Belgium: 50,000 join ETUC Brussels demonstration

Protesters’ radical mood

According to the organisers, over 50,000 protesters from 21 countries participated in the European demonstration in Brussels last Friday. This was well over the expected 40,000, in spite of the rather abstract character of these demonstrations. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) leaders make more or less correct analyses of the situation that faces workers but unfortunately do not follow through with clear calls for action. The European Union leaders based in Brussels, on the other hand, are getting used to such mobilisations. They consider them to be unavoidable nuisances which do not really endanger their neo-liberal agenda. They could prove to be mistaken. The turnout, the obvious openness to more radical demands than the official ones and the nervous atmosphere at the demo reflect pressure from below for more decisive action.

“Our message is simple”, said Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation: “Austerity is not working … While EU leaders congratulate themselves that the Euro crisis is over, we say that the crisis of unemployment and poverty has yet to be tackled. … In 18 out of 28 EU countries real wages have fallen. In Greece they have gone down by almost a quarter – and that does not take into account increases in direct taxation! Wages have gone down, when adjusted for inflation, not only in Spain, Portugal and Hungary but also in the UK and the Netherlands. Over 26 million Europeans do not work at all. There are 10 million more unemployed than in 2008. The situation for young people is even worse. 7.5 million young Europeans are neither in work, education or training. Many of the best educated and most enterprising are simply abandoning their home country to look for work elsewhere”.

What is the ETUC proposing?

“It is important for the EU leaders to realise that austerity alone will not cure our economic woes – on the contrary high unemployment and falling wages reduce spending, and therefore cut demand for goods and services”. But the ETUC leaves the door open for more austerity when one of its representatives can say: “The fact that the US invested in growth as well as limiting government spending in some areas explains why economic growth and job creation is higher in the US”. Clearly, the ETUC leaders need to have things clarified for them by their colleagues abroad about the unemployment levels and social destruction wreaked in the US.

“There is a need for investment in infrastructure, education and training, and research and development for new industries” they continue. The ETUC argues in favour of a recovery plan of 2% of Europe’s GDP being invested over 10 years to achieve sustainable growth and real jobs.

The ETUC calls this a new path for Europe. How this would be obtained and, if it were, how, on a capitalist basis, this would eradicate poverty and unemployment, is not explained by them. The perspective ETUC is offering to the unemployed is yet another 10 years of misery. This lags far behind what we heard being demanded during the demo, let alone what would be necessary to really tackle unemployment and poverty.

Workers’ discontents

German demonstrators were arguing for a legal minimum wage and a wealth tax. Dutch cleaners were arguing for in-sourcing as opposed to out-sourcing. Protesters from Lithuania complained that strikes for wage increases are forbidden there. French CGT activists were complaining about the so-called ‘Responsibility Pact’ between their government and the bosses which make them pay for the present crisis of the system. The new path for Europe that they need is definitely different from that of the ETUC and they do not see the social democrats (like the Socialist Party in France) as an ally.

Although far from sufficient, the Belgian unions’ demands against unemployment and job insecurity, against social dumping, increasing poverty and inequality and against deregulation offered at least a more concrete focus for mobilisation. Nevertheless their mobilisation was poorly organized. It was mostly aimed at shop stewards who were offered the possibility of leaving work but without an official strike call for their co-workers. Some of them said they had to snatch leaflets from the hands of their union officials who were not bothering to mobilise, thinking their members would not be interested anyway. Mostly, the mobilisation was used by the ETUC leadership to present its rather weak demands to the EU leaders in the run up to the European elections. It was a ‘one off’, without the announcement of any further initiatives, let alone a real action plan to force their very limited demands to be heard.


With a bold appeal, the turnout could have easily been double or treble what it was. Many shop stewards will have stayed at home or just gone to work, partly because of a lack of information and partly because they do not want their co-workers to see that the shop stewards are again taking a day off while other workers are not invited to do so. It is also partly because they are fed up with demonstrations without any follow-up.

However, as a consequence of the increased aggression and attacks by the bosses on wages, retirement rights and work contracts some sections of workers did seize the opportunity to express their opposition and show their determination, trying to push the TU leaders into proposing more determined action.

There were delegations from many workplaces that are threatened with closure or involved in ‘restructuring’, including workers from northern France, and others involved in struggles over wages and early-retirement.

Most prominent were the 1,500 dockworkers from Antwerp, Gent and Zeebrugge. They immediately took the head of the demo and ended up in a physical confrontation with the police. Scandalously, Bernadette Ségol from the ETUC distanced herself from them. “I hope the violence of a tiny minority does not detract from the serious and peaceful message of the overwhelming majority”. Not a word about the attack of the European Commission on the Belgian law which insists that only officially recognised dockworkers are entitled to work, including in the logistics departments, in the ports. Not a word from them about the European Commission in this way openly supporting one of the most aggressive bosses in Belgium.

If Ségol, the ETUC and the Belgian trade union federations took a firmer position against privatising and liberalising, if they would coordinate national and European wide campaigns instead of letting workers from different countries and different sectors be taken on separately, if they would appeal for solidarity and offer a perspective of winning, the dockworkers would not feel forced to resort to violence, as they did in 2006 in Strasburg, to defend their jobs and working conditions. At that time they succeeded in stopping the European guidelines being implemented. Because of people like Ségol, many of them draw the unfortunate conclusion that this is the only way they will stop the EU from destroying their jobs, conditions and income.

Ségol, instead of apologising, as she did, to the public and the police, she should apologise to the dockworkers for her and the ETUC’s lack of a fighting lead, the weakness of the ETUC proposals and the absence of a real action programme that offers a strategy to win on the basis of coordinated struggle and solidarity in action.

Fight to defend workers’ rights

The LSP/PSL (CWI in Belgium), believes the leaders of the ETUC and of the Belgian unions should take a more combative stand in defending workers’ rights. This should include campaigning against privatisation and liberalisation, against wage freezes and for real increases in pay, for real jobs and a reduction of working hours without loss of pay, for decent minimum wages and in defence of public services.

We agree with the unions that Europe should be different and better, however we do not think this capitalist Europe can simply be reformed into a ‘social Europe’. Workers need a different political perspective and their own independent parties based on a programme that rejects the European guidelines, demands the cancellation of public debt and puts forward the necessity of nationalising the key sectors of the economy under workers’ control and management. Combined with international solidarity and coordinated struggle, this could lay the basis for a really ‘different and better’ Europe, a socialist federation of European states.

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April 2014