Picture from Wikimedia.

The TUEM (Trade Union Eurocontrol Maastricht) made a post on Facebook about the Belgian ATC’s social conflicts with Belgocontrol, the local Belgian Air Traffic Control organisation. The TUEM posted this on Facebook:

“The Belgian Air Traffic Controllers have for some time been in a social conflict with their employer, Belgocontrol. The retirement age is a small part of this, but other issues are a chronic staffing shortage, resulting in controllers regularly working 12 days or more in a row, recruitment, technical reliability of our system ( electrical failure of May, 27th and in the last 4 months, 3 major system crashes, last one April, 2nd) and general working conditions.

As the negotiations dragged on for months, the controllers (through their union affiliation, as their Guild is not a recognised social partner) opted for actions which would not affect the flying public, airlines, nor airports but which would put pressure on our management and politicians: they refused training for yet another revision of the departure routes at Brussels airport, a very political dossier.

After numerous, uninspired attempts by management to come to a compromise, to everyone’s surprisingly, the CEO blew up negotiations on Friday, saying the atmosphere was not serene because of the guerrilla actions by controllers. Representatives of the controllers expected the minister of transport to intervene over the weekend, and remained available for negotiations. Instead, on Tuesday, the CEO forced a unilateral agreement with the support of the socialist union, which represents almost no controllers. They were bribed with a pay rise for all non-controllers personnel. The two other Unions (who represent the vast majority of controllers) voted against, but due to the voting distribution, a majority was reached – which makes the agreement binding.

The ‘agreement’ takes no account whatsoever of the many issues they raised. The early retirement age was raised to at least 58 but for some controllers up to 62. This coup was nicely orchestrated: 10 minutes after the vote, the news was announced on the intranet and journalists were already outside the gates. Controllers arriving for afternoon shift got the news from some colleagues. Most of them reacted in shock to the agreement and the way it was reached. This lead to heavy discussions in the operations rooms and after some time, some of them realized they were to emotional to handle traffic safely. They declared themselves unfit for service. This snowballed when more and more people did this and flow restrictions needed to be implemented.

Management was undoubtedly prepared for this, releasing statements that a wild-cat strike had begun in the media, which greedily took this as breaking news. They immediately stated that the Guild had been calling colleagues to call in sick, which is absolutely NOT true. If anything, the Guild was completely unprepared for any such reaction. But Belgium went into controller-bashing-mode.

This continued on Wednesday morning: the Guild and its President were served with a notice of default, which states that the company holds them personally accountable for all damages caused by their actions. Again, no one of the Guild has instigated nor called upon controllers to call in sick, or leave duty when not well. It was a very natural and even responsible reaction of controllers to an agreement which blatantly dismissed issues they have been trying to address for over 2 years.

So far, the Belgian Guild has refused any attempts by the CEO call upon the controllers not to fake illness anymore, as they were not doing this. After the unilateral picture painted in the media on Tuesday and Wednesday, fueled no doubt by Belgocontrol, some have begun to bring a more neutral and nuanced picture and have brought the story from the controllers’ point of view. By Thursday, most controllers felt calm enough to return to work though emotions remain very tense. The Guild, in conjunction with the Unions, is trying to consider what options it has to counter the slanderous media campaign orchestrated by their employer, but also a way to re-table the issues were having as none of them are solved by this supposed ‘agreement’.”

Could this dispute become solved? Will the controllers get what they want from the trade unions and from Belgocontrol ultimately? Will this solution come soon? What will the CEO of Belgocontrol do now in order to calm such negotiations and to come towards a deal?

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