Belgium: after 20 years of austerity, workers go into action to recover lost income

The petrol price hike in the last few months has added fuel to the already existing social discontent in Belgium. Very soon after the truckers in France and the rest of Europe had paralysed their respective countries in the first half of September, the industrial workers in the South of Belgium took over and launched their own action, demonstrations and strikes to stop the further dwindling of the value of their income.

The petrol price hike in the last few months has added fuel to the already existing social discontent in Belgium. Very soon after the truckers in France and the rest of Europe had paralysed their respective countries in the first half of September, the industrial workers in the South of Belgium took over and launched their own action, demonstrations and strikes to stop the further dwindling of the value of their income.

Indeed the petrol price hike had started very rapidly to erode the real income of working class families and had put pensioners and the unemployed in a desperate situation when the moment came for them to fill the oil tanks of their central heating systems to prepare for the new winter. Suddenly most of them found they had to pay a full month's pension or allowance to cover the cost of heating for the coming months.

In a clear effort to differentiate their struggle from that of the truckers organisation of the bosses and other industries, the workers also targeted one of the biggest oil depots in the country which was surrounded by hundreds of trade union activists. A mass demonstration was organised against the infamous Belgian steel boss, Albert Frère, who is one of the biggest shareholders in Total-Fina, the petrol company which increased its profits by 165 percent last year.

Following on from this, the two main industrial areas of the South were paralysed by a 24-hour strike. On the 30th September 30,000 workers marched in a national demonstration in Brussels for wage and benefit increases, for a genuine indexation reflecting the real increase in the cost of living and for an end to the high pressures of work. In some big factories workers went on strike so as to be able to participate in the demonstration. A group of female workers expressed their desperation at the conditions on the shop floor in the words of a song: "you must be a fool to work nowadays, because you cannot earn a decent living by working, and you rapidly ruin your health".

During the past two years we have also witnessed an increase in strikes related less to job losses and more and more to the pressures and the intensity of work. There was a week long strike in the supermarket chain, Aldi, in the North, against the terrible working conditions, organised by the underpaid and overexploited workers, a majority of whom are young women. The small recovery in economic growth which started in 1998 has also led to a recovery of strike action in the factories. The curve of strikes in the last two years is an ominous reminder for the bosses of the level of class conflict that took place in the second half of the 1970s.

On the national union demonstration many of those taking part were young workers. This is a reflection of the influx of a new generation of workers into the factories that has taken place in the last few years. This has also affected the unions who have seen half of their activists being replaced by new and younger members during the elections for factory committees (and also the councils for security and health) in May of this year.

The size of the demonstration took a lot of union leaders by surprise. Incredibly these union "leaders" had fixed a new "quota" on the number of workers who could take part in a demonstration! This meant limiting a demonstration to no more than 10,000 workers (5,000 for each union confederation). But as one union leader told us: "that quota had already been broken two weeks before this action started, because the local unions did not want to, and could not, respect it".

This new militant mood is best represented by the Walloon (Note: southern, French speaking Belgium) bus drivers who are now entering their fifth week of strike demanding a net BF10,000 (£155) monthly wage increase. They are very determined to put an end to what they call their previous "years of misery". This strike has been provoked, as one Belgian paper puts it, by the "exaggerated optimistic declarations of the federal government about the economic upswing and about harvesting the fruits of growth".

More generally the radicalism of these workers has been stimulated by the very justified fear on their part that the fruits of economic growth would never have been tasted if they did not take action themselves here and now. They judged correctly that they could not trust the government to voluntarily and freely give concessions. Or, to be more precise, the bosses (represented by the actions of the truckers) had already moved into action to demand a share of the pie of the economic growth. If we, the workers, want a part of it, we will have to do the same as them and strike hard. Especially at the moment when the increase in prices in energy products had already diminished their income by an average of one percent since the beginning of this year. Instead of the increase in income they had hoped for, they saw just the opposite happening.

The anger of the workers in the industrial belts of Liège, Charleroi and other cities was directed against the so-called "health and snail index". This is our own Belgian version of a sliding scale of wages, but it is not a genuine index because in 1994 price increases of all petroleum related products (thus the "health index") were no longer taken into consideration when calculating wage increases. Also the index only affects wage increases after a 6 month delay, that is six months after the effective increase in the cost of living (thus the "snail index"). All this means that the official "index" is now 2.7 percent behind the real increase in the cost of living.

Apart from this "index", there also exists a "wage norm". This was invented after the end of the untenable wage freeze in 1996, as a system to moderate wage demands in consultation with the union leaders (it means active collaboration by the union leaders to exert self constraint). On the basis of this system, wage increases in Belgium were not allowed to go beyond the average of the increases of Belgium's three main trading partners, France, the Netherlands and Germany. The norm being applied today for the new wage negotiations that start this week is 6.4 percent. This, however, already includes the increases related to the "index".

The wage negotiations in the private sector have just started. The union leaders are entering this round very timidly compared to the arrogance of the bosses who still want more exploitation and further concessions on the part of the unions.

