Comparing Mobilizations Against Three Social Reforms in the 2000s in Belgium
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This chapter aims to explain the differences in the intensity of the mobilizations generated by three social policy reforms implemented in Belgium in the 2000s: minimum subsistence income, greater controls over the unemployed, and early retirement reforms. The author analyzes the various social groups concerned by the reforms, the allies these groups could mobilize, as well as trade unions’ stance on the reforms. He points to the crucial role the trade unions played in the dynamics of mobilization.
The Belgian federal government introduced three major social reforms in the first decade of the 2000s. In 2001, changes were made to the eligibility criteria for minimum subsistence income in the case of people without access to social security. A few civil society organizations attempted in vain to challenge these reforms. In 2004, reforms sought to bring about greater levels of public authorities’ control on the unemployed. Several organizations and a number of trade unions mobilized against the measures. In 2005, the system of early retirement was overhauled with a view to increasing the employment rate of people over the age of 55. The trade union movement strongly opposed this initiative, and it organized two 1-day general strikes over a 3-week period. The government held its ground but referred the issue to a social partnership forum that was to determine how the reforms would be put in place. Since 2005, a major political debate has emerged over the reform of the retirement system and, since 2008, the trade union movement has been engaged in a new wave of opposition to the 2004 reforms of the unemployment scheme.
The aim of this chapter is to compare the three mobilizations and to raise two series of questions. First, how is it possible to explain that the early retirement reforms led to a greater level of mobilization than the reform restructuring the unemployment scheme and even more so than proposals to reorganize the minimum subsistence income? Do the changes in the social, economic, or political contexts between 2001 and 2005 explain such differences? Can the differences be explained by reference to the ways Belgian public opinion perceived the three issues? Are the differences due to the capacity of the three social groups targeted by the reforms to initiate collective action? Second, how is it possible to explain the emergence of a new wave of protest actions starting in 2008 in opposition to the 2004 reform of the unemployment scheme? Were the protest actions a result of the economic crisis facing Europe that same year?
The chapter is divided into three sections. The first part describes the main features of the reforms and the mobilizations that ensued. The second part deals with the importance of identifying the key actors involved and their “influential allies.” This section also considers the role of Belgian trade unions and their relationship with a range of civil society organizations. The third part of the chapter offers a few tentative answers to the questions raised above. In the conclusion, it is indicated how this case study is relevant for comparative research on collective action.
KeywordsTrade Union Early Retirement Unemployment Insurance Union Leader Union Section
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