Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up the protest, which saw laborers and other low-wage workers marching peacefully through downtown Brussels to mark the start of an anticipated month-long campaign against the country’s newly elected center-right government.
The actions will culminate with a nationwide strike on December 15.
“They are hitting the workers, the unemployed. They are not looking for money where it is, I mean, people with a lot of money,” one worker, Philippe Dubois, told the Associated Press.
Belgium’s recently elected coalition, which shuts out the Socialist Party for the first time in decades, is made up of three pro-business parties and the centrist Christian Democrats. The coalition said it was forced to institute these new free-market reforms in order to comply with the European Union’s budget restrictions.
But residents and other politicians disagreed. Former Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a Socialist Democrat, told Reuters UK, “I share the concern of the people and the measures of the government are unjust.”
Thursday’s action partially shut down business and blocked major intersections in Brussels, where the headquarters of the European Union are stationed, as finance ministers arrived in the city to moderate talks between employers and union leaders. Images from Thursday showed the march coming to a turbulent end among overturned cars and burning trash cans. NBC News reported that 120,000 took part in the demonstration.
According to Reuters UK, rail operators sold 80,000 tickets in advance and scheduled an extra 15 trains so that workers from rural areas could plan ahead to join Thursday’s protest. Union leaders also booked 500 buses to transport people from around the country to the capital.
“The signal is clear,” ACV union chief Marc Leemans told Reuters UK. “People are angry, livid. This government’s policies are totally unbalanced.”