Against this background of growing militancy, it will be very difficult for the union leaders to maintain this unacceptable begging attitude towards the bosses and the government. The scene is set for a hot autumn, a hot autumn which will not be limited solely to the French-speaking part of the country but will spill over to the Flemish part of the country, in the North. The spontaneous strike against excessive pressure at work by the much better paid young workers in the Daikin metal factory in Ostend, at the beginning of October, demonstrates that the North is not immune from what the bourgeois press describes as the "Walloon disease".

This generalised outbreak of social ferment is the result of the artificial "feel-good factor" promoted by the new government which came into office a year ago. "Belgium is doing well" is the favourite refrain of the new Liberal Prime Minister, Verhofstadt. In fact, GDP has been on the rise for the last few years reaching 4.4 percent growth this year and at the same time unemployment has been reduced. Probably for the first time in two decades, the national state budget is expected to have a surplus next year. In the last few months the government has been announcing, to all who want to hear, that at last the population will be tasting the fruits of the economic recovery and of their (imposed and never accepted) efforts. The distribution of the fruits of growth were announced last week, but at best will only be seen within 2 to 6 years.

In announcing this, the government is playing with fire and clearly underestimating the effect on the exasperated working people who have a very profound desire to recover their lost income now, and not tomorrow, because they also have a foreboding that this economic recovery will not last for ever. At the same time that this government is announcing the end of the long and black tunnel of sacrifices it is going ahead with its plans to privatise the Post Office and the Telecom industry. In the Post Office this will lead to the loss of 13,000 jobs. This has already led to a 24-hour strike in these sectors.

The biggest social agitator has become the government itself. It is in danger of falling between two chairs: on the one hand it announces officially, and pompously, the end of austerity, and on the other it cannot deliver enough in the short term (apart from a lot of promises for the next six years). The result will be more frustration and the perspective of a new big wave of struggle. Clearly dissatisfied by the distribution of the fruits of the economic recovery the railway workers' union is planning a 48-hour strike in November. At the same time the Belgian Airline, Sabena, has announced a loss of profits (which no worker believes) meaning that 500 jobs will have to be cut. Here also we see that many of those young workers taken on in the last few years by this economic giant have been threatening to go on strike.

Considering the loss of income over the last two decades we can easily understand the workers' impatience. The total loss in income for wage earners and receivers of benefit in the last twenty years amounts to the sum of BF900 billion (£14 billion) or 10 percent of total 1998 Gross Domestic Product in Belgium. A trade union leader expressed it this way: "Nobody realises that in the last few years we have seen a silent devaluation of pensions and unemployment benefits. In 1970 the legal pension stood at 35 percent of the average wage. Now this has been reduced to 32 percent. Unemployment benefit was 45 percent of the average wage, but now it is only 25 percent".

Today half of the workers in Belgium earn only a wage of BF50,000 (£770) per month. One million earn only BF40,000 (£615) a month. At the same time the bosses made BF350 billion in profits in 1997, 514 billion in 1998, 504 billion in 1999, and this year it is estimated their profits will be over BF600 billion.

So we see that it is only one part of Belgium which is doing well, even very well, while the other part (the overwhelming majority) has been excluded from the benefits of growth.

This feeling of being left out of the party leads to more frustration. An illustration of this is the vote in the council elections of the extreme right wing party, Vlaams Blok, in the North. The national government of the "rainbow coalition" of the Liberals, the Greens and the Socialists had hoped that the feel-good factor they had tried to create would have eroded support for the Vlaams Blok.

Quite the opposite happened. In Antwerp the Vlaams Blok increased its vote by 5 percent, reaching 33 percent, consolidating their position as the biggest party in the country's major industrial city. In two other important cities the extreme right wing also succeeded in growing. In the villages and smaller towns they also increased their support. The main explanation is to be found in the fact that most of the people do not feel, see or taste the "feel-good factor" in their daily life. The identification of the Socialist Party leaders with government policy leaves the poorest, less organised and most alienated sections of the working class and young people prey to the racist demagogy of the Vlaams Blok.

If the leaders of the labour movement, in particular of the trade unions, were to launch mass actions for a real sliding scale of wages and benefits, for a big increase in the minimum wage, for an end to the inhuman and intolerable pressures at work via the reduction of the working week to 35 hours and a programme of public works to rebuild what has been destroyed in twenty years of austerity, would begin to turn the balance of forces in favour of the working class.

The radicalism and the determination in action of a new generation of workers will, at a certain stage, also affect their political thinking which will lead them to question the system itself. That was part of the background of the political radicalisation of the generation of young workers and students in the seventies. This process will undoubtedly be more protracted now, but it is definitely present in the situation today. Those who thought that economic recovery would be synonymous to social peace are in for a lot of surprises.

Erik Demeester,
Brussels, 24th October, 2000

[Back to In Defence of Marxism] [Back to Western Europe]