Belgium: No agreement reached between unions and government over austerity

New action plan against right wing government takes off readers may wonder what happened after the magnificent movement of the Belgian working class last autumn. Didn’t the unions’ “action plan” of demos and strikes make the right wing government wobble? Did the government offer sufficient concessions for the trade union leaders to make a rotten deal? Some 10,000 trade union activists participated in a union “concentration” (activists rally) on Wednesday 11 March. It is clear that pressure is building up for a new decisive plan for action.

There are a number of indications of that pressure. The concentration of March 11th was designed to be deliberately limited in size: 2,500 for the two main trade union federations, Socialist and Christian, and another 500 for the smaller liberal federation. This became untenable as in the weeks running up to that meeting the government launched major attacks over early retirement. In the end, double the agreed figures of activists imposed their presence on the trade union leaderships.

The main speaker from the Christian federation was booed as she spoke. This is because although the Christian federation rejected the government’s early retirement proposals, like the Socialist federation, it called for further negotiations instead of strike action. In an effort to try to split the unions, some press wrongly claimed that those who booed were mainly ‘Walloon socialist trade union federation members’. In reality as many Christian and Flemish trade union members joined in booing and shouting in both French and Dutch “grève générale, algemene staking”. As she left the stage, a group of Christian trade union members surrounded and questioned her over the union’s soft position.

Already the public service unions from both main federations have announced another ‘concentration’ on March 19th , same place, same time in Brussels, aiming for the same numbers as March 11th. On March 20th health workers from the Flemish region will demonstrate. On March 24th all public sector workers will demonstrate again, this time in Antwerp. There are strike plans being made by railway unions, metal unions, chemical and building workers’ unions and others. On March 29th a broad ‘civilian’ coalition in support of the unions is organising a massive demonstration. In the week from March 31st to April 3th mass demonstrations will be held in each one of the 10 Belgian provinces. On March 31st and April 1st a small railway union is organising a 48 hour national strike which will not be able to stop, but will certainly severely disrupt rail traffic.

On April 22nd all of this will culminate in a 24 hour public sector general strike jointly called by all the trade unions. Most of the activists would not consider this enough for well-prepared action plan. But there is no doubt pressure is building up. It looks more and more probable further generalised demos and 24 hour general strikes will become unavoidable. The LSP/PSL’s placards and banners on March 11th read “don’t let them divide us – a new action plan to bring down Michel I” (Michel heads the federal government). In our leaflet we proposed provincial demos linked to regional strikes in the first week of April followed by a new national demo as a run up to a renewable 48 hour general strike, where workers vote whether to continue the after the first 48 hours, somewhere around May 1st.

Two trends in government

Last autumn’s action made the right wing government wobble. By the end of December the coalition had lost 6% in the polls compared to the previous May 25th elections. Over 70% were opposed to the government’s attacks on the sliding scale of wages and the increase of the pension age to 67. More than 85% declared in favour of a tax on wealth over 1 million euro. The trade union leaders promised to meet on December 16th, the day after the general strike, to evaluate and propose further action. Some activists argued in favor of an indefinite strike at that time. We felt that the potential for struggle was still to be fully mobilized and that a premature indefinite strike could split the movement, so LSP/PSL argued in favor of an immediate second action plan to culminate in a renewable 48 hour general strike.

However the trade union leaderships postponed their decisions about further action until January 6th and then again until January 30th. The Christian federation even postponed the date to February 10th. At the request of the bosses and the Flemish Christian Democrats, the most ‘centre’ of the parties in the right wing federal government, the Christian union leaders argued that negotiations needed to be given a chance. The moment was lost. Then the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in France, followed by the anti-terrorist operation in the Belgian city of Verviers, offered Prime Minister Michel an opportunity to restore the image of what is a weak and divided government. On the basis of the security issue, polls indicated the government made up most of the losses it suffered. As a result the most right wing parties in it became even less inclined to make concessions and took a more provocative stance.

Inside the federal government two distinct trends are present: the Flemish nationalist NV-A aims to demonstrate its capacity to push through change against the unions. Its leaders openly admire Thatcher. The NV-A is in competition with the Flemish liberal party over which is the more right wing. It defends the primacy of ’politics’ and believes the social movements, especially the unions, have too much power. The Flemish Christian Democrats on the other hand, argue democracy should be more than just elections and ‘recognize the crucial role of civil society’. Both trends agree on the type of neoliberal austerity to be applied, but whereas NV-A opts for a confrontational style, the Christian Democrats prefer to work through traditional social partnership. The francophone liberals, the party of prime minister Michel, take an in-between position, mainly with the aim to save the government, because if the government were to collapse, his party would at best end up in opposition for decades, as is already the case in the Walloon and Brussels regions.

