Veteran workers’ leader discusses a new political initiative
On Thursday, 13 April, 2006, Bart Vandersteene interviewed Jef Sleeckx in his home town, Mol, Belgium. On the eve of local elections in Belgium and before an important national meeting, later in October, we publish Bart’s discussion with Jef Sleeckx’s on a new, left political initiative.
Interview with Jef Sleeckx
Bart Vandersteene (BV):
Jef, in 1999 you left Parliament. Today, seven years later, you re-appear on the political stage. What made you decide to do this?
Jef Sleeckx (JS):
Two issues forced me to raise my voice. On the one hand, there was the European constitution, which was rejected in referenda in France and Holland. I actually think the EU needs a constitution to make 25 countries and 450 million people work together. But this constitution isn’t about that. It doesn’t discuss the rules of the game, but the game itself. Part 3 of the constitution states that the EU has to be neo-liberal. There isn’t any space foreseen for political debate.
Tell us more about your political initiative with Georges Debunne and Lode Van Outrive
Georges Debunne approached me, last year, with the proposal to submit an appeal at the Flemish Parliament, together with him and Lode Van Outrive. He wanted to use this to fire up the debate about the constitution in Belgium, too.
For this, we had to gather 15,000 signatures during demonstrations, neighbourhood parties, at companies, and so on. At the same time, I also studied the constitution. I had never studied as hard before. After gathering the signatures we were given the opportunity to present an explanation in the Flemish Parliament. I was amazed when I found out that the MP’s knew very little about the constitution. This became clear through the questions they asked me. Despite this, they all voted in favour of the constitution.
A second matter that had a big influence on me is the struggle against the government’s so-called "Generation Pact" [retirement age and pension ‘reforms’]. At a certain point, some shop stewards approached me with the question to take action, and to campaign at the notorious congress of the SPa [Flemish speaking Social Democrats] in Hasselt. I agreed immediately and helped distributing the call, "We turn our back to you".
The community pays, the bosses get gifts
I didn’t agree at all with the Generation Pact. The government and SPa scared people into thinking that they would have to work longer, while this wasn’t necessary. The commission on the aging of the population [by the Federal Parliament] calculated that by 2030 3.4% more of the GDP would be needed to be able to pay the pensions. This is between 9 and 10 billion euro.
If the current Belgian economy, which is worth at least 250 billion euros, grows at 1.5% every year, then it is worth 112 billion euros more. Let us use this 10% of this growth for the pensions. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?
In an interview in Knack [an influential news magazine] I stated that there was a need for something new outside Spa; a new worker’s party. I hadn’t expected that my words would have such an effect both inside and outside the SPa.
Johan Vande Lanotte [President of the Spa] said that he would go to the companies with his activists. We didn’t see them. They did organise regional meetings. I was present in Antwerp, and took the microphone to make my point clear. I asked why there is complete silence about a property tax, why fraud isn’t tackled more thoroughly, why taxes aren’t collected better. In short, I made clear that the means for a policy are present, but that other political choices are necessary.
Johan tried to talk around it, but didn’t succeed. There was also a discussion about what qualify as "heavy occupations" under the terms of the "Generation Pact". After me, someone from the public took the microphone and invited Johan to come and work with him for fourteen days. He would immediately have a better idea of what heavy work is.
During the discussion, the atmosphere in the hall turned and I got a lot of applause and support. At the end, I said that Vande Lanotte is deceiving the people. It’s always the community who has to pay, while the bosses get gifts.
If other political choices were made, there wouldn’t be any problem for the population, and for the 1.5 million Belgians that live in bitter poverty today.
But Steve Stevaert [former President of the Spa] said that the SPa shouldn’t be engaged in the first place with the politics of misery. I wonder what a socialist party should do then. And today it is not only the people on welfare that are in a difficult position, you know. Go and try to maintain a family with wages of 1200 euros, certainly with the high prices for accommodation.
This is why I made the statement that they helped to enlarge the Vlaams Belang [Flemish extreme right party]. The socialist elected representatives are not physically present anymore in the problem neighbourhoods. They became frightened of their natural public. But to be able to discuss with unemployed people, for example, about jobs – you, yourself, of course, shouldn’t do two or more jobs. What Patrick Janssens does is scandalous: being both and MP and mayor of Antwerp. That isn’t serious. One of the jobs becomes less important, no one is able to carry out several jobs seriously. The same with housing. Try to discuss with homeless people if you yourself live in an exquisite villa, and you will notice immediately how seriously you are taken…
In 1982 I could become mayor of Mol, but I didn’t. I let the base decide which mandate I should continue, and my parliamentary mandate was chosen. Out of principle I didn’t want two jobs at the same time. When you say "jobs for everybody", you should only do one job yourself. As an MP you have to set a good example. The idea is so invalidated that no one believes it any more, but you just have to do it.
