A strike corresponding to the level of anger over austerity programme
Rail infrastructure was completely paralysed. Only one out of five buses was on the roads. The ports of Antwerp, Ghent and Zeebrugge came to a halt, as did the airport in Charleroi and all major steel, metal and car industries, including subcontractors. With the exception of security teams, nobody worked in the major chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Hundreds if not thousands of picket lines were set up. This was the way the Belgian working class answered the smears, lies, threats and intimidations poured out massively by the media, the bosses and the politicians over the past weeks in the run up to the general strike on 30 January.
Historic record in length of government formation
This general strike took place less than two months after a new federal government was formed under the leadership of the francophone Socialist Party leader, Elio Di Rupo. Di Rupo is the first prime minister from an immigrant background, the first to be openly gay, the first francophone prime minister since 1979 and the first ‘socialist’ prime minister since 1974. He leads a six-party coalition composed of social democrats, liberals and Christian democrats from both sides of the language border (all the main parties in Belgium are split along communal lines). It took over 540 days to form this government, an historic world record. The major reason for this long and difficult period was the necessity for structural reforms declared by the bosses and all political parties. This involves the questioning and removal of some, if not all, the major gains of the working class considered to be outdated and hindering the economy’s competitiveness.
But how to tackle this with a working class that combines a degree of organisation more characteristic of the Scandinavian countries – over 3 million workers are unionized in two major union federations from a total workforce of 4.3 million – with the explosiveness more typical of the working class in the South of Europe? Major class battles in the past taught the Belgian establishment to prefer compromise with the union leaderships over open confrontation. In this way, public debt was reduced from over 130% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the early nineties to 84% in 2007. This was done through wage restrictions, reduced social spending, privatisation, sale and lease back operations and the postponing of urgent investment in roads, school infrastructure and health care.
This policy of social retrogression through compromise however undermined the social base of the major traditional parties, including the Greens which were in and out of the government. For a number of years, different right-wing populist parties, especially in the economically stronger Flemish area in the north of Belgium, exploited the resulting discontent. In essence, they claimed the Flemish area would be better off without poorer Wallonia. They demanded sufficient economic powers for the regional government so that structural reforms which would be stopped by workers’ resistance at a federal level would be applied in the north, thus creating regional competition at the expense of social conditions everywhere. In this way, they also tapped a mood of impatience growing amongst small bosses and subcontractors from multinationals mainly based in the north.
With the onset of the crisis in 2008, the federal and regional governments were forced to intervene and save the heavily indebted and overstretched banking sector at a level of 10% of GDP with another 30% to guarantee bad banking debts. Public debt rose again to 100% of GDP, pushing up real interest rates to a level unseen for a whole epoch. This was seized on by the establishment to increase pressure on the model of compromise. The Flemish nationalists, the biggest party in the northern area since the last elections and rising in the polls, were manoeuvred out of the negotiations to form a government; a limited state reform was agreed and a classic tripartite government was formed to apply structural reforms but this time with the francophone Socialist Party in the driving seat. Although this party has been in government without interruption since 1988, it had always succeeded in presenting itself as the opposition in government, pretending to soften the attacks carried through under pressure of the more right-wing Flemish coalition partners. But this time, the francophone Socialist Party is in charge of what is the biggest austerity plan in Belgian history.
Most probably, the establishment hoped the long and difficult period of government formation and the ‘socialist’ prime minister would help to temper the reaction of the unions. But even before the government was formally approved in parliament, the union leaderships, not yet fully aware of the implications of the change in policy, organised in mid-November a joint national meeting in Brussels with the aim of strengthening their position for the negotiations and the compromises they thought would follow. They agreed amongst themselves to limit the number of participants, but the ranks of the unions seized on this initiative and appeared in much bigger numbers, inflating the meeting to 6.000 participants! On top of this, steel producer Arcelor Mittal announced at the worst possible moment for the new government the closure of the warm phase of its production in Liège in the Walloon area, leading to massive demonstrations and anger, with the metal unions demanding the nationalisation of the plant.
