100,000s protest for a living wage and affordable prices
There still is some debate on the exact numbers on the demonstrations during the national week of action organised by the main trade union federations in Belgium from 9 to 12 June demanding the defence of workers’ purchasing power. The media, however, did stop its attempts to underestimate the turnout. The politicians, the media and even the bosses no longer dare to question if the movement has wide support. It even has more support than expected by the trade union leaders.
The national chairman of the ACV-CSC (Christian trade union federation), Luc Cortebeeck, recognised in the daily paper, De Morgen: “There were more people than expected” on the protests. A lot more: three to five times. The figures go from 80,000 to 100,000.
First day: 32,500 on the streets of Liège and Antwerp
The first demonstrations, on 9 June, took place in Liège and Antwerp. It was clear that these mobilisations would set the tone for the rest of the week. A week before the demo, the trade union leadership at General Motors, in Antwerp, still said that only the shop stewards would participate. But finally the whole factory shut down. The same happened in several other factories where the preparedness to participate in the actions was huge. Result: over 7,500 present.
In Liège, there even were 25,000. While the spontaneous strike actions from January onwards were mainly concentrated in the Flemish area, this demonstration showed that the issue of purchasing power can also mobilise strongly in the Walloon area. As soon as the appeal for regional actions was launched, the traditions of struggle amongst the Walloon workers revived.
If the province of Liège could mobilise 25,000, the workers of the province of Hainaut had to prove that they were able to mobilise a similar amount. In Mons, some 20,000 came on the streets. What a difference with Gent, where only 2,500 participated in a “Foodstock” event at 7 pm in the evening. Those regions that went for a classic “old fashioned” combination of strikes and demonstrations mobilised far more people than those regions with “new” and “easy” mobilisations, like in the provinces of Eastern Flanders (Gent) and Western Flanders with its bicycle tours and actions at supermarkets in Bruges and Kortrijk (with each time some 500 present). Those Kortrijk workers who went to the 20,000 strong demonstration in nearby Mons, on 10 June, will have felt let down when 500 turned up at a supermarket near Kortrijk the day after. “We’re not in the unions to have parties or participate in tourism, but to defend our jobs and wages”, was a general feeling amongst many at this action.
In Limburg, some 4,000 participated on the demonstration in Hasselt. This included workers from factories that had been on strike in January for wage demands. Lear Corporations, a subcontractor of Ford in Genk, went on strike. In Namur province, 4,500 went on the streets. In Luxemburg province, in Arlon city, one of the biggest demonstrations since 1977 took place, with 3,000 attending. The final day of action took place in Brussels. The unions had to revise their objective of 1,000 turning out from each of the three main union federations. Despite terrible weather and rain, some 10,000 people were on the streets, with many protesters sheltering in local pubs to escape bad weather.
Youth and women
All demonstrations had a good number of young people present. Many of these young workers had just been elected as shop stewards during the social elections of May (shop stewards in the private sector are elected every 4 years). These young workers saw the demonstrations as a logical next step in their union involvement. Many had not been on demonstrations before. Another positive feature was the presence of many women.
There were no illusions amongst the demonstrators in the “political partners” of the big union federations. Members of the ACV/CSC union federation had no illusions in the new participation of the Christian democracy in government, and there was no enthusiasm by members of the ABVV/FGTB in the social democracy. Even SP.a-Rood, the alternative left wing of the Flemish social-democracy, failed to mark its presence on the demonstrations. We did not see a single leaflet from this party.
The bosses’ federations have received a clear message from the demonstrations. They have learned their lesson and no longer talk about “hysteria” around the issue of working people’s purchasing power. Instead, the bosses try to downplay the impact of rising prices. There was even was a study comparing our eating habits today with those at the beginning of the 19th century. To little surprise, the study showed that workers in the 19th century had to use a bigger proportion of their income for food. We presume the authors of the study will not propose to send our children back into the mines to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week? Another finding, according to a study, is that we spend, “on average”, more on holidays and travel than in 1983. But these studies should compare the prices of hotels and flights.
Socialists on the demonstrations
LSP/MAS, the Belgian section of the CWI, was on all demonstrations, except in Arlon. We sold hundreds of copies of our paper. If the weather had not been so poor in Brussels, we could easily have sold even many more.
We distributed a leaflet that got a positive response. The leaflet explained our opposition to the “free” market. We explained our support for the protest movement and proposed that the rank and file should be involved in decision making around such mass actions and in developing a plan of action. We proposed a number of demands, including an increase of all wages by, at least, 1 euro an hour, a real indexation of all wages (adapting wages to inflation), abolishing VAT on products for basic needs and a massive plan to build public housing etc. To finance these demands, we proposed a tax on big business and a hard attitude against fiscal fraud by the rich. Finally, we raised the necessity of not letting the private sector control the key sectors of the economy and we called for nationalisation of the major areas of industry and banking, under workers’ control and management.
The week of action was a huge success and could mean the start of building a strong grassroots opposition. It would be a step forward if the workplace trade union delegations continue pressure, by putting up motions demanding a national day of action after the summer holidays. This day of action should include a strike-appeal. Such a campaign would allow the continuation of the mobilisation in the factories, based on the enthusiasm of the first week of action.
Finally, the discussion on political representation will remain on the agenda. The Belgian workers’ movement does not have a powerful and mass political arm. This issue came up after a movement against attacks on pensions in 2005. Similarily, today, we have no party in parliament taking up trade union demands. We need a party that defends these demands and that could have an impact before and during the action week. This could popularise the protest actions amongst a broader layer of the population and also respond to the arguments of the bosses and their friends in the media. The trade union leadership should break all of its links with its “preferential partners” (social democratic ABVV/FGTB and Christian democratic ACV/CSC). That could be the first step towards building a real workers’ party.