Belgium: Massive general strike makes the government wobble

Towards a second plan of action to get rid of this government and austerity!

The general strike of 15 December in Belgium was phenomenal. The united call of all three trade union centres illustrated the power of the working class movement. We made the government wobble, but it will need an extra push to fall. The strike showed the potential to end all austerity policies. The solidarity, but also the movement’s passive support, continues to grow. The challenge is now to mobilise this support in a second action plan with bigger and harder protest, leading to a 48-hour general strike.

Plan of action shows our strength

The general strike was the final point of the plan of action that started in September, just before the government was formed. A national trade union meeting mobilized 7,000 on 23 September. This was an important step to bring together the militants and shop stewards and to prepare them for the struggle before us. The government had not yet been formed, but it was clear what was coming. LSP/PSL, the Belgian CWI section, intervened with the slogan “No Thatcher in Belgium”’ and stressing the need for an action plan. The new right wing government indeed would follow the path of Reagan and Thatcher in an open confrontation with the working class. The biggest difference with Thatcher probably is the fact that this government, led by Charles Michel, opens the attack on all fronts at the same time while Thatcher prepared and then took on the mineworkers first to set an example.

After the formation of the government we saw the biggest trade union demonstration since 31 May 1986, when the previous right wing government received its final blow. There were probably 150,000 on the demonstration on 6 November. It was an illustration of the power of the working class in numbers. Strike action to make the government fall became a realistic prospect. But LSP/PSL (CWI in Belgium) warned and said we should strike not just to make this government fall, but also to end all austerity policies.

This demonstration was followed by regional strikes on 24 November in Hainaut, Luxembourg, Antwerp and Limburg, 1 December in Liège, Namur, East Flanders and West-Flanders and finally on 8 December in Brussels, Flemish Brabant and Brabant Walloon. The regional strikes helped to build towards the general strike and created more unity. The protest was as strong in the Flemish area as it was in the French speaking areas and Brussels. On the picket lines, the unity between activists of different trade unions was strong and the first steps to block industrial zones were made. The regional strikes also strengthened the local organization of workers. LSP/PSL emphasized that it is possible to strike to make the government fall and that with a good preparation in general assemblies it would be possible to turn 15 December in the biggest general 24 hour strike in Belgian history. We intervened with a special issue of our paper produced for the three regional strikes.

Desperate media campaign

In the run-up to the general strike, all media outlets were used to bring propaganda against the strike. It was clear that the attempts to convince the people of the austerity measures had failed. Now, the establishment tried to convince people not to participate in the strike. Opinion polls indicated that only 20% of the population has a positive view of the government, while 43% has a negative view and 39% is undecided. In all parts of the country, more people have a negative view of the governments, including the regionals governments, than have a positive view. Other polls indicated that 85% is in favour of a tax on big fortunes and only 5% wants to work until the age of 67 (instead of the current 65 retirement age).

Neither the desperate campaign to propagate virtual internet protest against the strike, mainly led by the sons and daughters of representatives of the government parties, or the financial benefits given by companies for workers not on strike didn’t have the impact the establishment hoped for. The financial advantages – up to a few hundred euro extra! – for workers not to strike only stimulated the demand for wage increases for all workers. The government parties claimed the strike was undemocratic or an attack on a democratically elected government. In reality we saw two democracies, theirs in parliament and ours on the streets.

An incredible number were on strike, several hundred thousand possibly up to a million or more, out of a total workforce of around 4.5 million. Tens of thousands of other workers took a more hesitant position by taking a holiday to show their solidarity without losing a day’s pay by striking. There was no public transport, all air traffic was stopped as was traffic by water. All ports were shut down. Most big companies were closed or on minimal service to guarantee safety. Many schools were closed. Where in November many people participated for the first time in a demonstration, now a lot of people for the first time in their life took strike action. A point of view heard on many picket lines was that this movement has the potential to grow even stronger.

Tensions in the government

Attempts to create divisions between members of different unions or on the basis of language failed. The pressure from below to have a united second plan of action is big. While the strikers were united, the government was divided.

Prime Minister, Charles Michel, is described as a weak figure. Kris Peeters, a minister for the CD&V Flemish Christian Democrats openly criticised Bart De Wever, the president of the right wing Flemish nationalist N-VA. Peeters said De Wever had better taken up a position as a government minister instead of putting more oil on the fire from the side lines. This hits those in N-VA who genuinely want to take up government responsibility hard. On top of this, even the IMF now questions the policies of hard austerity for Belgium. The returning argument of N-VA saying ‘there is no alternative’ is undermined, even from institutions like the OECD and the IMF. And this is at the time when the “Lux-Leaks” are exposing massive tax evasion by Belgian companies through neighbouring Luxemburg.

