Belgium: 6 October – national day of action

Warning to bosses and government!

National trade union leaflet

Against the background of economic crisis and the collapse of big Fortis and Dexia banks in Belgium, on 6th October, another national day of action for purchasing power brought thousands of workers on the streets. This action was not the beginning of the movement, nor will it be the end. For over a year, workers have been campaigning for more buying power, to compensate for rising prices. This action was only the latest, and was organised as a warning towards the bosses and the government not to forget the workers when drawing up the budget and preparing for national collective wage negotiations.

It is very difficult to get a clear picture of how many workers were involved and what actually took place, because of the high degree of disorganization on the action day, but nevertheless it is clear that the trade union action was widespread and had a clear impact. While the self confidence of the workers was definitely lower in comparison with the mood that existed before the summer, because of the impact of the developing economic crisis, what came out of the protest was a lot of anger and willingness to struggle against the government and bosses, combined with a strong criticism of the trade union leaders. Workers felt that the day of action was poorly organized and recognised that the potential existed to bring the country to a standstill, if a serious call had been made for a real 24 hour general strike.

The trade leaders might hope now to concentrate on wage negotiations and come to a “balanced” deal “which is not bringing employment in danger”, and that takes into account “both the demands for buying power and the saving of jobs”. This will not be easy at all. The wage negations are expected to be the most difficult in a long time and the trade union leaders will be watched very closely by workers. A huge amount of anger is building up, which might burst out again by the end of the year when the national wage deal negotiations begin, or in the first part of next year when the wage deals for different sectors are put onto the table. Above all this action was a warning to the bosses and the government, that the workers will not easily accept that the impact of the crisis will be felt on their shoulders alone.

The day of action’s official demands were tax cuts on energy, from the “luxury” level of 21%, to the “basic” level of 6%, a warning not to touch the system of sliding scale of wages, a tax reduction to compensate for increased commuting expenses, an increase in social allocations and more funding for social security and public services. Although not repeated in the main leaflets, in some regions, such as in the Antwerp industrial area, the call for wage increases still featured in the speeches and material of the trade unions. Also, the socialist public services union in Brussels, for example, brought forward clear offensive demands for a general net rise in wages of €300 per month.

But in general these trade unions’ demands represented a shift that showed a big difference with the movement before the summer, when approximately 100,000 workers were on the streets during a week of trade union action to mainly demand higher wages. The socialist union leaders, then echoing this strong mood amongst the workers, called on 1st May for wage increases of 10%. This was seen as giving the starting shot in preparation for struggles later in November and December for new collective pay agreements. However then the summer was used to try to slow down the demands and dampen the mood, something which would have been very difficult if the economic crisis had not come to the aid of the government, bosses and trade union leaders.

Divided and disorganised

The picture of the day of action is very different from region to region, and from sector to sector but the general feeling was that much more was possible.

This was because it was not clear for workers at all whether or not a strike had been organized. A serious lack of information was apparent. In general, workers had the right to strike (and the right to get strike pay), but no initiatives to organize strikes at workplace level were made. It was left to the individual workers to decide to strike, yes or no, which is a scandalous position, leaving workers open to persecution. Also, it ensured that there was more room for pro-capitalist propaganda on the shop floor, which made it more difficult for workers to argue for the strike.

In some work places workers were calling for strike and for the mounting of picket lines, while the trade union shop stewards were calling against it. In some places, as in the Flemish education sector, the green light to go on strike was only given the Friday before the Monday protest, which made it impossible for worker activists to organize a decent mobilization.

On top of that, in the week before the protest the leader of the Flemish socialist metal workers union spoke out clearly against a strike, echoing the arguments of the bosses that a day of strikes would have negative repercussions on employment, and would endanger jobs in the sector.

A few years ago, the metal workers union was the first private sector federal union to split along national lines, into completely separate Flemish and Francophone unions. In reaction to the Flemish metal union’s stand the French speaking metal workers trade union opted for a demonstration of strength, trying to illustrate a real strike was possible without the Flemish metal union. The French speaking metal workers took the initiative to involve other unions in organizing a full blown strike, especially in Liege. They distributed leaflets at the main railway stations and in all trains, including the ones that went over the language borders into Brussels and Flanders. So while you could find French leaflets, but not any in Flemish, calling for a 24 hour general strike in trains entering Flemish Gent or Ostend. So, although a feeling and an element of a 24 hour general strike was present, a real one was not organized and a chaotic mix of actions, strikes and sometimes demos reflected the anger that existed.

Only the public transport sector (trains, trams, buses) went on strike on a national level and paralyzed the whole country. More then 300 km of traffic jams were counted in the morning, with some motorways blocked by groups of workers.

