Collapse of Belgian airline underlines bankruptcy of privatisation policy and of union strategy

Only superlatives and historical comparisons can help us to understand the scope of the sudden collapse of the Sabena airline and the new commotion it has provoked in Belgium. As one trade union leader put it: "Our society is going from one shock to the other." In just one day 12,000 workers have lost their jobs and 36,000 jobs in service-providing companies are now in jeopardy. This amounts to the biggest single bankruptcy since the second world war.

Only superlatives and historical comparisons can help us to understand the scope of the sudden collapse of the Sabena airline and the new commotion it has provoked in Belgium. As one trade union leader put it: "Our society is going from one shock to the other." In just one day 12,000 workers have lost their jobs and 36,000 jobs in service-providing companies are now in jeopardy. This amounts to the biggest single bankruptcy since the second world war. To this must be added the atmosphere of financial scandal and fraud surrounding the outgoing management.

Sabena workers were not informed by the management about their sudden fate but by the media. Many of them, ignorant of the situation, arrived at their workplace only to find closed doors and their magnetic access badges deactivated. The management and other leading staff had deserted their offices. None of them have been available since. Instead a strong police force tried to keep the shell-shocked workers calm. As one airhostess told me: "They don't even send us psychologists to help us cope with this disaster but only policemen." That morning, November 6, 2001, the main entry hall to the departure areas witnessed a spontaneous gathering of thousands of airline workers in a state of anger, sadness, confusion and unbearable tension. For the first time in many years all the professional grades who had been kept artificially separate from each other seemed to unite. Pilots were speaking with the ground workers, airhostesses entered into agitated conversations with cleaning staff, younger workers from the more depressed regions of the Borinage took their weeping older workmates in their arms as they realised this was the last job they would ever have in their lives. The most radical groups wanting immediate action were clustering around young workers with the least trade union traditions and paradoxically the better paid pilots, who were outraged at the way they had been treated by the management. If capitalism starts to upset even this category of workers then something very important must be happening in the workers' consciousness! Natural empathy and solidarity was the general reaction amongst ordinary workers in the country.

Rapidly many people understood that this bankruptcy was not caused by a natural disaster like a bad storm or an earthquake hitting the airline. It was neither God's Will or Destiny. This social tsunami was human made. Strictly speaking the Belgian airline was not even one of the numerous victims of the downturn affecting the industry after the S11 attacks in New York. Neither was it a casualty of the world recession. The world recession and S11 only served to exacerbate the process already taking place in the company. This process is called privatisation or more precisely piratisation and outright plunder. No surprise then that posters produced by Sabena workers denounced what they called "social and economic terrorism".

Sabena, until 1995 a public monopoly in the airline industry, was forced to open its capital to private shareholders. This privatisation imposed on the company by the European Union which did not authorise 100% publicly owned monopolies in the rail industry, transport, post office, telecoms, water and electricity distribution, and airlines was to become the death knell of Sabena. After a wedding with the French company Air France that ended rapidly, Swissair proposed to be its partner. The Belgian state maintained formally a majority share of a little more than 50% but had to offer the dowry. In reality the new private shareholder was running Sabena with the government turning a blind eye to their practices. The entry of Swissair is comparable to opening the door of your house to an unscrupulous thief. Swissair made a lot of promises of investment but ran away with the money. Successive transport ministers are at least passive accomplices of this plundering. The pilots' association had warned and given detailed proof to the government and the workers' unions of the modus operandi of this plundering. None of them wanted to listen. Swissair has siphoned billions of Belgian francs out of the catering and ground-handling department.

Some flight destinations of Sabena have been suppressed to the advantage of Swissair flights. Great suspicions exist about some expensive contracts with the Airbus manufacturers. Sabena workers will give you tens if not hundreds of examples of how the Swissair shareholders have succeeded in enriching themselves at the expense of Sabena and public money. Consequently a group of workers and some shop stewards are taking the company to court. The government has even announced a parliamentary inquiry in an effort to stave off criticism. The scandal is even bigger if you consider that for more than 10 years Sabena workers have been pressurised into accepting wage cuts (up to 17%), increases in productivity through the intensification of work (up to 200%) and of course, sackings. Sabena workers have a tradition of struggle against those "sacrifice packages". But their unions have always been on the defensive and have often justified the sacrifices in return for "social plans" to help sweeten their human cost. This is again the case now with the bankruptcy of Sabena. This time it is even worse because the deal with the government does not even meet the legal requirements which apply to workers who have been sacked "normally" by a still existing company.

The union leadership, behind the backs of the workers, without the slightest consultation, has signed this deal. The workers were not even informed by the unions of the deal. Again they had to hear it from the media. Contrary to previous struggles, no assemblies were organised in the workplace.

Courageous rank and file shop stewards took the initiative of organising action and challenging the attitude of the union leaders. In the days following the bankruptcy no union leader was present at the airport. When interviewed by a national television journalist about the division amongst the Sabena workers, a shop steward answered that the only division that existed in the airport was between the workers on the one hand and their union leaders and the government on the other. He is completely right.

This was not just a "problem of communication" as some national union leaders claimed. This gulf separating the floor from the tops can only be explained by the capitulation of the union leaders and some shop stewards to the logic of privatisation and their fatalistic acceptance of sackings and closures as the normal form of regulation of the economy.

This attitude sets those leaders on a collision course with the workers concerned and their families who cannot accept such "logic". Many activists understand that Sabena also represents the bankruptcy of the policy of privatisation by the government and also the bankruptcy of the official union strategy.

The demo organised at very short notice by the national union leaders reflected the rising tide of discontent with this strategy. The way the demo developed also indicates that the union leaders desperately want to continue to be just the caretakers of the social calamities caused by capitalism. More than 10,000 workers from all public services and from many factories participated. Many had made their own placards demanding "jobs not social plans". The union leaders present were "strongly recommended" by the Sabena workers not to march in front but to disperse in the demo. No speeches were given at the end. A massive gathering of workers nevertheless continued to discuss for more than an hour after the demo. Many refused to leave the place as they tried to challenge the image of a funereal atmosphere injected into the demo by the media, the government and the union leaders. This led to small skirmishes with the police. Rank and file leaders who had emerged from the earlier days of struggle are trying to give a perspective by calling for a massive turnout at the big demonstration of the European unions on December 13 against the European summit.

Marxists around Vonk-Unite intervened in the actions of the Sabena workers. They demand the renationalisation of Sabena under democratic workers' control. This demand challenges the European Union too, since they reject public monopolies and state handouts to industries. The workers and their democratically elected representatives should get access to the accounts and check what happened with the money squeezed from their sacrifice.

The capital for the new company should come from the banks and the financial institutions. Nationalisation of those companies is the only guarantee to achieve this.

A European struggle has to be waged against the privatisation policy. The struggle to defend public services has to be given a new impetus with the demonstrations of December 13. In Belgium different public service trade unions have already announced that they would organise a 24-hour strike that day.

Erik Demeester,
November 16, 2001

See also:

  • Vonk - website and paper of the Belgian Marxists

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