And then the Flemish Liberal Party, under pressure from the right-wing Flemish nationalists, went to the press stating that although the government had not yet agreed to attack wage indexation, they would definitely put it on the table for discussion. This pushed the union leaderships into organising a demo on 2 December of over 80,000 in the streets of Brussels. They presented it as aiming to strengthen the position of the Socialist Party in government negotiations against its more right-wing coalition partners, but at a rank-and-file level it was considered more as a ‘warm up’ for battles to come.
On 6 December, the new government was finally installed and the austerity plan announced. It is in essence a major attack on pensions for public servants and imposing stricter conditions for early retirement in all sectors, increasing the number of years service required for entitlement to early retirement from 35 to 40; an attack on unemployment benefits, stricter follow up and control of willingness to accept a job, a reduction of unemployment benefits and far stricter conditions for school leavers to be entitled to benefits; a severe cut in health expenses; a cut in the budgets of regional and local authorities, etc. There are some measures aimed at fighting tax fraud and reducing some of the tax advantages for companies, but all of them are very vague, while the measures attacking working families are concrete and immediate. There is also a contribution included from the main electricity company and from the banks, but both will be presenting the bill to their customers.
Part of these measures will be imposed by special decree, officially because of parliamentary calendar problems. The level of the attack and the fact that it was announced without detailed negotiations with the ‘social partners’ inflamed the unions, who delivered notice of a strike for 30 January and also announced they would support other action during the weeks running up to that date. The railway unions immediately announced a strike to take place within four days (22 December), which was successful, and they were followed by the other public-sector unions. They did this because railway workers, mainly organised at rank and file level across the different unions, have been involved in fighting partial privatisation, and have been followed only belatedly by the union officials who have tended to lose control. Many railway workers were critical of the short notice and would have preferred a better organized strike, but nevertheless seized the opportunity, as did the bus drivers. Other public service workers, in sectors which demand more organisation to get prepared, like education and hospitals, were even more critical about the timing. For the union federations it represented also an opportunity to force the government into negotiations with the aim of calling the strike on 30 January.
Under pressure from all sides
In the weeks following the December strikes, silence set in. What was happening? Were negotiations taking place? Was the government considering changes to some minor details which would than be used to remove the general strike from the agenda? This seemed very unlikely because the European Commission had already made clear the government would have to cut even more at its budget review planned for February. At a meeting on 10 January of the socialist trade union in Antwerp attended by over 300 shop stewards, the leadership announced that the strike was still on, but that since the public-services strike, the government and the bosses seemed to have come to their senses and were prepared to negotiate. So the federal council of the unions would decide on 26 January whether the strike would take place.
Shop stewards from the metals sector, different public services, chemical industry and construction, twenty in total, all intervened, mainly on two issues. One explained how he and his delegation build a strong position in his metal factory, involving many young workers. His workmates knew he was at this meeting. They would be a few hundred workers the next morning waiting for him to announce clearly the strike was on, in order to start organising. But with this message from the leadership, he said, he would consider calling in sick next morning. Another argued we should be preparing to organise the blocking of special employment zones of smaller companies where workers are less unionised instead of discussing minor changes. Many, if not nearly all who spoke, questioned and criticised the union leader over his membership of the social-democratic Socialist Party: “What are you still doing there?” All present felt this meeting raised the stakes in favour of striking and most of those present believed the government would not concede anything anyway.
The government did not offer concessions, neither did the bosses, but what they did do was try to undermine the strike in every possible way. They seized on the representation of the union in the leading bodies of the socialist parties to accuse them of having co-written the government agreement. They pretended the negotiations were still on and that actually they were within centimetres of an agreement. They claimed the unions called the strike only because of the social elections for workers’ representatives in companies and organizations, which are due in April and May. They also seized on a letter from a student, who later appeared to be a leading member of the Liberal party youth, to claim the unions were defending only their older members and did not care for young people. It must have passed through their mind to utilize concessions made by the unions on contract flexibility at the expense of young workers. They seized on an internet poll where only 21% of those interviewed declared in favour of the strike with 55% against. They threatened bailiffs and police intervention to protect the ‘right to work’, etc. One boss went even so far as to promise an illegal bonus for those who would work on the day of the general strike! He had to withdraw and actually, as a consequence, the unions forced him to pay a bonus for every worker, striker and non striker!
