In reaction to a recent protest by street cleaners in Brussels, the bosses complained that, ‘If every reform provokes such a strong opposition, we will never be able to move forward.” In response to this one of the workers involved in the protest, speaking on TV, said, “What else are we supposed to do? Do you want us to go for a nice walk through the city or organise a little picnic? We have to show that we are angry. Those on the streets today are not kids. They are angry workers and they are damned right to be doing what they have done.”
In the early morning of September 22, last week, hundreds of refuse collectors of the regional public company Net Brussel occupied the tunnels at the intersection of the two main roads leading to the centre of the capital. As a result all incoming and outgoing traffic was blocked for hours. Commuters were blocked for up to 15 km outside the city. Piles of refuse were set on fire as well as some of the small urban furniture, causing big, dark plumes of smoke. The workers also went to the building of the Brussels regional government which was pelted with eggs and stones. They also tried, unsuccessfully, to break in. Immediately the action became national news.
The workers were protesting against the possible loss of 150 euro on their monthly wages and the partial or total privatisation of the service. This was the result of a deal brokered in the long drawn out negotiations for the formation of the national government.
The reaction of the workers was remarkable from different points of view. First of all it was a spontaneous action. The evening before, upon returning to their depots, the workers decided to go on spontaneous strike action next day and to occupy the key highways of the city. The union leaders were forced to recognise the action and to represent the workers’ demands, but were noticeable by their absence from the initiative of the strike itself.
Earlier this year the socialist Federation of the Belgian metal industry (Centrale van de Metaalindustrie van België, CMB/FGTB-Métal affiliated to the Belgian General Federation of Labour, ABVV-FGTB) of Brussels and the South of the country had proposed to organise a ‘blockade’ of the capital in protest against wage restraint and the European austerity plans. They were fed up of ‘nice walks’ in Brussels where ‘nothing happens’. The national union leaders rejected the idea with the argument that the “authorities would never give permission”.
The refuse collectors, however, last week showed in practice that such actions are possible and useful as long as they are backed by a massive strike and carried out by the mass of the workers and not just small groups of “diehard” activists.
The other remarkable aspect was the speed of reaction of the workers. The measures had only been announced a few days earlier. So the workers mobilised at very short notice. The Minister President of the Brussels region expressed his perplexity by declaring that the deal had included consultation with the unions before reforming the service. But workers understand that negotiations are best backed by direct action.
This shows that the apparent political and trade union apathy of the Belgian workers can very rapidly be transformed into anger and mass action. This is especially the case when the attacks which are being prepared become clear. Interesting also is that the refuse collectors represent a good cross section of the Belgian working class, linguistically and nationally mixed, with the hiring of young workers in recent years. Years of nationalist demagogy and racist prejudice did not succeed in dividing them.
Despite the recovery – or due to the conditions the recovery of the Belgian economy was based on last year – everywhere workers feel hunted down at the level of the shop floor, with speed-ups and every minute of their day being checked. A lot of frustration of all kinds is building up within Belgian society. If the government negotiators think they can strike deals at the expense of working people they are very wrong. Those who want to impose drastic cuts had better think twice. The action of the Brussels workers is a clear warning.
The significance of this action has been well understood by the bosses’ organisation, the UNIZO. A few hours after the action of the refuse collectors they issued a press release which stated: “If the announcement of every reform provokes such a strong opposition, we will never be able to move forward. The right to strike may be sacred but wildcat strikes without prior announcement or consultation are unacceptable.” They then go even further: “A wildcat strike, let alone a political strike as is the case now, is irresponsible.” And the final part of the bosses’ statement lists a number of legislative initiatives aimed at restricting the right to strike.
This is an indication of things to come. The bosses are determined to impose austerity measures and force the workers to accept. But what the bosses consider only the beginning of a much wider and deeper programme of cuts is considered far too much by the workers. Herein we have the ingredients for intensified class struggle in Belgium in the com ibng period.
Meanwhile the Brussels regional government has backed down and abandoned the idea of wage cuts or privatisation of the company. This is a victory for the refuse workers and vindicates their militant action. It will also be a lesson to all those other workers in Belgium facing the same situation.
See photos: Les éboueurs mécontents paralysent Bruxelles