government with a minority in Parliament at least until elections in May.

A general strike during the tenure of a caretaker government is unprecedented, experts say.

Prime Minister Charles Michel, in a statement, called for talks between workers and employers to resume on Thursday. But he did not indicate what measures his center-right minority government could take to raise wages.

“There is no alternative,” the statement read, “the strike resolves nothing. I would like to thank those who are working today.”

The disruptions across the country were considerable.

International airports were shut down. Air traffic controllers at Brussels’ two public international airports — in Zaventem and Charleroi — began the work stoppage on Tuesday night, leading to the cancellation of more than 400 flights and a virtual shutdown of the country’s airspace.

The breweries AB InBev, which produces Stella Artois, and Hoegaarden, which brews the famous white beer of the same name, were closed for the day.

Hundreds of supermarkets were closed, too, because of understaffing or delivery problems.

Where teachers did not show up in schools because of troubles with public transport or because they joined the strike, children were directed to do their homework.

About half the nation’s trains were canceled — a significant gap in a country that relies heavily on trains for commuting.

The Antwerp port said in a statement on Wednesday morning that more than 30 ships were waiting to enter the port, with docking queues growing longer, because some workers did not show up for work.

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