Temporary blog of the CWI

Health workers protest in Belgium

Central: Karim Brikci

Since March, a movement has developed among Brussels health care workers. It started in the emergency and intensive care units of Brugmann-Horta Hospital, and has spread to other hospitals with the aim of expanding the struggle to the whole sector.

Pablo from the LSP-PSL Belgium spoke to Karim Brikci, a shop-steward from the CGSP Public Service Union at the Brugmann-Horta hospital in Brussels.

The anger of health care workers did not fall from the sky. Can you explain the context?

“Indeed, as in many sectors, discontent is running deep. This situation, which has been deteriorating very quickly with catastrophic consequences for staff and patients, has been denounced by trade unions and workers for many years. On a daily basis, this results in a high level of staff demotivation, an explosion of burnouts.

“This is because, over the past several years, health care has experienced large-scale cuts that have had a huge effect on workers with the non-replacement of staff and the loss of benefits such as vacation days and end-of-year bonuses. Patients too have suffered with ever-increasing waiting times, increases in tariffs and medicine prices.”

How did the movement develop?

“Faced with this situation, many small battles have been fought in recent years in attempts to counter these poor political decisions. Although each of these smaller struggles seemed unwinnable in isolation, together they have raised the need for a united fight for an improvement in our working conditions and the defence of our past achievements.

“In February, in my hospital, the porters led a courageous three-day strike to prevent the elimination of three jobs and to denounce a management that had become increasingly authoritarian, which did not take into account the opinions of those who suffer from overwork on a daily basis. Management was surprised and did not expect such determination. At the end of the third day, they had to give in and the porters obtained an agreement that the three colleagues could stay with permanent contracts. Contrary to what has happened in the past, the solidarity and interest in their struggle this time was quite remarkable. We heard on the picket line “Well done, at least you dare to stand up”, “We should all do the same thing”.

In short, a kind of spark?

“Absolutely. A few days later, our shop stewards’ delegation was contacted by nurses from the intensive care and emergency units to discuss their participation in the strike planned for International Women’s Day. Based on their experiences and a situation that had become untenable, they had drawn up their own demands and the vast majority of the crews were ready to go on strike for them. After March 8th, the crews started to take action for their demands. We systematically met with our colleagues to discuss progress, follow-up discussions with management and so on.

“Our shop stewards paid particular attention to the fact that the fight is that of the workers themselves and that it is therefore up to them to lead it. We were there to support them, to defend them, but under no circumstances to make decisions for them. Two months of mobilization and negotiations have led to several gains. But many of the demands, such as the recognition of dressing time as work-time, the reimbursement of public transport costs or the demand for salary increases, were referred to the management of the IRIS hospital network. According to local management, only the network management would be able to meet these demands.

“At our general meetings, we discussed at length the strategy to be followed. The media coverage around our small mobilization helped us and we were informed that our colleagues at St. Pierre Hospital – who are obviously in the same situation – were also planning to take action. After a few meetings and discussion, we decided to propose a coordinated action of workers from all IRIS hospitals with a day of strike and demonstrations in a joint union front. The date 3rd June was agreed. The day was a great success with some 400 people present in front of the network’s management offices. The atmosphere was incredible and there was a determination to fight and continue the mobilization. Management proposed that day to devote the summer to discussing our list of demands.

“Although many were suspicious, and rightly so, of this ‘working group strategy’, at the meeting of striking workers held at the end of the strike day we decided to participate, to demand answers by early September and to call for a meeting on 21st June to set up a coordination of all workers in the health sector. This coordination has since taken on the name ‘Health in Struggle’.”

Why is this coordination important?

“For us, it is an extremely important development. Firstly, when we discuss taking action in our sector, they confront us with moral blackmail, accusing us of ‘holding patients hostage’. It is clear to us that it is austerity that holds patients hostage and that our movement is aimed at improving the situation for all, workers and patients. But we must take this into account and conduct conscious and effective work to raise awareness and mobilise support.

“Secondly, in our sector, the trade unions are very divided between public and private sectors or between hospitals and nursing homes, for example. ‘Health in struggle’ strives to unify all those involved, unionized or not, workers and patients, unions and professional associations, etc. Although this will not be immediately obvious, all those currently involved are motivated by this perspective and we will do our utmost to ensure that the issue of health is on the table this autumn.”

How does hospital management view this movement?

“An interesting development has been that this mobilization has forced even some public and private bosses to support the movement and publicly declare that more financial resources are needed. This is hypocritical considering that it is these same employers who have been applying austerity without question for years, but we can use it to advance and legitimize our fight.”

What are the plans for the coming months?

“A lot of things are being discussed right now. First of all, we are organizing a large assembly of ‘Health in struggle’ on September 13. We hope to bring all the players around the table and seriously discuss a real action plan to meet the challenges. In parallel, the mobilization at the IRIS network level will continue. In the beginning of September management must give answers to our demands. We plan meetings in all IRIS hospitals to present management’s responses and decide on the next steps. But I can already tell you that it is clear to many of us that some demands are crucial and that mobilization will resume more effectively if management does not give answers with serious commitments.

“In addition, our union (CGSP-ALR) in Brussels has been running a campaign for the past year for a necessary and urgent salary increase in our sector, which includes public hospitals, municipalities and so on.  We are one of the only remaining sectors where many colleagues are paid in grade E, a grade that has disappeared in many places and does not provide a decent living in Brussels today. This fight will also be fought this autumn because it is clear that the new Brussels government has not put the indexing of salaries on the agenda despite promising to do so before the election. So the autumn will be quite hot…”