Rarely has a trade union day of action and strikes drawn so many negative reactions from the media and the bosses. An editorial of a regional daily paper finished by saying "To summarize, the strikes of Monday are bad for our economy and will result in nothing. Everybody knows that, everybody understands that, with the exception of the unions. Do these people live on a different planet?"
The bosses' organisations also refused to show the slightest "understanding" of the union actions on Monday, October 6. The day following the announcement of the day of action by the leaders of the Socialist, Christian and Liberal unions the bosses went on a brutal offensive. Karel Van Eetveld, leader of UNIZO, the organisation of the bosses of the small and medium sized companies insisted on the need to increase the working week from 38 hours to 48 hours. He also favoured the elimination of the sliding scale of wages and told the unions there was not the slightest margin for any wage increase.
Of course we have to remember that just a few months ago the bosses were claiming that no real problem of declining purchasing power existed in Belgium. It was just a problem of the grey matter between our ears, a psychological question, some sudden ‘hysteria' as they liked to describe it. In reality they were referring to their own... profits.
Real "reality", the one lived daily by workers, unemployed people and retired workers is very different. Some aspects of the increase in poverty are even preoccupying. Fewer people can afford to buy their medicine. Some have even had to ask for credit from their chemist. A growing number of young parents can no longer afford to pay for the milk powder for their babies. The question of declining income unites people across the language borders. 88 percent of Flemish people think life has become more expensive over the last year. More than half of the Walloons say they do not earn enough to guarantee their basic living conditions. Meanwhile political leaders of almost all the parties are completely absorbed by the "state reform" designed to devolve more state power to the regions. The abyss between ordinary Belgians and politicians has become immense.
Actions against banks and energy monopolies
The day of action is the continuation of the wave of strikes and demonstrations that has been taking place since the beginning of the year. The socialist union decided to call for a 24 general strike. But in the name of "unity" with the other unions this was downsized to a "day of action", a new warning shot, where all different industrial and regional unions could give it a different content.
Importantly, all the public transport union (trains, buses, trams and underground) called for a complete shutdown of the system. It was very successful in achieving, on its own, a partial paralysis of the country. In the South of the country almost all the private and public sector was closed. In the North the combative branch of the socialist union of the Oil and Petrochemical Workers (AC Antwerpen-Waasland) organised the shutdown of all industrial harbour activity. Roadblocks were even established on all main routes leading to the industrial zones. Many supermarkets in the big cities closed their doors. Textile workers and their unions organised a massive demonstration in the city of Ghent. The haemorrhage of jobs (1600 workers sacked) in less than five weeks in the textile industry was used by the union leadership to call off any strikes. The day of action, undoubtedly a success, could have been even stronger if different union leaders had not decided to sabotage union solidarity from within.
The leader of the Flemish socialist metal workers' union spearheaded the no strike front. He is already known for his Flemish nationalist position and partially responsible for the break-up of the union along language lines. "It is not a good time to strike", perplexed metal workers were reading in their weekend papers. "There are plenty of economic problems and going on strike now would be bad for the economy". He was immediately congratulated by the Flemish bosses' organisation, the most rabid section of the bourgeoisie in Belgium. "This is responsible trade unionism". Nevertheless, the metal union leader announced "symbolic" actions, which in reality would have involved no actions at all on 6th of October. The honour of the union was saved when all the unions of the linguistically mixed Audi (ex-Volkswagen) factory defied the no-strike call and shut down the plant completely. Mainly because of a lack of alternative leadership the rest of the sector continued to work. But discontent is slowly brewing within the ranks of the union.
Other union leaders went down the same way. The leader of the socialist teachers' union declared in the press just a few days before the strike "that his union was only participating because of the internal statutes that forced him to follow the other unions". Hardly the most convincing way to prepare a national strike! As a result of this one of the biggest branches of the union, from the Flemish University of Brussels adopted a motion criticising the attitude of the leadership and demanding a widespread discussions within the ranks. These are the first signs of a new period of internal political differentiation similar to the one that has opened within the Socialist Party.
The target of many actions and demonstrations all over the country were the headquarters of the main energy company, Electrabel, or "Electracash" as the workers call them. This is no surprise as in one year the electricity bill has shot up by 20%, gas by 50 % and gasoil by 60%. Meanwhile Electrabel (part of the Suez group) has been making billions of profit. Although the demands of the unions in regard to the energy sector are limited to the lowering of VAT from 21% to 6%, the idea of nationalisation of the energy sector is gaining in popularity. The Socialist left around SP.a Rood ‑ in which the Marxists play a key role ‑ was the first to raise this demand on a large scale.
Symptomatic were also the union actions in front of important banks. The day of action took place at a special juncture in the political and economical life of the country. Just a week earlier the first partial nationalisation of a "Belgian" bank in the 21st century had taken place. Belgium, being one of the most open and therefore most exposed economies of the world, just behind Luxemburg, was not able to escape the financial tsunami coming from the US. Belgium has become a very weak link in the chain of capitalism in Europe. Fortis, the first bank of the country and the 5th biggest in the Euro zone, was agonising and on the edge of collapse before the Belgian government injected a massive amount of money through partial nationalisation, together with France and the Netherlands. Later on in the week the government invested more billions in saving the Dexia bank.
