Belgium: New major social conflict in the making

Second action plan needed to stop the Michel government

Only a few weeks after the horrible terrorist attacks, the right wing Belgian government decided that normal daily life should continue. By this they mean not allowing themselves to be distracted from their main focus: that is to “use this unusual coalition to carry through those structural reforms that change the DNA of our country”.

To be clear, this does not mean changing the DNA of the more than 700 rich families and companies, named and shamed in the Panama-paper scandal, and their irresistible urge to avoid paying taxes and starve our social security and public services systematically of many billions. No, on the contrary! For the government, this is just another opportunity to continue their crusade against the social reforms and safety net which so many workers have fought for so hard for in the past.

The government’s new plan contains cuts and structural reforms which the bosses have been dreaming of for a long time. Amongst the main measures is forcing long-term sick people back to work, cutting back important civil servants’ pension rights and getting rid of the 8-hour working day, or the 38-hour week. From now on bosses can force workers into a 45 hour working week, something that could only be done in the past by mutual agreement through collective agreements on a workplace level and with extra pay. They plan to do this via an “annualisation” of working hours in order not only to force further flexibility on the workers but also to impose an important loss of overtime pay.

And as if this is not enough yet, the so called “social face” of the government, minister Peeters from the Christian Democratic Party, has warned that this new “correction” will only be a “small finger exercise” compared to the cuts that will be necessary after the summer, in order to keep the budget under control. The high council of finance expects that at least another €9 billion has to be found.

Second action plan needed to stop the Michel government

Almost immediately, the first trade union mobilisations took place, with demonstrations and mass meetings taking place on 19 and 20 April which mobilised almost 20,000 workers. A public sector strike is planned for 26 April and a call has been made for a mass demonstration the end of May.

At these first mobilisations, the anger was very strong and there is a clear potential to take this government on. The LSP/PSL (CWI in Belgium) called for a second action plan along the lines of the first one that led to the magnificent strike movement in November and December 2014, but one that learned the lessons from it as well. There are far less illusions for example in the role of the Christian Democrats and their willingness to “limit the damage”. Also illusions have gone that any movement could bring this government to adopt “other thoughts” and consequently that the goal this time must be to bring this government down.

While this analysis was shared by many, there was also a bigger skepticism about how far the leadership of the trade unions is prepared to go. Already, this critical mood amongst the rank and file was seen last year in the much larger than anticipated 100,000 strong 7 October Brussels trade union demonstration. We stressed the need to organize in the workplace and among local shop stewards discussions on these issues, to prepare the next steps that are needed in order to win this time.

To be sure, any hesitancy from the side of the workers will be met with further aggression from the bosses and the government. A hearing will take place in parliament to discuss the need to “modernize” the right to strike, which means attempting to make striking harmless.

Only unified action and the full mobilization of the organized working class can stop this attack. But also on the political field important steps are needed in the direction of a new mass working class party that can unify the big social protest in society, the many organized and unorganized workers and youth, and the different currents amongst the radical left, to be able to make one big fist against the war of capital.

Working class must take a lead

After the terrorist attacks, society was shocked and destabilised. The government tried to turn things in their own interests and avoid protest by stressing the “responsibility” of the Muslim community in allowing Salafism to gain ground, in this way giving space for wider racist feelings to further develop.

By not taking an independent position and stance, the leaders of the workers’ movement have let this happen and missed an important opportunity to point to the responsibility of these politicians and their policies in creating the conditions for these more fundamentalist currents to gain ground on Belgian soil. The mobilisations in the weeks after the attacks, showed an important openness and understanding that more police and heavily armed soldiers on the streets alone will not stop this type of terror. However, until the huge anger and dissatisfaction is organised to bring an end to this completely rotten system and use the immense wealth for the well-being of the mass of the workers and poor here and internationally, the space can and will be used by the right to further push through their agenda with all its consequences. For the LSP/PSL this is more than reason enough to step the efforts to build a force that can fight for a socialist world.

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April 2016