Belgium: Spontaneous strike wave pushes union leaders into calling action over wages

Government and bosses fear all-out battle with working class

For months, both Belgian bosses and the Belgian government, often side by side with the union leaders, have been bystanders, while one workplace after another has gone on strike, mostly over wages. It started with action in about 80 private companies, followed by the Flemish civil servants, then the railways, the non-profit sector including hospitals and elderly homes, again some private companies and now the municipal workers are also threatening to go on strike. Under such pressure the unions have been forced to call an action week from June 9th to June 13th.

Already on 15 December, last year, the unions organised a national demonstration in defence of workers’ purchasing power, complaining that the politicians were exclusively discussing institutional reforms while the population was growing poorer day by day due to inflation. This was followed in January by a series of spontaneous strikes – the bosses and the politicians call them "wild" strikes – starting at some subcontractors of the Genk Ford factory around the demand of a one euro an hour wage increase, up from the then 11 euros. Ford is a special case. In 2004, the factory sacked 3,000 of its workers, but since then business has developed well and over half of those sacked were later re-employed although on worse contracts. The sale of the S-Max model, produced in Genk, is well above expectations. This has strengthened confidence amongst the workers, including those working for subcontractors. Because of ‘just in time’ production, the management of Ford pressurised the subcontractors to make concessions. This, in turn, led to more strikes in other subcontracting firms and finally also at Ford. In this particular case, it was not over wage increases but concerned slowing down of production.

The victories in and around Ford affected other workers, especially those working in sectors, such as metal and building, where so-called "all-in" wage agreements limit the impact of price increases on the system of automatic, price linked, wage increases,. In the end, workers in about 80 companies gained wage increases either through action or even through the threat of action. Not since the 1970s has there been a similar spontaneous movement on such a wide scale. The movement was mainly concentrated in the traditionally less industrially combative northern, Flemish area, of Belgium. This can be explained by steady economic growth and the nearly full employment, combined with the ideological offensive from Flemish nationalist politicians describing Flemish workers as "hard-working". Of course, these politicians did not want those hard-working Flemish workers to demand higher wages; their aim was to oppose them to the "lazy" workers in the south, but their propaganda backfired on them. Although some companies in the Walloon area also went on strike, in general, there is less confidence in this region, mainly because of the still very high level of unemployment.

In March, the movement spread to the Flemish public servants. They won wage increases, largely below their initial demands, but, nevertheless, it was triple what the minister originally budgeted for. Since then, strikes erupted in hospitals, prisons, police, the Walloon public bus company etc. These are mostly over wages, and sometimes over workload and security. In the case of the prison guards, the strike protested against the overpopulation of prisons.

Big bonuses for bosses

Originally the bosses claimed those actions "by a minority" was stimulated by a "mistaken sentiment" of rising prices. "Statistics", they said, "illustrate the opposite, prices of fuel, housing and food might go up, but this is largely compensated by others going down". They had to change their argument to warning against the upward spiral of increasing wages stimulating even more price increases. But this too had only a minor impact, especially since it was revealed that shareholders holders got extra payments last year. These bonuses correspond to half of all profits made. One year before, only one third of profits were handed out as dividends. It was widely understood that shareholders, realizing a crisis was underway, took the money and ran. At the same time, even some pro-capitalist commentators declared "no sympathy for the bosses", because it was "their greed that led to the strikes".

The strike that will probably have been noted most internationally was the railway strike on 20 May: although bosses, politicians, press, and also the misnamed "league of train, tram and bus passengers", were hysterical over the "hostage-taking" of passengers, the strike was solid – for first such strike in decades. The Liberals argue in favour of the introduction of a minimum service, but it seems very unlikely they will succeed at this stage to push it through. The strike was over a complete package, including pay, working hours, etc. It took place after a scandalous agreement was rejected unanimously by the Christian (ACV/CSC) union and by 95% of the socialist (ABVV/FGTB) union. If negotiations do not lead to a seriously improved agreement, railway unions are threatening repeated one day strikes, each week.

In early May, elections took place in private companies to elect workers’ representatives. It is always difficult to make general conclusions about the outcome, because it differs enormously from sector to sector and company to company. One thing is clear however; in general those union delegations or those shop stewards who led struggles and are considered combative, got excellent results. This was also the case for some of the LSP/MAS members standing in these elections. In Brussels University, the socialist union delegation, including LSP/MAS members, one of whom is a convenor, won a staggering 65.8% of the vote. In chemical plants in Antwerp, mainly in the socialist, but also in the Christian union, LSP/MAS members won significant votes. This was also the case for some younger activists standing for the first time.

Under pressure, the union leaders had to call for a week of action in June. Each day, some activity will be organized in a number of areas, in total covering all of Belgium. Some sectors and areas are mobilising for this action while others lag behind. In Antwerp and Liège, a real mobilization seems underway, including a public meeting preparing for a demo. In Brussels, the unions will try to limit the mobilization to 1,000 each one. In Gent, the unions organize a "foodstock" festival, a play of words on ‘Woodstock’. Nevertheless, this week of action creates an opening, which workers will seize on. Apparently, neither the bosses nor the government and the national trade union leaders feel comfortable with it. If you look at the tone from even the most right wing bosses, you notice cautiousness. Later this year, the bi-annual wage negotiations are scheduled and the unions already announced they are going for an increase in total wages, including social contribution. The action week is helping to build up pressure.

Government and bosses fear all-out battle with workers

Neither the government, nor the bosses, are in favour of an all-out attack on workers’ wages and conditions before the June 2009 elections. They hope to contain workers’ demands with the help of the union officials and to reach an agreement on institutional reform, so they can make the already planned European and regional elections next year coincide with new federal elections. They hope that with a good result, from their point of view, they can then form a stable federal government. They want this to apply long overdue measures in the following four years, as they regard Belgium as lagging behind competitors in neighbouring countries.

Whether the bosses and their political supporters will be able to stick to this scenario will mainly depend on the union leaders. If the rank and file cannot be contained, the government could fall. The current government is riddled with divisions, including over institutional reform. So the administration could collapse, without it having to officially fall as the result of a social movement. The formation of a ‘technical transitional government’ up to the June 2009 election is possible.

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May 2008