Workers were surprised by the speed with which the government had "found" such an amount (now 12 billion euros) while they had been struggling for months and had only managed to get 100 million euros for the defence of workers' purchasing power! Indignation is spreading against this hold-up by the banks. The Fortis bank had been formed as the result of the privatisation of the former public bank ASLK, 10 years ago. The ASLK had been built up with public money and the deposits of half of the Belgian population! Once privatised it generated 27 billion euros of profit, of which 12 billion euros were distributed to the shareholders. But when the tide turned the state had to come and save it with taxpayers' money. This represented a huge transfer of money from the poor to the rich! After one week of turmoil Fortis has been completely dismantled by the (naturally) predatory manoeuvres of Dutch and French capitalists and their governments. What is left is a shell with some cash and assets, and nobody knows how many of them are ‘toxic'. Half a million shareholders, many of them "good housefathers", have seen their life savings evaporate in the space of a few weeks as the value of the shares has plummeted.
Suddenly the concept of nationalisation (of banks) also became the subject of everyday conversations. The following anecdote reveals this. During the day of action, striking workers in Brussels touring in buses were dropped off in front of the headquarters of the ING bank by mistake. The trade unionists turned to the driver and told him: "This is not the right bank. We were supposed to demonstrate in front of the National Bank." Another worker interrupted him saying: "We might as well occupy this bank and declare it nationalised in the name of the union, couldn't we" provoking a lot of laughter.
Socialist leaders disorientated
This underlines of course the question of the very limited demands of the trade union (less VAT on energy, tax credits for low income workers, etc.) at a time of a deep crisis of capitalism. The new budget presented this week by the federal government is an attempt to defuse the movement of the workers. Small but very unsatisfactory measures like the small increase of pensions, tax credits and energy bonuses are aimed at appeasing the demands of the union. This may be enough to satisfy the union leaders but not the broader rank and file. The new round of negotiations on wages with the bosses will be very difficult. If they dare to attack the sliding scale of wages the reaction of the working class would be explosive. Most likely the bosses will make big demands (flexibility, loopholes, longer working hours, etc.) in exchange for keeping the sliding scale of wages. In the run up to the day of action the bosses started to blackmail workers saying they had the choice of either keeping their jobs or higher income. The next step for the unions would be to call for a real 24-hour general strike for higher wages, the defence of the sliding scale, but also for the nationalisation of the energy sector and the banks!
The Flemish Socialist party has been taken completely by surprise by this financial crisis and by the determination of the workers to fight for better wages. Although in opposition, the leadership refused to support the union actions that were pressurising the government!!! When confronted with a resolution supporting the day of action in the Antwerp branch the national chairman rejected it and manoeuvred so that no vote could be taken. In the face of the banking crisis, the position of the leadership was a real cacophony of contradictory statements, never really raising any fundamental criticism or even a shadow of a socialist alternative. After 16 months in opposition the SP has managed to achieve something amazing: its popularity is lower now than ever with only 14.3% of the voters supporting it. This is no accident, as the leadership of the Socialist parties is completely disarmed politically in this situation. When an old dinosaur of the party, the present mayor of Leuven, was asked on TV how he could explain the losses in the polls at a time (a time of crisis of capitalism) that you would expect left parties to gain he answered: "our party lacks vision and profile".
Something is brewing
At best the leadership are seeking for more regulation to control the banks. But it is not the lack of regulation that is the cause of the actual crisis - and hundreds of party functionaries have bought this idea. In the space of one week the chairperson of the SP has presented the party first as a "progressive" party, then as a "centre-left" formation and then as a "centre" party, but never as a socialist party! In this context new doors are opening for the Marxists and the Socialist left. A press release by Erik De Bruyn, spokesperson of SP.a Rood calling for the nationalisation of the banks was quoted in the two main newspapers! On the ground trade unionists and young students have reacted well to our propaganda and explanations.
Although the recession has not been officially declared, the real economy has started to feel the pinch. In the North alone, the "wealthiest and most dynamic" area of Belgium, 2200 jobs have been lost since October 1. 5000 jobs have been axed since the beginning of the summer and the bosses have announced 70,000 job losses for next year across the country. This wave of sackings may ‑ although this is not sure at all - temporarily cut across the broad ascending line of workers' action in Belgium, especially if the reformist leadership of the unions fail to give any leadership and puts it foot firmly on the brakes. Whatever they do, the political ferment within the working class and young people will not disappear at all. This will not only mean a new period of workers' action but more importantly an unprecedented seeking of explanations and socialist ideas.
- From wildcat strikes to general strike: how Belgium is “catching up” by Erik Demeester (July 10, 2008)
- Belgium: Socialist candidate wins more than a third of the vote by André Gonsalis (October 29, 2007)
- Belgium: Socialist Left candidate nominated for elections of party chairperson! by Wim Benda (September 14, 2007)
- Belgium: 100,000 workers march through streets of Brussels by Erik Demeester in Brussels (November 1, 2005)
- 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)