BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A nationwide strike over rising prices severely disrupted public transport in Belgium on Monday, forcing the cancellation of all high-speed international rail services in and out of the country.
Picketing outside the port of Antwerp restricted access, although workers at the port itself did not join the strike, Antwerp Port spokeswoman Annick Dirkx said.
Unions are protesting against what they say is the government’s failure to respond to rising prices and are urging it to take steps to alleviate the impact of inflation.
They say they want to send a clear signal to the government before it presents its 2009 budget to parliament on October 14.
“Purchasing power is really a point we want to stress,” ACV trade union chairman Luc Cortebeeck said when the union announced the protest last month.
In Brussels, all tram services were scrapped and only a fraction of underground rail and bus services were running, a spokesman for public transport company STIB said.
Provincial train services were also hit and the two main rail stations in the capital, Brussels Midi and Brussels Central, were closed.
Frederic Petit, spokesman for Belgian train operator Infrabel, said all Eurostar services linking Brussels to London and Lille in northern France had been suspended until 10 p.m. (9 p.m. British time). High-speed rail services to France, the Netherlands and Germany were also suspended.
Motorways were clogged with some 300 km (190 miles) of traffic jams between 7.00 and 7.30 a.m. (6 a.m. British time - 6:30 a.m. British time), about 100 km more than on a normal day as more commuters drove to work, said Glenn Lamon of the Belgian automobile association Touring.
A Norwegian traveller who arrived at Brussels Central hoping to get to the Netherlands, only to find all services cancelled, expressed the frustration of many.
“It’s always the same thing with a strike, that you are hurting an innocent person. That is the problem with a strike, but it’s the only weapon workers have,” said Finn Junker.
Workers at supermarket group Delhaize and at Carrefour’s hypermarkets staged industrial action in Brussels and in the country’s southern region of Wallonia.
The strike also halted production at an Audi plant in Brussels, according to a union official.
He added that there were no stoppages at the Belgian plants of Ford, Volvo and Opel.
Reporting by Antonia van de Velde; editing by Keith Weir