You could not open a paper or a magazine, watch or listen to television and radio without witnessing attacks on the strike for being irresponsible, organised by archaic outdated unions, under pressure from a radical minority, and threatening to attract the attention of the international financial markets to the country. Ratings agency Fitch reduced its rating for Belgium only two days before the strike. It was claimed the strike was extremely harmful because it took place on the same day of yet another European summit. It took courage to say you supported the strike. Even if the poll quoted above is very doubtful and a similar poll was removed from the main news website once those in favour of the strike outnumbered those against, to have 21% in favour and 23% neutral despite the barrage of hostile publicity is considerable. If this was correct, it would mean that 44% of the population is not represented in parliament because all MPs stand for these cuts or worse! And this is just at the beginning, when none of the measures can actually be felt yet. This austerity plan is worth €11.3 bn., it is expected to be increased by €3bn. in February and later this year another budget review will take place. In 2013, the government wants to cut or tax another €13bn and in the following two years another €.25 bn. If there is already 21% in favour of a general strike now, how many will there be once the full impact of these measures is felt?
An avalanche of cuts
The campaign against the strike actually had the opposite effect. It polarised society and increased also the preparedness to fight. Certainly, some workers must have thought, “Let’s pay now if that can solve the problem”. But as the Linkse Socialistische Partij/Parti Socialiste de Lutte (LSP/PSL) – the CWI in Belgium – warned, we are underneath an avalanche of cuts which we had better stop before it hits us. If we give in to blackmail once, we will sink deeper and deeper and our opponents will come back for more. That is also how a lot of strikers felt.
On the day of the strike, the railways were paralyzed as always, but the picket lines were much better attended than before. It has been years since a strike in the railways took on more than just an organised guerrilla struggle by a minority occupying some crucial points such as the control towers. This might seem effective, but in the long term tends to reduce most workers to passive bystanders. For a few years now, railway workers and some crucial activists, including from the LSP, have been consciously reviving the idea of mass pickets and with it the number of activists has grown steadily.
There are still workplaces where strikers just stay home, some of them very effectively, but the point is workers just don’t know whether that will be successful. Workers become dependent on the boss to tell you how effective or otherwise the strike has been. In some workplaces, it is a question of completely rebuilding this tradition which is crucial to discuss the issues, convince those who are less confident and create confidence between activists from the different unions so that workers do not appear divided in front of the bosses. It is also an opportunity to meet new, future militants and renew the trade union delegation. The unions organised hotlines and flying pickets, partly to support weaker workplaces, but also to be able to inform those who were on the picket lines about the successes or misfortunes elsewhere. Political activists visited picket lines, with LSP attending well over hundred pickets, interviewing strikers and discussing the strategy, the tactics and the demands which could win this battle. It was a two-way process. It can help popularise and develop the struggle, but it is also a way of getting young activists and those never on strike before to learn from those in struggle and hopefully prepare them for future battles.
Some of the stronger picket lines had their own tents and barbecue, sometimes caravans, put up posters, banners and timetables for picket duty. Unfortunately the unions did not always organise meetings in work time before the strike in order to pass on information and answer questions, and certainly did not vote collectively on the strike so that workers would feel totally involved in decision making. A strike called from above can, of course, be more easily called off than one voted for in a mass meeting. Also, with a few exceptions, the unions did not organise demonstrations this time. We believe that was a mistake. It offered the media an opportunity to question the success of the strike. At least in the bigger cities, demonstrations would have easily mobilised thousands. It would also have been an opportunity for those who could not attend picket lines to participate in a more active way.
