Belgium: May Day demos show growing anger at falling living standards

Protests against anti-immigrant Brussels mayor and neo-Nazi group

May Day demos show growing anger at falling living standards

In the week before Belgium’s May Day demonstrations, the socialist union federation, the FGTB/ABVV, released the results of a study on the growing number of “working poor”. While the traditional political parties are keeping themselves busy with the latest round of nationalist rhetoric and disputes, workers and their families want measures to improve their living standards.

The issue of “buying power” stood central in the traditional May Day demonstrations. With the upcoming elections of shop stewards (which is done nationally in the course of May, with 68,000 candidates for the Christian union and 50,000 for the socialist union) and the collision of May Day and Rerum Novarum (traditionally celebrated by the Christian workers’ movement), this year’s May Day was, to say the least, a little bit ‘special’.

While top managers get new record salaries and benefits, workers and their families have more difficulties to make ends meet. The social democratic parties are not able to offer solutions; the Socialist Party (PS) is still in government and the SP.a (Flemish social-democrats) is a weak opposition. Those workers and youth looking for political answers will find none if they look at the traditional pro-capitalist parties.

Anger in society at falling living standards is growing and was reflected on the May Day demonstrations. In the week before May Day, the union leadership finally announced there will be regional action in the first days of June over the crisis facing hard pressed working families, possibly followed by a national demonstration, after the summer period. This is a positive development, but it should be accompanied with a plan to actively mobilise and build for these protest actions.

Union leaders cite Marx

During the May Day speeches some trade union speakers emphasised the growing divisions between rich and poor. One local ABVV union leader, in Sint-Niklaas, said: “We are not going back to the 19th century, we’re already there”. He added that this explains why it is not outdated to speak of Karl Marx.

There were May Day events in Brussels and Charleroi that reflected important local issues. In Brussels, there was a protest following the brutal repression of a demonstration organised by “sans-papiers” (the so-called “illegal” immigrants) last Tuesday. The “socialist” mayor of Brussels, Thielemans, ordered the arrest of all participants on Tuesday’s demonstration. Around 130 people were taken into custody, including 5 members of the LSP/MAS, the Belgian section of the CWI. Those immigrants with no papers were taken to prisons which process immigrants to be expelled from Belgium. This brutal repression can mean the end of the democratic right of immigrants to mobilise and organise themselves. We fully oppose this and participated in the protest at this policy of the Brussels mayor and the main political parties. This repression reminds us of the repression faced by the young workers’ movement in the 19th century. Today, it is so-called “socialist” mayors and parties behind the state repression of the poor and working class!

In Charleroi, we participated in union mobilisations against the attempt by a small neo-Nazi group to have their own ‘May Day activity’ in the city. A successful protest of round 250 meant the Nazis were unable to hold their rally.

LSP/MAS, the Belgian section of the CWI, was present on May Day activities in Oostende, Brugge, Kortrijk, Gent, Aalst, Lokeren, Dendermonde, Sint-Niklaas, Antwerpen, Mechelen, Leuven, Diest, Eksel, Brussels, Liège, Verviers, Mons and Charleroi. We received a good response for our campaign for higher wages and we sold well over 600 copies of our paper.

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May 2008