Belgium: Fight steel closures

The management of steel company Arcelor announced the closure of part of Cockerill Sambre in Liège by 2005. This would mean a loss of 2,500 jobs. Added to those jobs, there are about 5,000 jobs threatened at companies which supply Cockerill Sambre with cmponents or raw materials. Those figures are without counting the job losses in small shops in the neighboorhood. About 10,000 families could be hit by these measures and all this in a region with an unemployment rate of 22%.

The article below outlines the plans of Cockerill Sambre management to close part of one of its steel plants in the French-speaking part of Belgium, the Waloon. Written by a member of the Belgian affiliate of the CWI, it shows a way forward for the struggle and demonstrates the links between regional politicians and big business. The article is also available in French and Flemish.

CWI online

Cockerill: No second Renault drama!

The massive impact of this closure reminds us of the tragedy of the closure of Renault Vilvoorde in 1997 when the French multinational decided to move its plant to Russia leaving thousands of workers unemployed.

All restructuring programmes at Cockerill in the past 20 years have been made with the false promise that the factory would stay open.

It would be wrong to accept this catastrophy. The capitalists might have the power and money on their side, but we, the workers, have our numbers, our solidarity and our preparedness to fight back. The history of the workers’ struggle has shown that bosses can be forced to give in, and temporary victories are possible.

It is important to organise the fight against the closure of Cockerill. The workers of Forges de Clabecq have proven that it is possible to keep a threatened factory open. The Clabecq workers mobilised 70,000 people in a demonstration 6 years ago. Because of their struggle, and despite the role of the union leadership, Forges de Clabecq has re-opened.

The workers of Cockerill cannot count on the politicians in the area, but will have to take their own actions through mass struggle. We need general meetings of the workforce to discuss a plan of action. We need a mobilisation of Cockerill workers (both those threatened with the sack and those whose jobs are "guaranteed" for now), and after that a mobilisation of all the steelworkers in the area to build for a regional general strike. We need to discuss picket lines to prevent finished products being moved by management.

The only demand that can guarantee the presence of an integrated steelsector in Liège is the nationalisation of Cockerill under workers’ control and without anything being paid to Arcelor.

The politicians and the closure of Cockerill

The announcement of the closure of a part of Cockerill by 2005 is a social tragedy for the area. It also is bad news for the politicians for whom this news comes at a bad moment, 4 months before the general election.

Serge Kubla (Mouvement Réformateur, liberal), Jean-Claude Van Cau (Parti Socialiste, social-democrat), Laurette Onkelinx (PS), Michel Daerden (PS), Didier Reynders (MR) all hurried to express their opposition about the fact that Arcelor is breaking the signed agreements on the modernisation of its factories in Liège. Since then Arcelor has announced that it would not invest in "hot steel" production in its factories in continental steel factories in Europe.

In Liège this means the disappearance of the coke factory in Seraing, two furnaces in Ougrée and Seraing and the Chertal steel factory. Almost 2,000 workers who are employed will be immediately hit by these closures. On top of that there are about 500 who work in common activities of the "hot" and the "cold" parts of production (energy, gardening, administration, commercial services,) and those who work in companies working for Cockerill. There’s more than a 1,000 companies working for Cockerill in Liège!

This will come on top of an unemployment level of 22% in the region and 27% in Seraing.

Didier Reynders (Finance Minister, MR) hurried to say that the " political parties shouldn’t use this in the election campaign". The traditional parties will hide themselves as they have an important responsibility in this tragedy. That responsibility goes a long way back, they all agreed on the different restructuring programmes of Cockerill: the purchase of Cockerill by the Walloon regional government in the 80s (at an enormous high price which built the wealth of Belgian top-capitalist Albert Frère), the manoeuvres of top capitalist Etienne Davignon, the selling of Cockerill Sambre to Usinor at a very cheap price,…

The history of the relation between the Walloon politicians and the steel bosses has always been one of transferring public funds to the bank accounts of these capitalists. Will there be a parliamentary investigation commission on this just like they did with the closure of Sabena?

The regional Prime Minister of the Walloon region, Van Cauwenberghe (PS), hired an expensive lawyers’ office to protect the interests of the ’minority shareholder’ (the Walloon regional government). Of course, it is not necessary to add that even if there was succesful legal action there still will be an important difference between the shareholder – even when they’re in a minority – and the workers.

According to regional minister Kubla (MR) there is no possibility to keep Cockerill open. He proposes that the Walloon region would sell its minority position in Arcelor. He says that the airport of Bierset, near Liège, could take over workers of Cockerill. He hopes that the discussion on night traffic through the Brussels airport will make that DHL will move its activities to Bierset. He furthermore hopes that steelworkers would accept low-pay night work.

If the workers of Cockerill want to keep their income, they shouldn’t trust the politicians of the traditional parties who have helped creating this social tragedy in the past decades. The workers can only trust theirselves: their mobilisation and solidarity. Despite its small forces in the region, LSP/MAS will be at that side in their fight.

This article was taken from the January edition of ’Socialistisch Links’/ ’Alternative Socialiste’, the newspapers of Linkse Socialistiche Partij(LSP)/ Mouvement pour une Alternative Socialiste (MAS), the Belgian affiliate of the CWI. If you wish to order a copy of Socialistisch Links/ Alternative Socialiste then e-mail


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February 2003