Belgium: Closure of Volkswagen factory shocks country

Up to 11,000 jobs threatened

Workers of the Volkswagen plant in Brussels – one of the biggest workplaces in Belgium – are furious about the proposed a massive job-cuts and, more likely the complete closure of the factory. Despite being the second most productive factory in Volkswagen internationally, the management has been threatening and intimidating workers for years, using possible relocation as the stick to hit with. In this way they pushed through more flexibility, cuts in break-times and increased the work rate. Now, the efforts of the workers are finally re-paid… with a closure of the plant!

Volkswagen’s bosses and big share-holders on the other hand have seen their profits increase. Up to 11.000 people – if employment in subcontracted companies is included in the calculations – will be thrown on the dole and into financial hardship to meet Volkswagen’s business plan to increase profits from €1.1 billion in 2004 up to €6.5 billion in 2008!

The closure is a big set-back for employment in the region. Manufacturing and blue-collar jobs have been declining in Belgium. The announced closure of VW, which means the end of car manufacturing in Brussels after Renault closed down its plant in Vilvoorde 10 years ago, comes as a heavy blow: 6% of the workers live in Brussels where unemployment rates are 20%, up to 36% come from the Walloon area, in particular the Borinage, a region where unemployment rates are 40%!

What is needed is an action plan to push back the profiteers, to keep the plant open and save all jobs!

Trade union leadership is weak – but solidarity building

Unfortunately the trade union leadership offers nothing of this kind. Thousands of workers attended an open air general assembly of the trade unions last Wednesday, but who ever came to discuss a strategy of fighting back against the VW management, was disappointed. The trade union leadership wants to settle for a “social plan” to sweeten the bitter pill. They stated that Volkswagen will have to pay “serious money”, which shows that they didn’t even consider the idea of waging a struggle to save jobs!

This approach is even more out of place because the car sector is one of the strongest and best organised parts of the whole working class in Belgium. It is also one of the most profitable. The unions in this sector of the economy are strong but this latent power of the car workers is being neglected by the union leaders.

However, the control of the trade union leadership over its members is never complete. An international solidarity demonstration has been announced for 2 December. We know from experience that the trade union leadership sometimes tries to turn a demonstration like this into a funeral march, others however can see this as the beginning of a struggle to defeat the bosses’ plans. An appeal to all workers in all workplaces to join the Volkswagen workers to demonstrate collectively might well become a huge success.

From the point of view of the fight-back, it is also absolutely necessary to organise democratically functioning trade union meetings. Instead of letting only the trade union leaders make speeches, the workers should be involved in discussing action and strategy.

At the same time a strong feeling of solidarity with the Volkswagen workers exists across Belgium. A Solidarity Committee has produced posters with the slogan “Solidarity with the Volkswagen workers!”, these posters can now be found in every pub and in front of many, many windows in the area surrounding the plant! Also on a demonstration of health-care workers in Brussels these posters disappeared in minutes! In no time the whole demo expressed its solidarity by holding them up. This type of campaign is important to illustrate that the Volkswagen workers are not isolated – it also illustrates the potential for a struggle that goes beyond the Volkswagen plant and can include broader layers of the working class.

The neo-fascists side with the bosses.

The threatened closure of Volkswagen is a big set-back for the Belgian government. Over the recent period it liked to count the tax-breaks and deals it struck with Volkswagen – at the expense of the community – amongst its successes in keeping jobs in Belgium. Now one of its pet-subjects has turned into its opposite. Volkswagen has become an example to illustrate that giving in to the demands of big-business does not stop relocations of production.

The Belgian Prime Minister, in a first reaction, tried to hide behind nationalist rhetoric stating that Brussels had fallen victim to “national interests”, refering to Germany. Unfortunately, some of the trade union leaders have followed the Prime Minister’s example in taking a nationalistic stand.

We think this is completely wrong, in the first place because the unjustice lies not in the unequal division of the burden between the workers of different nations but in the profits that VW makes at the expense of thousands of workers and their families!

The Flemish neo-fascist party “Vlaams Belang” normally tries to avoid publicly positioning itself against the working class. Out of frustration with the capitalist parties and because of its claims to be a party for “common people”, many of its votes can come from the working class. In fact, during general strikes in 2005, support for the Vlaams-Belang went down for the first time. Now the Vlaams Belang leaves litte doubt about which side it is on: it says the closure is caused by salaries which are to high, effectively demanding wage cuts! It draws the approving conclusion that “a company is not a charity intstitution wherever its headoffice maybe, but thinks in terms of profability”. Obviously, the Vlaams-Belang wants to make a good impression on the bosses!

Initiative for a New Workers’ Party takes part in campaign

The coming days and weeks will be very important. The VW workers are confronted with mass propaganda in the capitalist media stating that multinationals are “untouchable”.

The Committee for Different Politics” – the initiative that wants to build a new massive workers party – and the Left Socialist Party/Mouvement for a Socialist Alternative (CWI in Belgium) are actively campaigning to build solidarity, including setting up a Solidarity Committee and are putting forward ideas to build up a successful struggle. So far they have had very good reactions from the workers. One could say that in struggle you find your true friends!

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