Belgium: Government’s Thatcherite attacks provoke class confrontation

The right wing coalition must go, and all austerity policies!

Opposition protesters did not wait for the new right wing federal government – the first ever coalition including the right wing Flemish nationalist NVA, the Flemish and French speaking Liberal parties and the Flemish Christian Democrats – to be formed before taking action.

School students showed the way in early September when they responded enthusiastically on the call of the Active Left Students (ALS) to come out against big cuts in education and a hike in tuition fees planned by the regional Flemish government (composed of the same right wing Flemish parties).

Since their first action on 10 September, the school students have set up action committees in their schools, organized sit-ins, a school student demonstration and a very success full strike on 22 October, each time followed by a general assembly.

In mid-September, the police organized one of their biggest demonstrations ever against attacks on pension rights. A 4,000-strong all trade union protest meeting took place in Brussels on 23 September after it became clear that the new government is considering scrapping the next inflation-linked wage rise.

But still it was a shock when the government’s full plans were released in early October. “It reads like social horror”, said the leader of the national Christian trade union movement. The attacks are too numerous to enlist. Big attacks on education, wages, pensions and a further reform of the labor market are combined with drastic cuts in health, public services, childcare and unemployment benefit. It is the same kind of extreme austerity policy introduced in the other European countries over the past years, but not all at once. “From the newly born until your grave, people are being hit,” declared the national leader of the socialist trade union federation at a local trade union meeting in Antwerp with 400 representatives. He went on to present an impressive plan of action by the unified trade union front (including the socialist, Christian and liberal trade union centres).

An article posted on on 19 September explained the background to the new government’s attacks and reported that: “The LSP/PSL is already making suggestions on what an action plan to prepare and mobilize for action could look like, with an information campaign, a concrete appeal for national or regional demos and/or meetings, the announcement of workplace general assemblies, possibly regional strikes followed by a national 24 hour or 48 hour strike and a deadline to the government etc.”

National demos and general strikes

This action plan proposed by the union front actually calls for a national demonstration supported by strike action on Thursday 6 November. The unions aim for at least 100,000 to take part. And the demonstration is a platform to prepare three regional Monday strikes on 24 November, 1 December and 8 December, culminating in a national general strike on 15 December.

Declarations have also been made that if no major concessions are undertaken by the government, struggle will continue from 5 January next year onwards, after a brief period of evaluation. Railway workers, amongst the workers who will be hardest hit, openly say “this government has to go”. This is the tone heard at almost every trade union rally and interviews.

This is not by accident. On top of the extreme austerity programme, it is understood by the most class conscious workers that this government is an extremely anti-worker. It is preparing even more drastic cuts. But to carry them out it will need to attack the right to strike and the trade union rights, in general, to try to weaken the power of the organized workforce more fundamentally. It is clear that they want to get rid of the so-called ‘Belgian model’ of consultation between government and trade unions, which has served to arrive at negotiated and more “balanced” attacks. This model has been very fruitful for the bosses in bringing down, in a gradual but systematic way, government spending on social welfare over the last two decades.

“Minimum service” attacks

But this government sees a chance in going a step further. The role of strong trade unions is being openly questioned and is combined with an attack on the right to strike by introducing a so-called “minimum service” regarding the rail system and prisons. It means that a minimum service has to be guaranteed in times of strikes by workers in these services, who have been amongst the most combative in fighting continuous attempts to destroy their contracts and working conditions.

The pressure from below is certainly playing a role in the type of action plan being proposed by the trade union leadership. There is growing impatience at grassroots level amongst railway workers, for example, who came out in a series of wild cat strikes, disrupting the country in recent weeks. But the trade union leaders, with their own role and positions under threat, talk of more action this time and even to try to get rid of this rightwing government.

So while the leader of the NVA Flemish nationalists, Bart De Wever, is loudly saying “the trade unions can go out on strike as much as they want, but that the government is going to change nothing of the fundamental course of its plan”, the trade unions leaders also plan for struggle, this time, as well. Their goal is without doubt the return of the tri-partite coalition, a kind of grand coalition composed of all three traditional “political families”, which would include again the social democrats. This coalition would not stop austerity. The previous coalition government had such a make-up and was preparing for more drastic cuts, as well. They had already announced this well before last May’s elections but such a coalition is presented by the trade union leaders as the ‘lesser evil’, and more sensitive to workers’ pressure.