How do you see the developments of the last 10 years within the SPa?
For me, it was very noticeable that the SPa kept on moving towards the centre, which annoyed me very much. For 17 years I called for another policy from within the party executive. As a socialist you have to be straight forward, and you need a clear profile. The lack of this is a reason why today many people vote for the Vlaams Belang.
The SPa left her socialist ideas behind, and is not enough of a workers’ party. She never called for struggle. This is needed more than ever. We can’t forget that social security didn’t just fall from the sky. It’s the result of struggle. And let’s be honest, mainly the struggle of Walloon workers. This is why I resist those who want to split up social security. Workers from Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia have the same interests. Sometimes we forget that we have much to thank the Walloons for.
Another thing that has been bothering me for a long time, is the attitude of the SPa towards refugees. When I was still in the Flemish Parliament I took on the case of Kurdish hunger strikers. I have been in Kurdistan and know that sending the Kurdish refugees back is impossible. Those people end up in prison or just disappear. In the party executive I made a clear statement that I was going to vote according to my conscience. Because of the pressure I exerted, those people could stay in Belgium. The hunger strike was in Hasselt, at the time that Stevaert was still mayor. But I never saw him there and he never intervened for the hunger strikers.
Do you have a first-of-May-message for the activists of SPa and ABVV [Flemish Social Democratic trade union]?
I would ask the SPa activists to insist that the party works much more towards workers. I’m happy that SPa Rood [left opposition in the Spa] exists. I have a lot of respect for those comrades, but I don’t believe in it. The party leadership won’t take them seriously, it will ignore them until they die out. SPa Rood is allowed to play a role to show that there is supposedly a left wing to the party. But at the same time, SPa Rood doesn’t have, and will never have, any influence within the party.
I ask the ABVV activists to take solidarity seriously. There will be a lot of struggle, and in this struggle a unity between workers from Wallonia, Brussels and Flanders will be necessary. Politicians want to break this solidarity by saying that there are different needs. But we can’t forget that it is thanks to the Walloon willingness to fight that our system of social security came into being.
To both of them I want to say that a political alternative is necessary. A political alternative in which the interest of the working population, the unemployed, and people on benefits are high priorities.
Everywhere you speak, you stress the necessity of better protection for shop stewards. Why this issue?
Because shop stewards are the motor of the unions. They are in touch with what lives, with the base. Unfortunately, the bosses today try to do everything possible to sack good shop stewards that defend their members. They don’t spare any effort in getting rid of those shop stewards, for example at Stora in Zelzate [Gent]. We have to formulate an answer.
The youth will be important for a new initiative, which message do you have for the youth?
Young people have to exercise their political consciousness more. Many are looking for values that represent more than pure material values. Because they don’t guarantee happiness. You find happiness in others. Because of that, solidarity is important, also between younger and older people.
I was not so surprised when I read that the Vlaams Belang also scores highly with young people. The advantage of the VB is that it sends out a strong voice. Even if we don’t agree with their despicable rhetoric. The classical parties create expectations and don’t fulfil them. That’s why the parties do not come across as believable. With all the consequences that follow! The parties are also lacking a clear profile. The people have to know clearly who defends what, and on who they can really count.
The "Initiative for another politics" will distribute a national leaflet the first of May. What’s the first thing on the agenda?
It’s an important step to distribute a common leaflet across the whole of the country. People with different backgrounds, trade union activists, political activists, working together for a political alternative. In autumn, there will be a national gathering to decide what to do.
How we will give shape to our call for a political alternative. I can’t give a direct answer right now, but I find the following point important. If there will be a new party, then the workers will have to decide it’s programme. Let us hope we will be ready for the Parliamentary elections of 2007.
Which role do you think LSP [CWI] activists can play in this new initiative?
The LSP activists show enormous enthusiasm and devotion within the worker’s movement. It’s good and very important that the LSP has clearly stated the necessity of a new workers’ party. I have a lot of respect for your activists, as for all left activists by the way. A new initiative will have to count on a lot of good activists to deepen certain points on the programme, and to help to carry out and spread them. In my opinion all left activists without exception will play an important role.
A final word?
I hope that the first of May, this year, will usher in a new spring, and a new sound. A new sound which expresses the solidarity amongst all workers wherever they live. Another policy I’m talking about means that everyone on the left, without renouncing their own identity, will put aside the interests of their own group, and gather together with those who want another politics, in solidarity around a common programme of creating another politics, to help effectively combat the extreme right.