Belgium: Unions call national day of action against pension reforms

28 October strike poses need for new workers’ party

Following the successful 7 October general strike, organised by the social-democratic trade union ABVV/FGTB, Belgium is now preparing for another national day of action, on 28 October, against government attacks on early retirement.

The government is planning to increase the age for early retirement from 58 to 60 years. Furthermore, workers will need to have worked 35 years before having access to early retirement. Other systems to leave earlier are also under attack. At the same time, the government did find enough money to give another 960 million euro to the bosses.

The government’s proposals led to the 7 October general strike, which was a huge success, even though it was organised by only one of the two major trade union federations. The leadership of the Christian trade union federation, ACV/CSC, came under strong pressure from its rank-and-file for its failure to join the strike. They not only refused to join the strike, but even organised an expensive media campaign against the action (costing 140,000 euro)! The division amongst the trade union leaderships, however, was not much in evidence amongst the rank-and-file.

On 11 October, the government presented its “final position” on pensions, under the name of the ‘Generations Pact’. This document repeated that the government would carry out most of the attacks already stated. It was clear that for most workers these proposals are still not acceptable.

After the government repeated its intention to make cuts, the Christian democratic ACV/CSC leadership produced a national leaflet explaining that they had ‘obtained’ 10 results in negotiations with the government. Later, this text was replaced by a statement saying “it could have been worse…”!

Under pressure from the rank-and-file, the Christian democratic union leaders had to support the demand to organise national actions against the government plans.

At a regional meeting of the ACV/CSC, in Limburg, on 11 October, the union regional secretary only got polite applause when he tried to scare his members by saying that refusing the government’s proposals would mean that there would be drastic repercussions that might lead to the fall of the government. This did not scare off union members. Rather, it made them more enthusiastic for taking action.

The announcement of the joint national day of action on 28 October was well received by all trade union activists. The rank-and-file wanted unity and now they will be able to march together. In the run-up to 28 October, there have already been several local strikes and actions. On Monday, 24 October, there was a regional 24-hour general strike in Charleroi. There were also strikes at, for example, Volkswagen in Forest (Brussels).

The fact that both trade union federations have organised several regional meetings have had an important impact on forcing the union leaderships to resist the government. These meetings also have strengthened those who campaign for more democracy in the unions.

Campaign for a new workers’ party

The strikes make the need of a new mass workers’ party more obvious to a broader layer of union activists and working people, in general. The social democratic trade union federation is still linked to the social democratic party (called the PS in the Walloon area and the SP.a in the Flemish area), while the Christian trade union federation still has some links with the CD&V (Christian-democracy).

The social democracy is in government and responsible for attacks on early retirement. The Christian democracy is not in the national government, but they announced policies that announce even bigger cuts than the government.

At the national SP.a conference, in Hasselt, on 15 October, some 300 union activists from ABVV/FGTB held a protest outside. A regional secretary of the ABVV/FGTB in South Eastern Flanders said at a meeting: “The SP.a has been taken over by neo-liberals.”

None of the traditional parties supports the trade union protests. The social democrats and liberals in the government are responsible for the attacks and even wanted to go further. The Christian democrats propose even more handouts for the bosses (3 billion euro) while the workers would see their wages frozen (with no possibility of wages keeping up with the cost of living). Even the far right Vlaams Belang says we will have to work longer to be ‘competitive’ and opposed the strike of 7 October (even though 51% of their voters supported the strike).

There is no establishment party defending our rights and there is a growing consciousness on that issue. This development is very important. The LSP/MAS (the Belgian section of the CWI) calls for a new mass workers’ party. We will launch an internet petition for those who agree on the need for such a party. The example of Germany shows the potential, but this potential also exists in Belgium.

The expected huge demonstration on 28 October will be a first step in the resistance against the neo-liberal policies. This protest could be followed by regional actions and strikes, leading to a national general strike lasting several days.

The LSP/MAS will use its strengthened position on the shop-floor to assist in making these actions successful, to raise the need for workers’ unity and the necessity for a new mass workers’ party.

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