The battle continues
The battle over this strike continues in the media. Because all media outlets, including the so-called ‘public’ television and radio are in the hands of managers hostile to the strike, every weakness is blown out of proportion and every strength is brushed aside. In the run up to the strike, the union leaderships had given in to pressure not to block the special employment zones. In these zones, the internal regime of workplaces is often dictatorial. Unions are not allowed and representation has been stopped, even though Belgium has been condemned several times over this by the European labour court. To speak out in favour of, let alone to participate in the strike often meant the sack immediately in those companies. This is the reason union activists always want to stop those zones from functioning by blocking their entrances.
This time, the blocking of these special zones only took place in limited numbers because the union leaderships did not endorse it. LSP warned up front it meant giving up the idea of a general strike. Over 40% of workers work in local units with less than 50 employed, in many cases without any union representation, although even there probably more than one worker in three is a union member. 70% work in units with less than 200 employed, and only 18% in the 600 units with over 500 employed. Near the ports and in some areas, such as Liège, Charleroi or Ghent near the Volvo factory, they were blocked anyway. Despite their threats, the bosses only appealed five times to bailiffs and the police took a very cautious attitude. This illustrates they were well aware about the overall success of the strike and understood only to provoke the workers when they are either at work or at home, but not when they are on the streets.
Nevertheless the bosses’ organizations and the media, under whose pressure the union leaderships had given in, seized on it to declare the strike was not general. The headlines in the press read: “Strike not general” or “Unions come out of strike weakened”. The Flemish bosses’ organisation went even so far as to pretend that three quarters of workplaces were unaffected. That appears demoralizing but nearly 75% of work units employ less than 10 workers representing only 15% of the total workforce! Even though the trains and buses were on strike, traffic flowed well all day. In some industrial zones it looked like a Sunday! The bosses pretended that was because a lot of people worked from home; this was not true for truckers and construction workers though! Other examples given to try to undermine the strike included the delivery of mail. However the postal service today is totally different from what it used to be. More than half of its workforce is no longer composed of public servants but contract and casual workers. Management is extremely repressive and the union leaderships in the postal services are legendary in accepting all attacks and have lost any credibility amongst workers.
The establishment also seized on the functioning of hospitals and schools to try to illustrate their propaganda. In hospitals, a minimum service is legally required. In theory, the union does not have to help out, in which case the hospital directors have to ask for a court injunction to arrange staff cover. Most union delegations however prefer not to let it go that far and arrange the minimum service through negotiations. When they realize that the bosses seize on this to undermine the strike, unions might change their attitude. It will be something LSP members in their unions and delegations will certainly raise. Teachers prefer not to go in conflict with their colleagues in front of the pupils. Schools also did everything they could to assure care. But again, this is seized on by the bosses to undermine the strike. In one case, the LSP organized 30 school students to strengthen the picket line after they discussed with their teachers. However when they turned up at the picket line, one of the teachers, the shop steward, sent them away, we assume because she was afraid of being accused of mobilising the students. Our group did not argue and decided to occupy the space in front of the school, chanting and waving with only five teachers standing idle at the entrance.
The success of the strike often depended on the presence of a few combative individuals who have been organising and building trade unions delegations, groups of militants and forging unity amongst the different union federations. LSP members are part of this layer, some of them with a reputation far beyond their own workplace: in the chemical industry in Antwerp and Ghent, in the railways in Antwerp, Brussels and nationally, at the universities in Brussels, Leuven, Antwerp and Ghent, in secondary education in West-Flanders and Antwerp, in the health sector in Leuven and Brussels, and in the postal service in Bruges and Brussels. In our ranks, we have a layer of young workers in metal works, the building and chemical industries, social workers and others. They are often quickly spotted by union activists because of their political understanding and their serious approach, and this opens up new fields of intervention for us. We have union representatives in both major union federations, socialist and Christian, and even in some independent unions.
