Belgium: Trade unions announce new plan of action

Call for two national demonstrations, building towards general strikes

New austerity measures and attacks on living standards by the Belgian rightwing government of the 1% richest has led to new social resistance. The trade union leaderships have had to announce new protests after the government’s announcement of the abolishment of the 38 hour working week, via an annualisation of working time, and attacks on pensions in the public sector, amongst other measures.

The trade union leaders delayed announcing this plan until the end of the elections in workplaces to decide union representation, which are taking place this month. These are taking place in over 6,000 workplaces with more than 50 workers, mainly in the private sector. The main trade union federations are running around 132,000 candidates to elect around 45,000 workers’ representatives. This new plan of action builds up to a general strike on 7 October, the second anniversary of the Thatcherite-inspired Belgian government.

The agenda of the actions is as follows:

  • Tuesday 24 May: national demonstration supported by all the trade union federations
  • Tuesday 31 May: national demonstration by workers in public services
  • 25 May – 17 June: local actions and protests on specific issues
  • 20-24 June: campaign of information in all workplaces
  • Friday 24 June: general strike by the socialist FGTB/ABVV federation and different sectors of the Christian ACV/CSC federation. The small liberal trade union federations will decide on their participation on 25 May
  • Thursday 29 September: national demonstration supported by all the trade union federations
  • Friday 7 October: general strike supported by all the unions

This agenda offers an excellent opportunity to rebuild a climate of social resistance. But this will not be easy. Militant trade union workplace delegations and shop stewards can use this plan of action to inform, convince and mobilise their colleagues. General assemblies in the workplaces to discuss the action plan can both maximize active involvement for the action and can assure that democratic decisions are taken on what to do. Regional assemblies, where the rank and file is allowed to speak, can set the tone in the direction of a more offensive movement that can attract other layers, like young people or those who are more isolated in their workplace.

We have to try to take our struggle into our own hands. General assemblies can help in this. We can use the announced actions to strengthen our forces. This can play a role in turning the widespread discontent into an active movement making it possible to defeat the government.

The propaganda of the rightwing government and its parrots in the corporate media – ‘irresponsible’ trade unions that ‘represent nobody’ – has had some effect, but it is more and more disputed by many people. Polls indicate that a big majority – 75% amongst the Dutch-speaking and 81% amongst the French-speaking populations – thinks that the trade unions are important to defend social gains. The involvement in the trade unions has also grown. A study in the run-up to the social elections indicates that 53% of the workers feel involved with the unions, compared to 44%, at the time of the last workplace elections, four years ago. A figure of 72% said they would participate in the social elections. In the past 10 years, the trade unions have won 200,000 new members, bringing their total membership to 3.5 million out of a working population of around 3.9 million. This growth and bigger involvement is partly a result of the previous plan of action in the autumn of 2014, when a national demo in November was followed by three regional general strikes, building up to a national general strike on 15 December 2014.

The new plan of action can build on the lessons of the previous plan. The active rank and file of the unions has further grown and is taking a more combative stand. This was already shown on demonstrations, including on 7 October 2015, to ‘celebrate’ the first year of the government. Around 100,000 took to the streets – much more than expected – and displayed a more questioning and critical attitude towards the union leaders.

Government weakened

At the same time, the government has been weakened. It was not able to present itself as the government of ‘national unity’ following the terrorist attacks of 22 March. The government not only fights against workers’ living standards, but also against each other. The widespread discontent played a role in the resignation of two ministers, Jaqueline Galant from the federal government and Annemie Turtelboom from the Flemish regional government. The Christian Democrat deputy prime minister, Kris Peeters, tried to present himself as the ‘social face’ in the rightwing government, but totally blew this cover when he said ‘we all live above our means.’ He is seen as the architect of the abolishment of the 38 hour working week and forcing workers to possible work up to 45 hours a week. On a demonstration by the Christian trade union federation, ACV/CSC, on 20 April, to protest against this law, Peeters was a central theme. These sorts of voices will make it more complex for the trade union leaders to stop a new movement.

Kris Peeters said that there can be no negotiations if there are strikes. But what can be obtained at negotiations? The government puts forward the demands of the bosses and asks the unions to support them. These are no negotiations; it is a one direction offensive by the bosses. Leaders of the bosses’ federations, like Karel Van Eetvelt from Unizo, show their rage towards any workers’ protest. He even compared the strikes with terrorist attacks. This is a scandal and extremely insensitive for the victims of the recent terror attacks in Belgium. Protest against the undermining of workers’ living standards is a democratic right. Like other democratic practices and rights, the right to collective action has been obtained by strike movements, including political strikes. 

The stakes in these actions has to be clear. We cannot accept that workers’ actions only lead to empty promises of negotiations leading to nothing but new attacks, as happened after the last plan of action in 2014. Then the promises of more ‘balanced’ policies with a so-called ‘tax shift’, were not met. Instead the ‘tax shift’ became a new attack on our living standards. If we let this government complete its term, we will only get more and tougher austerity measures. Our aim has to be the downfall of this government. Any next government will have to take this into account. It will be confronted with a more self-confident working class.

Political alternative

A movement to strike down the government and its austerity policies will inevitably lead to a discussion on a political alternative. The defeat of this right wing government would be a big advance, but we do not want to return to the previous situation where the trade union leaders were in support of a so-called “centre-left” government which, in response to the capitalist crisis, was also trying to implement cuts, albeit in a slower way than the current government.

We think there is a huge potential for a political force from the workers’ movement and defend the need of a broad initiative regrouping all those who oppose the austerity policies: trade union activists, socialists, left activists and organisations, including the electorally growing PTB/PVDA (Belgian Workers’ Party – ex-Maoist, left party). An active movement beating the government can also create a new political force with an ambition that is bigger than being a small left party trying to pull the bigger parties to the left. The ambition has to be a fundamental break with the neoliberal austerity policies and the building of a socialist alternative.

The government opts for an open confrontation against workers’ living standards. The bosses push them back and they hope to obtain some extra gains, as long as this government remains. Let us use the announced actions to organize our forces in this confrontation. We cannot trust the corporate media: they are on the side of those who pay them. Our force is our numbers and our potential to fight back. Turning discontent in a mass movement to defeat the government and its austerity is our task in the coming weeks and months.


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May 2016