‘Lesser evilism’

All general strike movements in Belgium since 1988, when struggles led to the fall of the last right wing government, were blocked from above from developing into political strikes, with the ultimate argument that any alternative government would be more right wing than the one they had. This was the case in 1993, in 2005 and in 2012. This was because since 1988 the social democrats have been part of every government coalition. This time this argument is not valid anymore. If a serious general strike movement develops, it will be much more difficult to stop the dynamic of it. While the LSP/PSL understands that this kind of lesser evil sentiment can and will be present in the movement, we also have to warn what the return of the previous coalition would mean. Largely for propaganda reasons, to undermine the PS (Francophone social democrats) opposition, Wouter Beke, leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, says that the agreement which formed the basis for the new government could also have been made with the “socialists”. However the fact that Di Rupo, the former PS prime minister, declared that “seventy per cent” of the anti-social measures of the new government are only a continuation of the former government policy, shows what the ‘alternative’ coalition would mean for working people!

Therefore it is not enough to have an action plan to bring this government down – the entire austerity policy needs to be stopped. The workers’ movement should not look at any of the pro-capitalist parties for salvation. It needs to build an alternative political weapon in the form of a party that can serve as a platform for workers and youth in action, and to discuss policies, programme, strategy and tactics.

This would answer the assumption formulated in the bourgeois newspaper, De Tijd, that there is “no realistic alternative to the cuts and other government measures which will not destroy jobs”. The paper argues that the policies of those opposing cuts would actually destroy more jobs by increasing the price of labour.

This is completely hypocritical as the government cannot guarantee their austerity policy is going to create jobs. In a debate, two senior ministers emphasized that we “live in a market economy, not in a planned economy” – implicitly saying that a planned economy would guarantee jobs! We agree, with the condition that a planned economy has to function in a democratic way. Such an economy would be able to use the wealth produced by all of us to invest in education, healthcare and in reducing the working week, without loss of pay, to end the scourge of unemployment we see today.

It is not accidental that the media have dubbed this coalition as the “kamikaze” government and, if it is brought down, the ruling class would be prepared to live with a ‘traditional’ coalition. However a government brought into office by a mass movement would live in fear of new struggles. While, for a time, pleas to support a traditional coalition to prevent a more rightwing government may get support, attacks by a coalition government, including social democrats, will lead to new radicalization and workers’ opposition.

Pvda/PTB partly fill vacuum

Part of the electoral vacuum on the left is filled by the left Pvda/PTB (Workers’ Party). It puts forward an alternative government plan on the basis of its left reformist ‘Cactus Plan’. This calls for investment in public housing, public transport, pensions and healthcare. It also demands higher wages and benefits, which would be paid for by taxing the rich, ‘efficiency gains’, going after the fiscal fraudsters and by a tax on the banks and the (re)creation of a public bank. The Pvda/PTB party’s most important investment would be the accelerated repayment of the public debt, probably in the hope to create extra budget space. But its plan assumes that capitalism is not in crisis, which is forcing the ruling class to attempt to lower living standards. Thus the Pvda/PTB does not call for the nationalization of the key sectors of the economy under workers’ control of all companies which threaten to relocate. A workers’ or left government that wants to bring forward a credible alternative, under pressure of big capital and capitalist flight, would not be able to avoid this question.

Part of the preparation for planned trade union action plan needs to be serious information and mobilization plan, with the holding of general assemblies, not only in the workplaces but also in the schools and the universities. This time the generalized attack on workers and youth contains the potential of a general strike movement of workers fused with potentially big school student and higher education student movements. It is their future which is under threat!

An information and mobilization plan must consist of workplace meetings with all workers, to build the movement from below, to build the confidence amongst workers that a victory is possible, but also to build necessary unity. Through systematic collective discussions at workplace level, arguments can be sharpened, concrete action plans can be worked out and links with other workplaces and the student movement can be consciously looked for on a city level. Above all, unity between workers, in the north and south of Belgium, has to be organized, which will be crucial to bring this government to its knees.

Not only must the government go, but the full austerity policy, as well. This starts with a movement to get rid of the government, but should continue, using this experience to build a force that fights for a socialist programme.

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October 2014