Belgium: Strike wave for higher wages

Workers demand higher wages to off set rising energy and food prices.

Belgium is experiencing a strike wave with workers demanding higher wages to off set rising energy and food prices and to combat the slide in living standards many people are suffering.

The first strike took place at the Syncreon plant. Syncreon is one of seven subcontractors producing for the Ford car factory in Genk. The main demand of the strikers was for a wage increase of € 1 an hour ( £0.75). Because of just-in-time production, the strike had an immediate effect on the supply of parts to the Ford factory. As production at Ford was being affected, the workforces of other subcontractors also took strike action demanding the same wage increase. In some of the cases, it took only a few hours of strike action before bosses gave in to the demands of the workers. Wage increases of around 4% were given, in some cases combined with bonuses.

The concessions made to the workers in the subcontracting sector immediately raised the confidence of the Ford workers. At the Ford plant, a strike was begun by workers on temporary contracts. There are 900 workers on temporary contracts at Ford, most of whom have been employed for a number of years and should be eligible for permanent contracts. The demands for a € 1 an hour wage increase was taken up. However, the main demand of the strikers was for their temporary contracts to be converted into permanent contracts and a slowing down of the production. There had been action before by the workforce demanding slower production.

Because of the higher demand for the make of car that are made in Ford Genk, the plant has been producing an extra 100 cars a day since April. This is without compensation for the workforce. One of the workers commented that “we don’t even have time to have a sip of water”.

Since April last year, because of the high demand for the car models made in Ford Genk, i.e. the employer did not concede a wage rise but the workers won two bonuses of about € 1,000 (£ 750) each and the promise that 210 workers on temporary contracts would get permanent employment from 2009. A 3% decline in work pressure was agreed as well.

The news of this victory inspired workers in other sectors to take strike action or threaten strike action. The leader of the Flemish employers’ organisation spoke about an “outbreak of hysteria about buying power” fuelled by rising prices and the “commentary about the strikes in the media”. Bosses, the media and politicians went on the offensive against striking workers but could not prevent other workers getting infected by the mood to take action. In the Opel car factory in Antwerp, the unions have called negotiations with the employer and are demanding wage bonuses (exempt from taxes) to prevent workers taking action on their own initiative.

Union leaders are attempting to hold back the struggle

This is an extremely important movement. However, its effects are limited by the attempts of the union leaders to hold the movement back. The trade union leadership had to officially support and acknowledge the strikes as we are in the run up to social elections (where the different trade unions compete to have their candidates elected to the legally constituted workplace health and safety committees and workplace councils) and to deny support to the strikes would lead to a loss of votes and members or members going over to another trade union federation. Another reason for the trade union leaders to recognise the strikes was that they had no other choice if they wanted to be able to control the movement. The trade union leaders made it immediately clear they had no intention of organising a more generalised struggle for higher wages. They pointed to the existing system of automatic wage increases in line with inflation, i.e. saying that this, referred to in Belgiun as “the index”, would automatically lead to wage increases in the next 12 months. They repeated an argument of the employers, saying that demanding extra wage increases would endanger the competitiveness of Belgian car manufacturing.

However the system of automatic wage rises (a variation of a sliding scale of wages) has been completely hollowed out by previous governments as the basic basket of goods by which the cost of living is calculated does not include petrol, tobacco or alcohol anymore. The cost of housing is included but it is taken as only 7% of a household budget. An average family will spend 25 to 30 % of their weekly income on housing.

Nevertheless, the bosses have gone on the offensive against “the index” and have called for the next national wage agreements to accept “all-in agreements”, setting an absolute maximum for wage increases independent of inflation. These kinds of agreements already exist in some sectors but the employers’ federations want them to be generalised practice throughout the economy.

Political effects

At first, the employers and politicians tried to deny that there had been a loss of buying power, they spoke of “the feeling” that living standards have gone down. Now they are having to accept that workers are prepared to struggle over the issue and are proposing a tax exemption for people on low wages. This is an attempt to avert a movement but will also create its own problems for the state in the form of a decline in the income from taxes. Plans are already under way to cut funding for healthcare and unemployment benefits.

The strike wave diverted attention away from the debate around the national question. The Christian Democrats, seen as the main party demanding more autonomy for the regions, changed tack and suddenly started talking about the need for social policies. The Christian Democrats stated that they are not a one-issue party and the regions need more autonomy so that they could be able to distribute more wealth to the inhabitants. They even said that solidarity is important and do not want to break it.

A study by Flemish scientists proved the electoral volatility by showing that at the last elections 25% of the Flemish electorate had voted for another party than in the previous elections. The study stated that the new right-wing populist list, around the anti-establishment figure of Dedecker, a former coach of the national judo team, has a potential to poll 21% in future elections. This is a perspective that threatens Vlaams Belang as they would, electorally, be the biggest losers from such a development. But Vlaams Belang are not the only ones who should be worried; a right-wing populist who accuses the traditional parties and politicians of corruption and being power hungry could make inroads in their popularity too.

The second revealing element of this study is that the desire for more autonomy for Flanders ranked only 15th amongst the reasons why voters decided to vote for another party. It shows that social and economic issues, especially the question of protecting living standards, are the most important for ordinary workers. The hike in energy prices will mean an extra cost of € 300 a year for the average family. Household debt stands at an all-time high. Credit card debts have risen by 75% over the last 5 years. Every day, people find servicing their debt more difficult. One person in 20 in Flanders is not able to pay back in time. In the Walloon and Brussels this grows to 1 in 10.

This illustrates the enormous potential for class struggle to develop further as it shows the possibility that exists for the growth of a genuine working class party. LSP/MAS is calling for offensive trade union action to restore the index-mechanism and for a plan of action to be drawn up from the shop floors and workplaces. However the struggle to protect and restore living standards cannot be separated from the struggle to build a new workers’ party, uniting workers in the political struggle.

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January 2008