Our interventions on the picket lines are not only about organising pickets and discussing union strategy and tactics. The unions elaborated an alternative budget, in essence taxing the rich, fighting tax fraud and putting an end to all kind of tax concessions to the bosses. We agree with those measures. But who will carry them out? The social-democratic misnamed Parti Socialiste (PSB) and its Flemish even more right-wing sister party Socialistische Partij Anders (SP-A)? Nobody believes that anymore, not even those who argue not to bring the government down out of fear for the Flemish nationalist N-VA. The union leaderships should not only break links with social and Christian democrats but should also initiate the creation of a real workers’ party, organising everyone who wants to resist the austerity measures aimed at making us pay for the crisis provoked by the greed of bankers and other speculators. We can and will fight at company level, in industrial sectors and even across all sectors, but we also urgently need a political instrument to put forward fighting policies in the political field.
Many on the picket lines would agree with this and also with our criticism that just calling for tax rises on the rich, without the threat of nationalisation under workers’ control, could simply lead to a capital flight, which would then be used by the bosses to accuse workers of irresponsible behaviour. Whether they consider this realistic is an open question. Some on the picket lines clearly call for another society, but how is that to be achieved? Others stated that parties like LSP would grow in the next period, but as a kind of prophecy, not necessarily as active engagement. Some workers are clearly open to a real socialist alternative; LSP members sold 150 papers on picket lines, but more workers than that agree with the necessity of something broader. In the past LSP was practically on its own promoting the idea of a broader fighting workers’ party. Today more and more feel this potential. The Maoist PTB broke with its former Stalinist programme only to exchange it for a more explicitly reformist one, in the hope they will be able to reproduce what the ex-Maoist Socialist Party in the Netherlands has done. Erik de Bruyn, a former candidate for presidency of the Flemish Socialist Party, left that party and created Rood (Red) in which LSP participates. Rood aims to promote and be part of the process of creation of such a broader party.
Because of the lack of an alternative and, on the other hand, the strength and combativity of the union ranks, it looks as if this is going to be a prolonged struggle, with some defeats but also with many workers searching for an alternative. National divisions will be whipped up by the capitalists, but also by the social democrats and maybe even by some union leaders to cover up the failures of their policies. Parties will be forced to take positions. In the run up to the strike, Bart De Wever from the N-VA called for heavy repression from the police if special employment zones were blocked because, he said, some bosses approached him saying otherwise they would take things into their own hands. His party proposes a drastic cut to public transport. Whether this cuts programme will translate immediately into a loss of votes for the NV-A, as some workers in the Flemish public bus company expect, is not yet certain. But that De Wever’s party will also be tested in a period of intense class struggle is inevitable.
The pressure on the socialist trade union to break with social democracy and on the Christian trade union to break with Christian democracy will increase enormously. Our demand for a new, broader fighting workers’ party will become more and more a central aim amongst the union activists. The exact form it will take is impossible to predict now. What seem like insurmountable obstacles today will be washed away once the class struggle accelerates.
So far, no further action has been organised. The unions will definitely have to do something in the coming months if not weeks. The ETUC has announced a day of action for 29 February. It is very probable the Belgian unions will want to seize this opportunity. More cuts are going to be announced. Resistance will come in ebbs and flows. This general strike has confirmed the readiness amongst the advanced layer of union activists to struggle. This layer will certainly grow once the real impact of the measures becomes clear. The endless implementation of one austerity plan after the other might depress the movement for a while but will also remove illusions that if we pay now, the problems will be solved tomorrow. Pressure on the unions to break with their so-called ‘social partners’ will become unbearable. The creation of a new workers’ political formation will become a real possibility, especially since different variations of such formations already exist in the neighbouring countries. With its combination of a foothold in some crucial sectors of the workers’ movement and a dynamic youth wing, we believe LSP will also be able to play a role in the political and organisational rearmament of the working class. In this process we will also make sure we build out own forces simultaneously.