By the end of January the Christian Democrats actually seemed to succeed. They made the Christian and the liberal trade union federations agree a wage deal restoring only a minor part of what is being lost through the attack on the sliding scale of wages. The Socialist trade union federation left the negotiating table. For a while it looked as if the Christian Democrats had succeeded in dividing the trade union front. However when the Christian trade union leaders proposed the deal to their national council, only a small majority of 49% voted in favor with 45% against and 6% abstaining. Even this majority was only reached on the basis of a promise to continue mobilisation in a common front with the other unions over all the issues not covered by this agreement.

In the run up of the Christian unions’ national council, the NV-A finance minister declared in the press that a tax shift would not touch the super-rich but would at best mean an increase in VAT. This is considered to be an open provocation because the demand of a tax shift towards the rich has become the bottom line for the Christian trade union leaders. It was seen as a deliberate attempt by the NV-A to undermine both the union leaders and with them the Christian Democrat coalition partner. Since then there have been a whole number of provocative statements by the NV-A and the Flemish liberals. They are proposing a further limitation on the right to unemployment benefits, questioning the rights of unemployed people who are carers of seriously ill family members, insisting that workers retiring early from one job can be forced into a new job, probably low paid which would actually lower their pension. They want to limit the link between price inflation and wages and benefits, while allowing rents to rise. They are demanding a two-year no-strike agreement etc.

NV-A squeezed in contradictions

The presence of NV-A in the government was not the preferred option not just of the unions of course, but also not of the economic and political establishment. They only took them in on condition that the NV-A would shut up about the national question and also in the hope the NV-A’s support would decline once it took “responsibility”. At the same time, the more cuts the right wing government imposed, the less a more classic coalition involving the former social democratic parties would have to carry through. Responsibility for unpopular measures could be laid at the door of the NV-A.

While in opposition, the NV-A got away with completely contradictory positions. It promoted itself as a peoples’ party and at the same time defended a hard neoliberal program. Inside the government though it gets squeezed by the Flemish liberal party, forcing them to compete over which party stands for the most right wing program, and by the Christian Democrats taking a softer line.

If they were convinced the NV-A would not be able to rebuild its support when in opposition there is no doubt the Christian Democrats and possibly the liberals would ditch them over a secondary issue, probably related to the national question. At the present time however they are not confident this would succeed. The most recent poll indicates a loss of 3.6% for the NV-A, of 5.6% for all Flemish coalition partners and a gain of 4% for the combined social democrats, greens and ex-Maoists in Flanders. This is not providing the ruling class with the necessary confidence to ditch the NV-A yet, they fear the NV-A would play the victim and could come out strengthened.

Lack of alternative brings unions to negotiation table

The same reasoning plays an important part in the attitude of the union leaders. On December 16th, they were well aware about their capacity to bring down the government. Unfortunately the unions do not have an alternative. They announced there couldn’t be an agreement without the revoking of the measure in the sliding scale of wages and without freedom of wage negotiations; without guarantee for a strong social security and social protection; without the safeguarding and strengthening of public services and the maintaining of the public sector specific employment contract; and without a more just fiscal policy.

But even though the government ruled all of it out, the trade union leaders nevertheless joined the negotiation table. Why? Because they do not believe an alternative exists. They hope to be listened to more by a government involving both Christian democrats and Social Democrats, but they also know that these parties believe workers should work longer, wages are too high and investors should be attracted by offering them fiscal advantages. As a result the trade union leaders follow a tactic not that far different from the one proposed by the Christian Democrats.

It is a tactic of playing for time through partial agreements involving negotiated attacks on workers’ conditions as a way of proving there is a more efficient way of reaching similar results as the Thatcherite programme put forward by NV-A. There is a double danger involved with that tactic. Firstly that we end up swallowing all the austerity measures anyway, not all at once, but bit by bit. And secondly, while doing the exact opposite from what we expect from our shop stewards – only sign an agreement after winning a solution for everyone – the danger becomes real that soon everyone will fight alone, which is as we know, a recipe for defeat.

There is also a gigantic problem with union democracy. The trade union officials don’t communicate directly, but through the media, who always immediately invite politicians from the majority or bosses to give their ’interpretations’. The rank and file is only consulted after everything has been agreed and in the press. So the rank and file is practically forced to agree, because otherwise it has to question the leadership. Some workers fear this would mean weakening the unions. But this pressure from the union leaders to support rotten deals can be resisted in a positive way if an alternative course of action is proposed, one that mobilises the unions’ strength to fight for the members’ interests.

Objective factors push trade union leaders further

Of course the trade union leadership would like to make deals, even if it were rotten ones. The leaders of the Christian trade union have illustrated it more than once, generally pretending there is a ‘strike fatigue’. If a strike fatigue exists to a certain extent, it is first and foremost because workers are not prepared to lose wages if the trade union leaderships are making rotten deals anyway. The Christian trade union leadership uses the tactic . This gradually disarms the workers by forcing through a multitude of partial agreements. The leaders of the Socialist trade union use this to hide their own unwillingness to fight. They say that without a united fightback we can’t win. But they dismiss the whole idea of increasing pressure on the leadership of the Christian Union by appealing directly to its rank and file.

