Belgium: Momentum to bring down right wing government lost

Learn from the struggle, as new opportunities open up

Not all the protests against the avalanche of attacks against workers launched by the right wing government in Belgium are over but the momentum has been lost.

Recently postal workers and bus drivers in the Walloon area went on strike against the threat of further privatization. The fast growing train drivers’ association, ASTB/SACT – autonoom syndicaat voor treinbestuurders/ syndicat autonome des conducteurs de train – threatens monthly 24 hour strikes for higher wages, beginning on 28 May.

The ASTB/SACT began as a local train drivers’ association ten years ago but recently grew quickly on a national scale as a consequence of its radical actions (the union is also part of ALE, the autonomous trade union of train drivers in Europe, to which the German GDL is also affiliated). It is estimated that ASTB/SACT organizes over half of Belgium’s 3,800 train drivers

In several other companies, workers are fighting job losses. There is also the continuation of the “action plan” by the national trade union organizations, with weekly symbolic actions against measures hitting youth, women and pensioners.

These actions keep the protest alive. There is also the possiblity of a new acceleration of the movement after summer, as the federal government is preparing new attacks. Coming to power seven months ago, the government is a right wing coalition of three Flemish parties – the Flemish nationalist neo-liberal NV-A, the Flemish Liberal Party and the Flemish Christian-democrats – and the Francophone Liberal Party.

While some trade union leaders announced a new “action plan” similar to the one last year, it is also clear that an important momentum has gone and the movement has lost steam. How is it possible that a movement so strong and so close to bringing down the government with one of the most powerful 24 hour general strikes since the 1980’s brought so few results?

Not only could the government carry through its main austerity programme but, on top of this, recent polls indicate it is not fundamentally losing support. The exception is the right wing Flemish nationalist NV-A, which is again losing ground, after a short comeback in the aftermath of its right wing, anti-immigrant propoganda around the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris at the start of th year. Considered the main force behind the government cuts, all polls indicate that the NV-A is losing around 4%, mostly, but not always, to the advantage of the CD&V, its Flemish Christian democrat coalition partner. Under pressure from its union wing and because of the very weak credibility of the social democratic opposition (which previously was in power for the last 26 years) the CD&V presents itself as a sort of left opposition from within the government, ensuring against even deeper cuts and demanding its governmetn partners make ‘social corrections’ for the poor and lowest wage earners.

In the southern French-speaking area of the country, the social democrats are systematically polling far below their result in the May 2014 elections. Although the liberals are not gaining, in some polls they come out as the first francophone party. This represents a major shift. Part of the social democrats’ votes have been captured by the ex-maoist PTB party, which is registering 9%, even overtaking Ecolo, the Walloon green party, to become the fourth francophone party. However in Flanders there is no remarkable upward trend for the PVDA (PTB in Flanders) yet.

But polls can and have shifted strongly, indicating the degree of political volatility, with disillusioned voters going in various directions. As there is no clear and credible voice for the working class, things are not always what they seem. Recent research illustrated that only 6% of Flemish who voted in the May 2014 elections (which resulted in a historic victory for the Flemish nationalists) considered constitutional reform or the national question as a priority. Voters number one priorities were employment, healthcare and pensions, traditionally themes identified with social-democracy.

This made, from the beginning, the social basis for the government very weak. But as no clear alternative is proposed, including not by the union leaders, who stick to their traditional political partners, this volatility will continue. It will create opportunities for the left and for the right wing opposition, but also for the government if it can pretend to act. Bart De Wever, the leader of the NV-A Flemish nationalists, for example, was quick to compare his party with the “courageous policies” of the Tories immediately after the recent UK elections. He surely hopes for a similar outcome in Belgium’s next general elections in four years.

Learn from the struggle

Learning the full lessons of workers’ struggle, of how the movement lost the momentum needed to bring down the government just as it was nearly collapsing, is crucial. How can the movement’s strengths be generalized, its weaknesses be overcome and what is necessary to win future battles?

The LSP/PSL is launching that discussion through its publications and where possible in workplaces, trade union workplace bodies, in the industrial sectors and through existing networks between different sectors and unions. This is the only way the workers’ movement can come out of this struggle strengthened and prepare for a new and more victorious round of battles.

For sure, this government will come back and back again. It’s appetite is growing. New attacks, some of which are part of the original government programme, and some completely new, are underway. Some government measures aim at the weakest in society. It is introducing ever stronger control of so-called “social fraud”, including checking water meters because welfare payments depend on the number of household members.

At the same time, a so-called tax shift is being discussed. All agree, unfortunately including the trade union leaders, with the need to reduce labour costs as a way to improve the competiveness of Belgian economy. The only question under discussion is how this tax cuts, involving sums of around 5 to 7 billion euros (another big gift for businesses) should be paid for. Tax changes favouring big business in other European countries show they result in new cuts in public spending and an increase of taxes on consumption that disproportionally hit wage earners more. Higher taxes on the the rich are regarded as impossible.

Calls for a new “action plan” after the summer were made by the Walloon socialist trade union leader at one of the last mass protests. This reflected the pressure and frustration amongst the rank and file. But its success will depend on the seriousness of the intentions behind the call, on the willingness not only to mobilize properly but also not to stop halfway through the struggle again. Frustration amongst workers is very high because at one stage many workers could smell victory. But the fact that the leaders were able to suffocate the flame, though not without difficulties, as illustrated by the fact that, up until now, action is still taking place, points to important fears facing the union leaders.

