Belgium: Successful general strike shuts down major workplaces

Government forced to partially retreat, but unions must still oppose cuts

They will not have liked it, but in between the insults, threats and accusations, the pro-capitalist press, the bosses and the politicians had to admit that the general strike on 7 October, called by the social democratic trade union federation, the ABVV/FGTB, was an overall success. The mass action was in opposition to government cuts, including attacks on the right to early retirement. The strike’s effectiveness can not just be put down to strikers’ road blockades. Without broad support, the ABVV/FGTB would never have been capable to realise this feat of strength on its own.

All major workplaces in the private sector were completely closed down. These included GM, VW, Ford and Volvo vehicle making plants; all major petrochemical plants; the ports in Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Gent; banks, insurance companies and supermarkets; food-industry including Coca Cola and Inbev. In the public sector, the railways were brought to a complete halt. Only 10% of busses and trams left depots. Prison guards went on strike, as did half of the postal workers, although some refused to come out after the rotten deal their union leaders signed, only days ago.

The unions blocked some ‘industrial zones’, on 7 October, to stop smaller companies from functioning. In those cases, they were sometimes confronted by non-strikers, some of whom were under intense pressure from their bosses. Bosses appealed to the courts to get free access to the industrial zones, in some instances.

7 October shows what a difference to the situation in the unions, a few years ago! Then if a shop steward called a strike, without the participation of the Christian union federation (ACV/CSC), it usually failed. The success of 7 October will increase the confidence of the ABVV/FGTB militants to go it alone, if necessary. Nonetheless, preparation for 7 October was poor. Only half way through September did the ABVV/FGTB federation start taking action on the pension issue. Before that, the ABVV/FGTB leadership was strikingly silent in the debate over attacking early retirement rights. We presume the social democratic union leaders wanted to avoid embarrassing the social democratic parties in government. But as can be seen from the overwhelming response of workers to the strike call, this position was wrong and out of touch.

It is nearly 12 years since a general strike was organised properly in Belgium. For many union activists this was their first strike. Given this, the necessity of pickets has to be re-learned. The closure of education centres for union activists, and the complete absence of any ideological training, has left their mark on the unions. Consequently, 7 October was mainly a strike of militant union members, with the passive support of many others.

Since former ABVV/FGTB general secretary, Mia Devits, left to become a Euro MP for the Flemish social democracy, in the words of an employees’ union official, “a new wind is blowing through ABVV/FGTB”. At last, an effort was made to listen to rank and file members, and a strike was prepared for, instead of sabotaged. Hopefully, the union will continue along this road and in those sectors where the ABVV/FGTB leadership is still working for the bosses, such as in the Post and Belgacom, there will be a dramatic change to a fighting position.

ABVV/FGTB is now isolated within the ruling establishment. The social democratic parties, the Flemish SP.a and the Francophone PS, have chosen the openly neo-liberal camp. Amongst the population, however, the ABVV/FGTB social democratic union federation can rely on enthusiastic support. A recent opinion poll, by a right-wing press group, showed that over 40% in Flanders (which means probably more in the Walloon and Brussels areas) supported the strike. This is way above the membership of ABVV/FGTB and also way above its result in ‘social elections’.

According to the poll, amongst those who only got ‘basic education’, for the strike support goes up to 55%, amongst those with a university degree it goes down to 21%.

The same poll showed that the government, with all the press, academics, bosses, and part of the ACV/CSC at its disposal, only succeeded in convincing 25% of the Flemish population that its approach of the pre-pension debate is the correct one.

The politicians, the bosses, the press and the Christian unions’ leadership pretend the ABVV/FGTB is divided. What they mean is that its leadership is not prepared to push through a neo-liberal agenda against the aspirations of the rank and file.

The leadership of the Christian union took a different approach. It spent 140.000 euro on adverts in all the daily newspapers, appealing to its members not to participate in the strike. It also cancelled its strike call for the 10 October and brought forward from the 11th to the 7th October, its call for a railway strike. In essence, the ACV/CSC leadership saved the government from collapse. Divisions amongst the unions were used by some right-wingers to undermine the right to strike. They proposed, amongst other things, to ban pickets on public roads. As pickets are already banned on private property, such an attack on union rights would mean a serious limitation on the right to strike.

In reality, ACV/CSC is much more divided than the ABVV/FGTB. At all ACV/CSC meetings where LSP/MAS (CWI) members were present, rank and file union members were extremely critical of the ACV/CSC leadership, with some refusing to distribute official trade-union leaflets and with others calling their leadership “scabs” and “strike-breakers”. As was illustrated during the strike, while there is division at the top of the unions there is unity in the workplaces. Even in the leadership, there is a division between the strike breakers and those who want to tackle the pension debate in a more serious way. The head of the ACV/CSC ‘study service’ recently published a book called, ‘50 Grey Lies’, which responded to government’s pensions propaganda.

Although the government and the press stressed the 7 October strike did not have any political impact, it is clear the mass industrial action shook the government and forced it to pull back, at least partly. Of course, LPS/MAS (CWI) still opposes, as many trade-union activists also do, the proposals of the government. But it is clear the government’s new proposals are quite different to their original planned demolition of pension rights. The new package is not comparable to, say, the ‘Agenda 2010’ cuts of former German Chancellor Schröder, or to the kind of cuts measures the right wing coalition government has taken in Holland.

Nevertheless, the Belgian government’s plans are still a serious attack on past working class social gains.

Although the union leaderships will be inclined to agree to the government’s new package, it is very unlikely the ABVV/FGTB rank and file will accept it, and it is not even certain whether the ACV/CSC leaders will be capable of convincing their ranks to accept the cuts. If both unions reject the governments’ proposals, a new, even stronger, general strike, will be on the agenda, and the possible collapse of the government. However, the union leaderships do not favour elections as a result of strikes and mass action – fearful as they are of a radicalised, working class with militant demands – and will do everything they can to avoid such a situation.

If the ACV/CSC leaders accept the government deal, LSP/MAS (CWI) will call for the ABVV/FGTB to organise a national demonstration in defence of the pensions system, and calling for the ACV/CSC to join in.

If both unions accept the deal, it will, in time, lead to splits along national lines, within the unions.

LSP/MAS participated, with a mobilising leaflet, in the week running up to the 7 October strike and produced a new leaflet on the day of the strike. Our members attended over one hundred picket lines, sold over 200 copies of our paper, and collected names of activists that want to discuss more with us.

We call for the successful October strike to be used as a springboard to build union strength in the workplaces, for the re-establishment of trade union education centres, to put on the agenda a break by the unions with the social democratic and the Christian democratic parties, and to promote the need for a new mass workers’ party, independent from the bosses. As part of the LSP/MAS (CWI) campaign, we will send an ‘open letter’ to the ABVV/FGTB leadership.

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October 2005