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Double rail strike likely after negotiations break down

14:23 28/10/2023

After a reconciliation meeting between SNCB and unions failed to yield results, a double rail strike - next month and again in December - seems inevitable.

The strike notice indicates two 48-hour strikes - one on Tuesday 7 November from 22.00 to Thursday 9 November 22.00 and the second from Tuesday 5 December 22.00 to the same time on Thursday 7 December. Passengers should expect disruptions on those days.

The unions at the Belgian railway operator issued a strike notice citing dissatisfaction with the course of negotiations on internal reorganisations.

SNCB management considered the notice premature, but unions told Le Soir that social dialogue was “not being respected and has continued to deteriorate”.

“We rang the alarm bell, but nothing happened,” a union spokesperson said.

“No new proposals were put forward. This shows that social dialogue does not work on the railways.

"This meeting was another opportunity to find a compromise, but management remains adamant on its positions and deaf to the day-to-day difficulties faced by railway workers."

HR-Rail - the SNCB group structure which is the official employer of railway workers, and therefore the official negotiating partner - insists that, contrary to what the unions are saying, their comments are being listened to and taken into account.

It said that its public service contract and business plan requires the company to improve productivity, which was clearly explained in the social agreement signed last February.

The railways are therefore hoping for a resumption of dialogue, if not before the first 48-hour strike scheduled, then afterwards.

But the common trade union front said that “certain limits have been crossed” in its discussions with railway management and is demanding a halt to the increase in productivity “to the detriment of railway workers” and a halt to reorganisations “disconnected from the reality on the ground and with no added value in operational terms”.

“During the last conciliation meeting, the common front was forced to note that no positive initiative or creative solution was able to provide concrete answers to the concerns of railway workers or to improve the quality of public service expected by rail users,” unions said.

In recent weeks, workers' representatives denounced SNCB management's intention to reduce the amount of time given to train attendants to prepare at the start of their shift before they set off on their first service.

Despite the lack of headway so far, Belgium’s mobility minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) said he hoped that an agreement could still be reached during negotiations.

“It goes without saying that I want to give social dialogue every chance and that I hope an agreement can be reached,” Gilkinet said.

In the meantime, De Lijn is also planning actions according to union representative Petra Depoorter.

“Major disruption is expected on Monday,” she warned. “Later in the week, further action may follow.”

A large number of De Lijn staff have already started striking following management's announcement of a major reorganisation of the Flemish public transport operator's sites.

Management wants to close several depots and maintenance centres. As a result, some 280 jobs (full-time equivalents) will be moved to other sites.

“We understand that optimisation is necessary for the operation of the company,” said Jo Van Der Herten, representative for the ACV union.

“It's the way it's been communicated that's the problem. It's unworthy of a company of this size.”

In response, De Lijn stated that it “fully understands the people who have to move their place of work because of the changes. We are going to talk to the people concerned and we remain in dialogue with the unions.”

The transport company also stated that the renovation of the depots and maintenance centres concerned is necessary for ecological and sustainable reasons. The buildings are outdated and do not meet current standards.

Written by Helen Lyons