Belgium: Nationalise the steel sector under workers’ control!

ArcelorMittal wants to close ‘liquid’ steelproduction in Liège. Workers resist, unions call for nationalisation.

ArcelorMittal recently announced the intention to shut down “liquid” steel production in the region of Liège in Belgium. After years of empty promises and deceptions, about a thousand workers could lose their jobs – 581 workers on fixed contracts and almost 400 temporary workers. Many more face indirect threats to their jobs. The future of the cold phase of steel production is also under threat. How can workers save their jobs?

In the past ten years all steelworkers have been confronted time and time again with the argument that the steel industry in Belgium has no future. This refrain was systematically used to increase ‘flexibility’ (only for the bosses!) and to implement a pay freeze beginning in 2009. The only thing that was saved was the profit of the multinational!

We heard for years that tax benefits for the big companies were meant to save jobs. The result is that ArcelorMittal has made extra profit. Now the company could take the money and run! The figures are incredible. The official tax rate for companies is 33.99%. In 2010 the financial wing of ArcelorMittal (Arcelor Mittal Finance and Services Belgium) made a profit of €1.394 billion and didn’t pay a eurocent of taxes. In the same year ArcelorMittalBelgium, the company that organizes Arcelor’s industrial activity in Belgium, made a profit of €59 million, paying just €42,000 in tax. ArcelorMittal Upstream, the company that stands to be closed, made €35 million profit and paid only €936 in taxes. These enormous tax breaks haven’t saved a single job!

Nationalisation

The joint trade union front at ArcelorMittal has officially asked Elio Di Rupo – the head of the Francophone “socialist” party (PS) who is leading the negotiations to form a national government – to nationalise the steel industry in Liège. The unions declared “The authorities found €4 billion in one weekend to save the speculators of Dexia bank, why can’t they now find €1 billion to save the steel industry”? Didier Van Caillie, a professor in economics at Liège University said this idea “at least has to be studied”. However he added that any nationalisation has to be temporary. He insists the industry should be handed back to the profit-hungry ‘private sector’ as soon as possible.

This also seems to be the reasoning of some union leaders. Fabrice Jacquemart of the metal workers union FGTB Métal Liège-Luxembourg said “Our idea is that we should go back to the situation of the 1980s and 1990s. This means a strong involvement of the Walloon regional government in anticipation of finding another industrial operator.”

The Walloon Minister of Economy Jean-Claude Marcourt (PS) – who once, without irony, declared himself to be anti-capitalist – was quick to explain that such a nationalisation is not possible because it is “not the task of the Walloon regional government”. He also said it wouldn’t be allowed by the European Union. Marcourt suggests that the only way to save the ‘liquid’ production is with a takeover by another private industrial operator. This would presume that ArcelorMittal is prepared to let the production facilities be bought at all which is far from guaranteed.

European directives are apparently more flexible when the interest of the bosses and the banks are concerned! When several banks ran into difficulty in 2008, there was no European Union objection the nationalizations carried out by member states. When it now comes to saving jobs, a nationalisation would not be allowed!

Save jobs, not profits!

If we are depending on a potential private buyer, the fate of workers’ jobs is again left in the hands of the profit seeking capitalists. This is not only a problem for workers directly employed in the steel factories but for other workers like those employed by subcontractors. The local municipalities and the public services would all be under threat, particularly given that the city of Seraing gets €5 million out of a total budget of €90 million from ArcelorMittal. A key sector like steel production can not be left in the hands of the greedy private sector. That would only bring more social dramas. Youth unemployment in Seraing already is at 35%.

A worker at ArcelorMittal’s Seraing facility

Several economists confirm that the importance of the steel industry in the region justifies the takeover of the production facilities by the government. But why should the government compensate the company? The community has already given enough presents to ArcelorMittal, amongst other industrial companies. Besides the generous tax rates, the government paid for tens of millions of carbon emission permits on Arcelor’s behalf and the Walloon regional government paid them €20 million for research and development! In fact we should reclaim money from ArcelorMittal, instead of paying them to take over the steel factories.

Workers and youth worldwide are taking action against a system that only serves the interests of the top 1%. They occupy squares and organise their actions with regular meetings open for all to participate in. We need to fight for the nationalisation of the entire steel sector without compensation for Arcelor, and under democratic control of the workers and the community. The metal workers know best how the factories work. They are capable of running the factories themselves through a democratic and collective structure and elected management.

Why not take a first step in this direction by occupying the factories, setting up a democratic committee and organizing regular general assemblies. In that way we would take the occupations of squares to the workplaces and bring the means of production into the hands of the community and the workers.