In Liege, there was a 24 hour strike, well followed up, which involved the big industrial sectors. In the rest of the Walloon the call for a national day of action was taken as a call for a national strike, but was not responded to as widely as in Liege and was followed up differently from region to region.

The picket lines were in a lot of places only symbolic, with a low level of involvement by workers. The workers told us that this was mainly due to the union leaders, who called for workers to stay at home and opted for symbolic pickets. This argument was reinforced because of the public transport strike, which made it difficult to get anywhere anyway. In most of the public schools the strike was complete and in at least one city, a local demo was organized by the teachers, with 400 to 500 teachers present. The biggest mistake was that nowhere a real mobilization took place, where workers could have showed their power and felt their strength.

Singing at a picketline in Liege where LSP/MAS was very well received

In the Brussels region, some big plants were on strike, but again without strong picket lines. Railway workers occupied the central signalling system the evening before, making railway transport impossible. Some comrades of the Brussels LSP-MAS (CWI in Belgium) were invited to enter and discuss with the workers involved. Different symbolic actions were organized throughout the morning, with small demos at the headquarters of the national bosses organizations, the national organization of the bosses of the metal and high technology sector, at the National Bank and at the headquarters of the French speaking liberal party, the MR. The feeling was one of disorder amongst the workers. Most of them were mobilized to different places, sometimes along sector and union lines, but had no idea what would happen next. The only demo which tried to group the workers together was one of the socialist public services unions at midday, which mobilized a thousand workers. The carried the slogan: “Fortis, Dexia, … and us?.

Public services socialist trade union in Brussels:” Fortis, Dexia,… and us?”

Public services socialist trade union in Brussels:” Fortis, Dexia,… and us?”

In the Flanders area, one of the most important actions took place at Antwerp harbour, where the trade unions of the strong chemical and building sector organized a very efficient “filter blockade” of the main road towards the harbour during the whole morning, which paralyzed the whole harbour economy. Leaflets were handed out and discussions took place to explain the national day of action, and although some workers were frustrated because they had been blocked off, at the same time a strong sympathy and understanding was felt about why this action took place. By noon, a concentration took place with speeches in front of the building of Electrabel, the main electricity company, highlighting the demands for a cut in taxes on energy, also attacking Electrabel for making high profits off the backs of the workers.

Filterblockade in Antwerp harbour

Filterblockade in Antwerp harbour

Gent on the other hand, was where textile workers especially mobilized their forces. A demo of 5,,000 took place, but the atmosphere there was more that of a funeral, burying the jobs that are being lost in the sector, by the end of the year estimated 2,100 jobs. In Limburg, in the east of the country, there was also a demo of a thousand workers was organized which “visited” the buildings of the small bosses organizations.

Workers demo in Limburg

Workers demo in Limburg

This report is not a full report, as it was very difficult to get a full picture of what had actually happened. The bourgeois media did all they could to minimalise the action and reported only very limitedly about it. Also through the unions not much information has been given. The bosses try now to “forget about it” and to go over to the order of the day. There is a strong call to the union leaders to act “with responsibility”, given the financial and economical instability. This was already done before the action as the leader of the Flemish liberals called the unions to call off the action. Their argument was that since the government has taken their “responsibility”, in saving the big banks, it was now up to the trade unions to act in same spirit. But this did not match with the feeling amongst the workers that for the big banks billions can be found, while for the workers even a very modest list of demands is too much. This double standard created a lot of frustration and will lay the basis for a further radicalization.

A characteristic of this action day was also the difference of mobilization in the two big regions in Belgium, with stronger mobilizations in the Walloon area than in the Flemish area. This was also the case in the action week before the summer with huge local mobilizations of 25,000 in Liege and 20,000 in Hainaut, while amongst the biggest demos in Flanders were in Antwerp with 8,000 present and 4,000 in Limburg. This was a big surprise, as it was in the Flanders region where a domino-movement of spontaneous strikes for higher pay in the beginning of this year kicked off this buying power movement, and where in about 200 companies, higher wages or wage bonuses were obtained.

The LSP-MAS explained that the movement needed self confidence amongst Flemish workers, to kick the movement off. This sentiment for higher wages proved later to be the same in Wallonia as in Flanders. The combination of a very arrogant Flemish political elite, the labour shortages in the Flemish factories and the huge profits and bonuses for the capitalist class, while workers saw their income shrinking day by day, played the role of the spark. Later the Walloon working class, with its strong traditions of struggle, more than compensated this lateness with huge mobilizations and this time with strike action.