After the strike, the unions have given some time to the government to make concessions. If there are no signs of this before 13 January, the unions will announce new protests. Waiting too long to announce new protests is dangerous as it risks breaking the momentum. Concrete steps must be taken to broaden and deepen the movement to prevent it becoming simply a series of protests, by preparing the way for a serious struggle.

The most far-sighted elements of the bourgeoisie surely realise the danger of a further growth of the trade union resistance which already is being joined by youth, the cultural sector and even small enterprises and shop owners who of course are also dependent on workers’ living standards and purchasing power. The bigger the movement grows, the more difficult it will be in the future to implement the same measures on a slower rhythm. This leads to tensions and a calculation by the Belgian bourgeoisie which wants enough time to damage the Flemish nationalist N-VA in power, but on the other hand does not want the resistance from below to grow too strong.

Second plan of action

In our leaflet, we described our proposals for a second plan of action: “A big meeting of all trade unions in early January with 10 to 20,000 present to discuss the second plan of action and to vote on this plan. Followed by assemblies in all workplaces. Both in the meeting and in the assemblies the workers should be given leaflets for a massive demonstration at the end of January. We could distribute these leaflets, not only in the workplaces but also in the market places. We could give every activist posters to distribute amongst their organisations and amongst small shop-owners. We should aim to mobilise more than 200,000. This could be followed by three regional strikes in February with an emphasis on the trade union presence in smaller workplaces. We are not in favour of strikes in individual sectors, this could lead to division and makes it difficult to block entire industrial zones. All this should lead to a national 48 hour general strike. If the government doesn’t fall by then, this strike can lead to indefinite general strike.”

The success of the general strike and the broader support and solidarity will probably push the trade union leaders to new actions in January. We must make sure that from this a movement from below needs to be built through holding assemblies in the workplaces, and in the districts, to discuss the actions, the position of the government and our demands.

Which alternative?

For the trade union leaders, the slogan “down with the government” means the return of the previous tripartite coalition, or at least the removal of the N-VA and its replacement by the Francophone and Flemish social democrats. But this is no solution. This was the government which was defeated last May because of its record. Despite their “left” words now, once back in office the social democrats will continue the pro-big business polices that led to their defeat.

The other side will use every weakness on ours. The absence of a strong workers’ political representation defending demands such as a tax on wealth, an end to the many tax presents for big companies, jobs for young people, protection of our living standards etc. is big a problem. In the past decades, especially since the fall of Stalinism, the political organisation of the working class has been weakened or pushed onto the defensive. This sometimes led to meagre results for mass movements, such as the anti-war movement in 2002-2003.

With two MPs, the PTB-GO (Workers Party of Belgium) reflects some of the workers’ demands in parliament, but this is not enough. While 85% of the people are in favour of a tax on the rich, PTB-GO only slightly improves its results in the polls and its Flemish counterpart PVDA+ not at all. A broad fighting party would do better. Many voted PVDA+ or PTB-GO with the idea that the party would go further in terms of a more open attitude. Unfortunately, it looks as if the party has pushed the pause button in terms of broadening out and having more diversity, maintaining both its top-down methods and uncritical approach to the trade union leaders. We continue to support the appeal of the FGTB federation in Charleroi and Sud Hainaut districts to unite the forces to the left of social democracy and the greens. At its recent congress, the General Central (AC/CG, the biggest union structure inside the socialist FGTB/ABVV centre) agreed on an amendment going in the same direction.

A new political representation will not just coming into existence or fall from the sky. We should not just wait and see. The trade unions have 3.5 million members and organise workers on their workplaces and in society. The meetings, actions and discussions in these organisations can be a fertile soil from which a new political movement can grow. Assemblies in the workplaces to evaluate the strike actions and to prepare the next steps, can also be a forum to develop our demands, and our alternative. Discussions between militants of different sectors and general regional and national meetings can develop this into a coherent programme for an alternative.

LSP/PSL will continue to play an active role in this. The response for our proposals and socialist alternative is growing. On the picket lines more than 200 members, supported by CWI-members from France, Germany and Austria, distributed thousands of leaflets and sold hundreds of our special strike paper with an evaluation of the regional strikes and proposals for after the general strike. The need for a socialist break with capitalism gains broader support. We build our forces in the movement to be stronger in coming struggles. New shop stewards come to the forefront in this movement, ideas and alternatives are being discussed. A socialist alternative is a necessity as capitalism only offers us inequality, crisis and misery.

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December 2014