One of their biggest concerns is political: the fear of the power and self-confidence of workers if they were to bring down the right wing government. The trade union leaders’ perspective is a return to the former tri-partite coalition government, involving the social democrats, which would, at best, mean a continuation of a policy of ‘austerity light’. But any such tri-partite government would, perhaps after a honeymoon period, face opposition from a strengthened workers’ movement that had been able to bring down a government. It would mean that the open link between the union leaders and the parties would be further questioned and steps could be taken to develop a new political voice, in the form of a new party or movement that could lay the basis for a new workers’ party. However at the end of December 2014 and early January 2015, the union leaders backed off from realising such a scenario of ousting the government and instead went into negotiations with it. This , led to the break-up of the trade union front and a downturn in workers’ struggles.

Now some union leaders are playing down the strength and impact of the workers’ movement, with the purpose of lowering the expectations of what would be possible. Marc Leemans, the national leader of the Christian trade union, concluded recently (against the tone set by the national congress of his own organization) that the union movement must look to other, more “modern” type of protest actions if it wants to be heard. He calls for more symbolic or legal action, “as neither strike action, nor negotiations were able to convince the government”. This is completely outrageous. Convincing this government, to begin with, is not what is needed, rather the issue is stopping this government from doing what it plans.

The strength of last year’s unions’ action plan is undisputable. Dates for meetings, demonstrations, regional and national strikes, were set out well before the events. Leaflets were produced in good time and with clear demands. The union apparatuses did not offering the assistance they should have but nevertheless the opportunity was given to those trade union workplace delegations that were able and wished to do so, to mobilize a maximum of co-workers. For the first time in years, mass picketing was revived and the organization of workplace meetings reappeared. Direct links were made between union members from different companies in the same economic sectors, and mass meetings were held to bring together rank and file delegations.

Other sectors joined struggle

The industrial movement developed such strength that other layers in society were attracted to join in. The ‘cultural sector’ started to follow and got organized, as did workers in schools, childcare centres and the healthcare sector etc. And there was public support. As we explained in previous articles, a majority of society was in favour of some of the most important demands of the movement. Around 70% opposed the government’s attacks on the sliding scale of wages and the increase of the pension age to 67 years. More than 85% were in favour of a tax on wealth. The 250,000 strong national demo on 6 November 2014 was the biggest Belgian trade union protest since May 1986. The regional strikes and a national strike closed even some of the most unlikely workplaces.

The full potential of the movement was not yet exhausted. Clearly an important number of workplace delegations were not yet prepared to use methods of mass struggles which had grown out of use in the previous decades. This is the main reason why many activists, including from LSP/PSL, did not immediately after the 15 December strike call for an all-out indefinite strike but instead advocated another bigger and more intense action plan in the run-up to a 48 hour general strike. By that time, however, the trade union leaderships were concerned about the forces they had unleashed and were no longer prepared to use the full force of the working class developed during the strikes.

Nearly all activists realize that mass working class consciousness has fallen back since the early 1990s. There are no workplace delegations or trade union trends like those which were steeled in the period after the Second World War. In 1950, workers had more or less taken over the Walloon area and the ruling class only succeeded in saving their system by abandoning King Leopold III in favour of his 19 years old son, Boudewijn. At the end of 1960, a one day strike called by the socialist public employees union ended up in a massive wild cat strike that lasted for seven weeks.

In the past the trade union leaders had to take into account that once a strike started it might prove difficult for them to get workers back to work, especially as in some factories and sectors, such as the railways, workers were could push the movement further once the floodgates opened up.

The 1970s saw a massive wave of workplace occupations and in the 1980s a public sector strike lasted ten days. The trade union leaders know this is not the case currently but the huge success of the action plan made them realize such forces can be reconstituted much more quickly than they anticipated. This is the main reason why the union leaders changed their strategy after 15 December. This had an immediate demoralizing effect and will complicate further workers’ mobilizations. However we should not limit our attention to that stage of the struggle but look at the general picture and prepare for the future.

Over the the next four and half years the government will aim to make more cuts. Even though, at this stage, the sector negotiations will be used by some union leaders to try to soften the austerity attacks against categories of workers, it is still very unlikely the government will simply sit back for the rest of its legislature. Worker-activists and the Left should be preparing for new attacks. Those who are more isolated at their workplace should use the coming weeks and months of relative calm on the social front to engage in discussion with colleagues, to prepare together for the next round of attacks. Those activists already well organized should look at possibilities to strengthen links with workers at their company’s other workplaces and with workers from differnet companies in the same sector. Those who work in special economic zones could try to meet workers from workplaces in the same zone. More combative delegations should exchange experiences and create links with other combative delegations and discuss how to strengthen each other’s positions.

Political alternative

A more combative rank and file unionism will also encourage those in the union apparatuses who are more sympathetic to struggle. By taking initiatives, these workers can help in transforming the current “service unionism” into trade unionism more adapted to the challenges ahead in a capitalist system of crises.

We should however take care not to fall in the trap of developing illusions in a purely syndicalist, trade union path. We urgently also need a political alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Workers need their own mass party capable of articulating their demands, directing their struggles and discussing and debating policies and programme in a democratic manner, open to all trends that are ready to fight the neo-liberal attacks.

The LSP/PSL can contribute to this task, organizing, analysing and with programmatic proposals and by advocating a socialist society as a way out of the misery that capitalism represents for the majority.