However, the economic crisis now developing is threatening Flemish economy harder then in the Walloon area, which is still more desolate after years of deindustrialization. In Flanders there is probably the feeling of there being more to loose, combined again with the existence more aggressive and arrogant political elite and capitalist class.

Also the political forces are different, which has an impact, in the sense that in the Flanders area, no political party could be found to support the workers action. Not that the socialist union leaders did not do their best to try to convince the workers of the lesser evil of Flemish social democracy. Only it is like whispering in the wind, as support for social democracy, the SP.a, is further dropping in opinion polls, now down to 16%. The party which is gaining most from this situation is a right wing populist formation, which is kicking hard against the capitalist class but has in reality a neo-liberal agenda and program. The situation is somewhat different in Wallonia, where the PS (Socialist Party) continues to pay lip service to the workers’ movement. The PS, while currently in both the federal and Walloon governments, is more capable of showing opposition to neo-liberalism then the SP.a, which is only in the Flemish regional government. All this has its influence on the self confidence of workers.

Important for the perspectives of the movement, is to understand that workers in the Flanders and in the Walloon area did not forgot the orgy of profits which has been taking place the last years, during the years of economic growth. They now see that both governments and bosses are trying to let them pay for the crisis in a very unorthodox way, by using state money (the money of the workers anyway) to save big banks. This can start to turn against the government, when workers start to demand a bigger control of the economy in the hands of the population, under workers control, so the whole of the community could benefit, and not only the big capital. They will find that the union leaders are trying to come to an agreement behind their backs, and will be very suspicious. The national wage negotiations will be like walking on a tightrope for the negotiators and can re-awaken the movement very quickly.

National leaflet lsp/mas

National leaflet lsp/mas

But of crucial importance will be if a working class party will be built in the coming years, within and around the syndical basis (the trade unions and trade union social insurance organisations). Alongside a worked out “buying power” programme and the call for unity of the working class to be able to obtain its demands, this call for a “syndical party” was central in the LSP-MAS’s material. We argued that such a party, based upon union activists and involving wider layers, was required to defend the demands and interests of the unions’ combative base. Another central element of our programme was trade union democracy and the need for workers’ assemblies to evaluate the day of action, where workers can come along with their critique on the organisation and the programme of the struggle and demand workers’ involvement in leadership of the movement. We asked for inter-professional workers assemblies to come together, evaluate and prepare for a real 24 hour general strike as the next step. And finally we called for the nationalisation of the banks and the key sectors of the economy, without compensation except on the basis of proven need. Not we, but the neo-liberal yuppies gambled our savings away. As they cannot survive without state money, they should be nationalised. under democratic workers control.

A bosses’ budget – recipe for future struggles

LSP/MAS members intervened to help strengthen the picket lines and demonstrations, distributing thousands of leaflets, selling our paper, discussing with the workers and making reports, pictures and interviews for our website, which became immediately the most lively website reporting about the action day. Record website hits were recorded on the day itself and the days after.

In recent days, since 6 October, the government, in pleading “to cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth”, is proposing a so-called “balanced” budget. A closer look shows no balance at all.

No balance in who pays the price, as the proposed cuts will be mainly felt by workers and their families. Lower prices at the pump for petrol will be compensated by a 50% rise in taxes. There is a new tax announced on plane tickets, and an attempt to get a once-off donation from the electricity sector risks being felt, through higher prices, by consumers. Also, in healthcare cuts will be made, although exactly how is not certain. The agreed budget increases of 4.5% yearly will be cut back to only 3%, which will mean that patients will suffer. Movements as we have seen in the past, to react against the effects of these cuts, and to ask for a more state intervention, are perfectly possible. On top of that they want to have 5,000 less civil servants by 2011, mainly by not replacing workers who retire. There are also further attacks planned on the unemployed by tightening controls.

This budget has been attacked from the right, as it is clear that no budget balance will be reached, not to mention a budget surplus, which has always been the target of the government. The budget is still based upon the premise of 1.2% growth for the Belgian economy, while new figures speak about a possible 0% growth for next year. The fact that new taxes will be implemented, which the government tried to hide by being extremely vague, gives new weapons to the populist right wing opposition.

Also, new redundancies are being announced almost every day now, bringing the total to 5,000, of those loosing their job since July. The sectors being hit hardest are textiles and the car industry. As in the past, it is not excluded that demands for more state-intervention will come up again.

With the crisis hitting hard, pressures to put the neo-liberal option of no state-intervention and budgets in balance to bed will mount, and this time in order to save the capitalist system. This will pass without having any effect on the workers, indeed on the contrary. A state and system designed to defend working class interests is what is needed. A socialist programme, which links the needs of today to the need to change society will find more ears.