Belgium: 100,000 workers demonstrate in Brussels

Resistance against government’s pension cuts far from “isolated”

Before a general strike on 7 October, Belgium’s politicians and the pro-capitalist press presented the ABVV/FGTB (the social democratic trade union federation) as ‘isolated’ for organising the strike on their own while ‘everyone’ was opposed to it. The unions’ demonstration, last Friday, in Brussels, made clear that the resistance against the attacks on early retirement are far from isolated. Around 100,000 were present at a protest organised by both the Christian and the social-democratic trade union federations.

The demonstration was very combative. The government tries to portray the resistance as ‘meaningless’, as the measures will go ahead anyway. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt even left to go on holiday this week. But that approach will not stop growing anger amongst broader layers of working people. The government proposes to increase the age for early retirement from 58 to 60 years and this only applies to those that have worked for 35 years. Having to work longer, while the productivity of individual workers has increased, making Belgian workers the most productive in Europe, is not acceptable for most workers.

The determined attitude of workers, shown last Friday, was bolstered by the offensive of politicians and bosses against the right to strike. During a recent strike at ‘Case New Holland’, in Zedelgem, (where 1,800 work) bosses obtained a court order, imposing a penalty charge of 1,000 euro for every hour an employee, “who wanted to work”, was prevented from doing so by pickets. The court order was still valid during the 28 October protests, but local shops stewards said the court order would not have any impact on the strike, as no-one would turn up to work. That is the best answer to attacks on the right to strike: broadening the strike. It makes the offensive of the bosses and the politicians meaningless. Besides that, the unions need to take up the right to strike in their demands when preparing new protest action.

During the 28 October demonstration, most workers agreed that action taken so far (some strikes and a national demo) should just be a step in a broader movement against the ‘Generations Pact’ (the name of the government’s document which includes an attack on the early retirement schemes). Unfortunately, during the 28 October rallies, the union leadership did not announce a plan of action or appeal for more protests. They announced that they will first ‘evaluate’ the demonstrations and the ‘response’ of the government. But it was clear before the demonstration that the protest would be a success and also that the government would refuse to listen to union demands. So, why wait to build on the success of the demonstration?

Many rank-and-file members of the ABVV/FGTB (social democratic unions) and the ACV/CSC (Christian democratic unions) will have been pleased at the union unity on display at the demonstration. Both trade union federations campaigned energetically for the demo. The Christian union federation was probably the strongest force. Besides the two big unions, the smaller liberal union, the ACLVB, also took part. The unity shown during the demonstration was the best possible answer to all the talk about so-called ‘divisions’ between unions. The discussions amongst the union leaderships on their strategy were overruled by broad discontent amongst the rank-and-file and their determination to turn resistance to government plans into action.

Need for political representation

There were very few representatives from the traditional political parties on the 28 October demonstration. Under pressure from the rank and file, the Flemish social democracy, SP.a (Socialist Party – ‘Different’), announced that they would go to the factories to explain their position. But they have already done a U-Turn on that announcement.

It was a SP.a Minister, Freya Van den Bossche, who was first responsible for the idea to attack pensions. Parties like the Christian democrats or the far right Vlaams Belang were not able to attend the 28 October demonstration while they oppose the demands of the demonstrators. A Vlaams Belang MP said that he was still in favour of his party’s old slogan ‘Werken baat, staken schaadt’ (‘Working pays, striking harms’).

The lack of political representation for workers was a key point that LSP/MAS (the Belgian section of the CWI) highlighted when we participated in the demonstration. Our appeal for a new mass workers’ party got a positive response. Many workers agree that there is a problem of political representation, but there still is confusion about finding a solution to that problem.

Between 100 and 150 members and supporters of LSP/MAS participated during the demonstration, under our party banner or as part of union contingents. A group of CWI comrades from Germany also participated and brought a solidarity message from the WASG (‘Electoral Alliance, Work and Social Justice’) in Aachen. We distributed 8,000 leaflets and sold a special edition of our paper on the government’s Generations Pact and the 7 October strike. We sold over 420 copies of our paper and collected some 700 euro fighting fund.

Protesters were very open to our ideas, confirming our analysis that there is a growing radicalisation in Belgian society. There is still confusion about political representation, which makes our petition calling for a new mass workers’ party very important. Many protesters agreed that we cannot count on any of the main political parties. Our campaign on this issue can give a lead to wider discussion amongst union activists and workers over political representation. Our banners, which called for a new workers’ party and our petitions (including internet petitions) have certainly been noticed.

Building on success

The 28 October demonstration was a success. 100,000 is a huge number of people to take part in a national demonstration in Brussels, on a Friday. Prime Minister Verhofstadt may say that it ‘won’t make any difference’, but even he will have to answer the growing discontent amongst workers and their families. With this demonstration, the neo-liberal policies of the government were clearly opposed. There needs to be a follow-up to this success, with a strike to stop the Generations Pact and the right wing government’s attacks.

The demonstration has shown that many workers are prepared to take action. The union leadership should not hesitate continuing and stepping up this movement.

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