But objective conditions outweigh the subjective wishes of the trade union leaderships. The level of attack the Belgian bosses estimate necessary to stay on track with international capitalist competition is seized on by the NV-A to systematically undermine any possible social agreement. Some activists joke that the NV-A is actually doing more to mobilise workers than the union leaderships are. It helps to understand why the trade unions blow hot and cold. While being aware of the maneuvers of the political and economic establishment and the fundamental weakness of the trade union leadership, we need to work out a strategy to develop the struggle.

There are definitely complications, missed opportunities and open betrayals. But only a year ago, the whole concept of an action plan, while sometimes being taken up by the most combative layers as an interesting but abstract idea to be quickly brushed aside as soon as another proposal came up, has become a concrete idea amongst a wider layer of trade union activists. Even though trade union democracy is still extremely limited, the action plan allowed a number of workplace meetings. It also offered the opportunity to create direct links between union members from different companies in the same economic zone. To exchange addresses for mutual support in the future has become common. In a number of areas regional union mass-meetings were held, in the beginning purely as information meetings, but also more and more as open discussions with the rank and file delegations. The demand for such meetings is growing.

The power of the central leadership of the Christian union has been weakened by the poor vote over the wage deal, it can’t afford a repetition of this. Right wing leaderships of some of the socialist federation’s unions such as the Flemish socialist metalworkers’ union and the socialist employees union have suffered defeats. At the level of workplaces more combative activists are coming to the fore at the expense of those more inclined to compromise. LSP/PSL members in general have strengthened their positions and gained important new ones, either because they are pushed forward by their workmates or because new activists have been won to the party.

While it is not sure an all-out action plan will develop before summer and further rotten deals on partial issues might be made, we do not believe this is the only or even the most probable perspective. It is true the full potential of the movement has not been seen yet, but the working class and the left in particular have not been weakened. The period ahead of us will be far from quiet with many opportunities for the left in general and LSP/PSL in particular. Whether a general class confrontation comes before the summer or whether the trade union leadership will be able to buy time, is not clear, but a more open and generalised confrontation is becoming unavoidable.

Political alternative

The weakest point for the movement is the lack of a political alternative. Only in the minds of the trade union leadership does a traditional social democrat – Christian democrat coalition offer a way out. It was exactly this point that explained the success of the NV-A in the May elections last year. Even in the polls today the Flemish social democrats are only picking up marginally, even though the Christian Democrats are in the regional and federal governments.

In the socialist union some are arguing for a broad unity of social democrats, greens and the former Maoist PTB/PvdA. With the lack of any other alternative, this could gain some limited support amongst activists and a layer of trade union officials, but unfortunately it wouldn’t mean a serious break with austerity politics, would lead to more deception and as a result prepare the way for further right wing populist adventurers.

In the Walloon area the social democrats and Christian democrats are in coalition in the regional government, while in the Brussels regional government they sit alongside the francophone regionalists. They too apply an austerity policy against which the unions from the public sectors are mobilising. Their austerity is only slightly less brutal than the one applied by the federal government. They decided to block not only inflation-linked rises for wages and benefits, but also for rents. The credibility of their policy however can be read in the polls, the francophone social democrats are 3.3% down since last year’s elections, while the francophone Christian Democrats are stagnant. Currently only the PTB and a smaller right wing populist party are gaining in the polls.

The LSP/PSL strives to provide an answer to the questions of what should be done now. Firstly we are trying to generalise the idea of workplace meetings, have them formally debate and decide on the course of action to follow while also begin discussing the way forward for their specific industry as a start to develop a workers’ programme. The trade union delegation (shop stewards) at the Flemish university in Brussels for example organised a congress to discuss a document entitled: “Results and prospects for the union activity at VUB”.

Secondly, while worried over the capacity of the Greek government to rise to the challenge it faces, we point to Syriza’s former proposal to form an anti-austerity government as an indication of the way forward. This was an inspiration for the socialist trade union in the Charleroi district to propose the unity of all forces to the left of social democracy and greens. While deploring the former Maoist PTB refusal to include LSP/PSL and others in it, we and the trade union leadership in Charleroi, nevertheless stated that the broadening of the PTB’s ‘Gauche d’Ouverture’ (GO – “Left Opening”) could represent a first step in this direction.

Unfortunately since then, the PTB has brought the GO experience to an end. Nevertheless we believe the issue of building a movement to the left of the social democracy and greens will come up again and again. The LSP/PSL is fully prepared to further discuss this with all forces seriously prepared to start the building of an alternative to the parties that accept austerity and defend capitalism.

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