On October 28, Belgium was shaken once again by a massive general strike. But this second general strike in three weeks was not supposed to take place, that is, if the bosses had had it their way.
When on October 11, a happy Prime Minister gave a “state of the nation speech” in parliament, he proudly announced what he called a “Generation Pact”. This had the support of the bosses, the middle class organisations and also the leaders of two of the three union confederations, including the biggest, the Christian ACV-CSC. This came just after the enormously successful general strike organised only by the Socialist union October 7.
By announcing this deal the government wanted to regain the initiative and push through its “work-till-you-drop” plans. Probably it thought – as did the bosses – that the general strike that had taken place just a few days earlier was merely an emotional outburst which would rapidly evaporate into nothing. They comforted themselves in believing in this analysis by listening to the appeasing speeches given by most of the trade union leaders. Even from the left, from the leaders of the Socialist union, they were getting reassuring statements such as: “a general strike is a tool you can only use once every 10 or 12 years”.
The general strike had already started two weeks earlier
They were wrong, very wrong! As soon as the workers saw what the “Generation Pact” meant, spontaneous strikes broke out in the big factories in the south of the country, followed by the Volkswagen factory in Brussels where Flemish and Walloon workers went on strike for 32 hours and this was then followed by a strike in another big factory in the North. These “spontaneous strikes” (i.e. unofficial, not called by the union leaders) are an important feature of this ongoing protest movement in Belgium. It is not an entirely new phenomenon, of course, but it has not been seen on this scale since the 1980s, with the sole exception of the White Movement of 1996 (1).
These spontaneous strikes were not only directed against the government but were also aimed at putting pressure on the trade union leaders to reject the plans of the government and to take action. In one region both Christian and Socialist unions had already rejected the plans and had called for a new 24-hour strike on October 24. This strike rapidly spread to other regions in the south. 15.000 workers marched through the streets of Charleroi. It was a real dress rehearsal for the second general strike of October 28.
In fact the three union confederations came under such pressure that they were forced to reject the government’s “pact” and call a 24-hour general strike with a national demonstration in Brussels. For the Christian union leaders this represented a dramatic turn, as they had come out against and had actually tried to sabotage the October 7 general strike. The pressure from the rank and file of the Christian union was so big that it succeeded in imposing unity from below. This fact boosted the confidence of the workers in every part of the country.
Bosses’ provocations pour oil on the fire
As October 28 approached, the bosses’ organisations and the government started to become very uneasy. In fact they panicked and started making all kinds of threats. The bosses threatened to send bailiffs with police support to break up the picket lines and the roadblocks organised by the flying pickets to seal off the industrial areas. They tried to test the ground in a factory in the north that produces agricultural machinery. This factory had come out on a spontaneous strike. Thanks to this the strikebreakers were indeed able to enter the factory, but all it meant was that the next day the bosses were faced with more strike action. In another factory in the north, Van Hool, the bosses tried to organise the strikebreakers the day before the general strike. The reaction of the workers was tremendous. They immediately downed tools and started the general strike much earlier than planned!
The bosses had the support of the Liberal Minister of the Interior, who also condemned the flying pickets, roadblocks, etc. The bosses’ organisation even established a 48-hour call centre with the help of some big law firms so as to be able to send in the police against the strikers at very short notice. But the result was the opposite of what they had anticipated. Undoubtedly some workers, especially those who were experiencing class conflict for the first time, were somewhat taken aback by this whole attack against the right to strike. But the general reaction was of one of strengthening the resolve of the workers and bringing more people out on the demonstration.
This time the 24-hour general strike was organised by all the unions. Therefore fewer pickets were needed to bring people out. Thus all the attention of the trade union activists was concentrated on bringing people to the demonstration.
And what a success it was. More than 100,000 workers marched through the streets of Brussels. This is twice as big as the demonstration organised ten months ago by the same unions during the wage negotiations. There is a clear ascending line in the mobilisation of the working class. It was a lively but orderly demonstration where the colours of the three unions mixed together.
Young industrial workers
There were workers from all sectors but especially from industry, engineering, steel, chemical, food processing, building workers, commercial workers and all kinds of technical workers. Also teachers and healthcare workers were present. Significant was the large number of younger workers (from their early twenties to their thirties) participating. This was the best answer that could be given to the media and the government who had been trying to present the movement as one of a privileged, self-seeking, layer of 40 to 50-year old workers. Young workers are perfectly aware of the fact that if the older workers are forced to work longer they will find it more difficult to find jobs.
An important feature of this movement is that it is not just about early retirement. This is merely the personification of what workers have had to endure over the last fifteen years: a general onslaught on their working conditions. If you asked any worker on the demonstration why he or she was participating, the general response was: “we are under too much pressure; we are not just angry, we are exhausted.”
