Despite the rain, nine regional demonstrations in Belgium on 2 October mobilised 65,000 in protest against the right-wing Michel government. Although the previous attacks on our pensions and living standards have not yet been digested, the government already launched new general attacks this summer.
Before the summer, a national demonstration against the pension counter-reforms which raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 and make early retirement more difficult, brought 80,000 out to a national demonstration. Then the government decided not to go ahead with the planned reform of the pension calculation system. But in the summer, a new attack was launched on early retirement through the imposition of stricter conditions, alongside attacks on the unemployed and civil servants who were on sickness leave.
The demonstrations on 2 October showed that the social resistance against the right-wing government is not over. These protests came after actions by regional civil servants and national civil servants, who brought 10,000 onto the streets of Brussels on Friday 28 September. In this last demonstration, there were also participants from the police and the army. The government decided that civil servants, including soldiers and police, will more rapidly fall back onto 60% of their wage when sick, instead of having a full wage guarantee.
This social protest is also important in the context of the upcoming local council elections on 14 October. The governing parties try to divert attention away from our demands with divisive rhetoric, using racist prejudices and the arrival of new refugees to blame immigrants for the consequences of their own anti-social policies. This rhetoric, mainly used by the populist Flemish right nationalist N-VA, has had an impact. However opinion polls suggest that the N-VA will lose in the main cities in the Flemish area, but that the far-right Vlaams Belang would, especially in smaller cities, regain at least some of the votes they had previously lost to the N-VA. The search for an alternative to austerity has led to a growth in the polls for both the left-wing PVDA/PTB and the Greens. While the PTB/PVDA has not used its full potential, it still will have a breakthrough with dozens of new councillors elected.
The national day of protest on 2 October was a success. This should now be used to hold assemblies to evaluate the situation on the shop floor and in the trade unions. These meetings have to prepare new actions, building towards a new general strike before the end of the year. The objective has to be clear: stopping this government. Therefore we need to build our power and use this to realise our demands. The last months of this government before the May 2019 general election must be used to put our demands on the agenda, instead of the divisive rhetoric of the right-wing. This is necessary to avoid a second government led by Charles Michel coming into office after May 2019. Already, it has been announced that the budget deficit still is 8 billion euro, 5 billion more than first projected. So the message is clear: the bourgeoisie wants unending austerity.
This is disastrous for our living standards. Resistance is necessary. We saw the potential in 2014 when an escalating “action plan” by the trade unions brought the new government into problems. Then, a national rally followed by a national demonstration to build for regional strikes culminating in a national general strike showed the strength of the workers movement. Unfortunately, this marvellous plan of action was not followed by a second and even bigger plan. The initiative went back to the government who then used the situation not to make concessions but to go even further in its attacks. A serious plan of action with clear objectives and offensive demands strengthens the protest. It is easier to convince workers to take action when they see that the protests are serious, not just another ‘walk’ through Brussels.
The power of a plan of action was shown in 2014. Where the actions were prepared with general assemblies on the work floor, the power of these protests was even stronger. Now again, the effect of offensive demands – like a minimum pension of 1,500 euro per month and pensions set at 75% of the last wage instead of 60% that was popularised in a massive information campaign by the union leaders, with 1 million ‘Pension Newspapers’ – was shown in the success of the demonstration of 16 May 2018. Now, we see the potential to continue the social struggle against the government. If built on the lessons we learned in the past years, our social struggle can prevent a new right-wing government and make it difficult for any other government to continue the same austerity policies.
On the regional demonstrations on 2 October, members of PSL/LSP (CWI in Belgium) intervened with leaflets and our newspaper with the headline “No Michel II”. Despite the rain, we sold over 100 copies of our paper and distributed thousands of leaflets. Our leaflet called for a general strike before the end of the year.
Our leaflet on 2 October concluded: “We need a government defending the interests of the working class with the same determination as the present government defends those of the capitalists. That is what many workers expect from the demand of the FGTB [socialist trade union] in the Walloon area to have progressive coalitions of PS, Ecolo [Greens] and PTB. Instead of proposing a programme for such a coalition and starting a broad campaign around this, the three parties reject the demand. PS-chairman Di Rupo now proposes a coalition of PS, Ecolo and Défi [a regionalist party] as an alternative. This wouldn’t be an anti-austerity government, but a sort of Di Rupo II [following the government Di Rupo headed between 2011 and 2014]. We surely won’t let Di Rupo II prepare Michel II just like the austerity policies of Di Rupo I prepared the way for Michel I?”