A deep and widespread social reaction is taking place among the Belgian working class. A shop steward from the VW factory (who had already been on strike for four days) gave us the following insight into the present level of consciousness of the workers: “This is a movement which combines the features of the White Movement in 1996 and the struggle against the Global Plan in 1993 (2)”. A radical mood on labour issues is coming together with a more general but also confused defiance of existing society and its leaders.
The bourgeois press is complaining about the lack of authority of the union leader who seem to be led by the rank and file. Some bourgeois editorialists hark back nostalgically to the trade union leaders of the 1960s and 1970s “who had the courage to confront their members”.
Socialist Party leaders are openly criticised
The confidence of the workers has been boosted by these two general strikes. They are feeling their strength again. After having suffered for so long and struggled so much, the older workers can see the young workers fighting back, which is giving them hope. The fact that the pressure of the rank and file has succeeded in pushing the union leaders into a position they did not want to take is also giving the workers renewed strength.
The attitude of the government is that, “We will not move an inch… the Generation Pact must be applied fully.” There is a strong desire within the government to take on the unions. The leaders of the Socialist Parties [there is a Flemish and a Walloon Socialist Party in Belgium] seem to be taking the same belligerent line. But they are playing with fire. After hearing the different ministers beating the war drums after the demonstration, a clearly exasperated leader of the Christian union had only this comment to make, “Do you realise, you are playing a dangerous game?” It is true, however, that they have invited the unions to participate in the talks on how to concretely apply this plan in practice. This is a trick to lure the union leaders into a discussion on “dots and commas”, but the pressure from the rank and file is too strong for the moment and this makes such a deal unlikely in the short term.
The leaders of the SP’s are now being openly criticised both by the leaders of the unions and by the rank and file. A few weeks ago around 100 Socialist trade union activists organised an action in front of the congress of the Flemish SP. They all turned their backs on the congress delegates as they entered the hall. The new president of the party reacted with a one-liner saying, “Those who turn their backs to the left, are looking to the right”. Later on another leader of the Flemish SP accused the union of lying to its members. Another even said he was not at all impressed by the strike and that its only effect would be to “cause damage to the economy”!
At the beginning of this week the president of the Flemish Socialist Party declared that the Socialist union was the objective ally of the Liberals (this is the right-wing coalition partner in the government). In a reaction to this, the main Socialist union leader accused the Socialist Party of seducing the middle class voters and turning its back on its natural social base, the workers. Even the right-wing Socialist union leader of the metal workers announced he was ready to call a new general strike if the government did not make some concessions.
All these statements, together with the “Generation Pact” are having the effect of strengthening the resolve of the workers and increasing the rift between the union and the party. The media is now talking about the risk of a “horizontal crack in the party”, especially in the north, a split between the union ranks and leaders on the one side and the Socialist Party leaders on the other.
To counter the effect of the union’s actions on the rank and file of the SP a campaign of explanation was announced. The idea was to send the cadres of the party in front of the factories! You can imagine what effect it would have had. Shop stewards from different factories had already announced they would be very “welcome”. But it was rapidly abandoned as being too risky. Instead the SP leadership opted for a safer means of “discussing” with the members by sending them an… email or a letter in the post!
All this is undoubtedly having an effect inside the ranks of the SP and the unions. There is also the beginning of the formation of a left grouping of trade unionists inside the Socialist Party. In spite of all the appeals of the bourgeois press and the government to the trade union leaders to behave in a statesmanlike manner they may not succeed in defusing the movement so quickly.
Workers on the demonstration said they were ready to come out on strike again if necessary. Others thought this would actually be inevitable. One thing is clear: class struggle has reached a pivotal point in Belgium. All the lessons of the past will be relearned quickly by the new young generation of workers who have started to question not only the right-wing parties and the leaders of the Socialist parties but also capitalism itself.
1. The White Movement was a broad-based popular reaction against the judiciary and the establishment as a whole, triggered by the murder of two young girls. The police inquiry brought to the surface the rottenness of the state apparatus and its real nature. The way things were covered up and the attempts to hide this from public view provoked uproar in Belgian society. For a whole week workers in many factories came out on spontaneous strikes to protest against the “system”.
2. The “Global Plan” was a wage freeze imposed by the government in 1993. The reaction of the workers was to come out on a general strike, the biggest in Belgian history.
- Belgium: Two general strikes in three weeks – class struggle back on the agenda by Erik Demeester (October 19, 2005)
- Belgium: First general strike in 12 years against bosses’ “work-till-you-drop” plans by Erik Demeester (October 7, 2005)
- Belgium: Reshuffling of the right wing heralds growing polarisation by Maarten Vanheuverswyn and Wim Benda (December 15, 2004)
- Federal elections in Belgium - a more marked left-right polarisation is emerging by Erik Demeester (May 19, 2003)
- Belgium After the White March (October 1996)