From wildcat strikes to general strike: how Belgium is “catching up”

Since the beginning of this year Belgium has witnessed a wave of wildcat strikes reminiscent of the 1970s. The movement has spread spontaneously from one sector to another. Significantly it has rekindled class unity across the language divide at the same time as the bourgeois attempt to divide the working class along national lines.

Patience has run out. Working class families in Belgium have suffered a swift erosion of their purchasing power in a short period of a few months. Inflation is now near to 6%, the highest in the European Union. For a whole period workers seemed powerless to protect their income. They waited patiently, although grudgingly, for the government or someone else to take measures. But inflation was not so patient!

Strike of Flemish local government workers
Strike of Flemish local government workers

The purchasing power of ordinary people was quickly evaporating. Despite years of economic prosperity many people are in fact living on the edge of poverty. Just a small change in their income can push them over that edge. One in seven Belgians are already considered to be poor. Some experts, however, question these official figures and put the figure at almost one third of the population - i.e. 3 million ‑ that cannot afford basic necessities with their wages or benefits. This is a long-term trend undermining the conquests of the welfare state built up since the Second World War. How else can one explain the fact that in an industrial city like Charleroi life expectancy has now fallen back to the level of... 1955? Now, one in every five wage earners is considered as "working poor", a phenomenon considered until recently as belonging exclusively to the USA. Furthermore, pensions are the lowest in the European Union.

Inflation eating away income

Since the beginning of the year the bills for natural gas and electricity have increased respectively by 25% and 15%. Many basic foodstuffs have increased in price gradually but stubbornly. The bosses have attacked so-called "inflation hysteria". The talk about the subjective feeling of inflation as if it were a figment of imagination, just a question in the heads of the workers. It is not a problem in our heads but in our purse! As a result of these price hikes an ordinary working class family with two kids and a monthly income of 1500 Euros will spend an extra 676 euros at by the end of the year.

The sliding scale of wages, still in existence in Belgium despite many attempts to dismantle it, is not enough to protect the income of ordinary people. The "index", as it is known, has been manipulated over many years so that products like fuel and cigarettes are not taken into account when calculating wages and benefits. This is what is cynically referred to as the "health index". Furthermore, it takes much longer than before - up to 4 months - to adapt the wages to the real rate of inflation. In the end higher taxes partially neutralises the advantages of this system. Also, wage agreements for some sections of workers include rules so that the wage increases due to higher prices never go beyond a certain limit. This "index" is like a raincoat full of holes.

So when at the beginning of this year the government announced to a shocked country that there "was no money left" to protect the incomes of its population, passivity turned into a rarely seen urge for action amongst the working class.

Wildcat strikes

A strong wave of spontaneous strikes took off in January. This was a typical offensive movement of the working class on the economic front. Literally every day there was a strike in at least one significant factory in Belgium that month. The bosses compared it to an "epidemic of wild strikes". They grumbled about the lack of respect for the "agreed and established rules of negotiations". The union leaders were being accused of having lost the credibility of their members. What the bosses are really complaining about is the growing inability of the union tops to hold back their members as they did before. The truth of the matter is that the union leaders, as well as the bosses, were completely taken by surprise by this sudden surge of strike activity.

Strike of Flemish local government workers
Fire-fighters demanding an extra 1000-euro yearly wage increase

It was no accident that the movement started among the young temporary workers employed by the subcontractors at the Ford car plant. These young temporary workers have less, or no loyalty at all, towards the company they are working in than other workers with permanent contracts for example. This was a complaint echoed by the main leader of the Socialist metalworkers' union! Wage inequality among workers doing the same job, often in the same workplace, has been cultivated by so-called "lean production" methods practised in the car industry. This would already be a potentially explosive situation in a "normal" context. Outsourcing production was accepted and even promoted by the union leadership as a way of saving jobs and "anchoring" the car industry to the region.

This whole situation pushed the workers to take strike action. The economy was expanding, order books were full, the labour market was tight, bosses in the metal industry faced a shortage of staff, the speed of the production lines was oscillating between 98 and 105 % of what was objectively possible - an inhuman pressure ‑ and inflation was eroding the value of the monthly wage. Workers thus demanded a wage increase of 1 euro an hour. This demand was to rapidly become the rallying cry of the strike wave. Significantly, and possibly to the surprise of the workers themselves, the bosses quickly gave in and conceded a combination of wage increases and special bonuses. Subcontractors were urged by the mother company Ford to give in.

"The last will be the first"

With these concessions they secretly hoped to head off any possible other strikes and minimise the interruption to production. But this was a gross miscalculation! Not only did the strikes spread like wildfire throughout the network of subcontractors around Ford, but Ford itself was also unable to escape the maelstrom of strikes. Encouraged by the successes of the first strikes the whole of the production line at Ford came to a standstill.

Demonstration in Antwerp on 9th of June
Demonstration in Antwerp on 9th of June

The strike epidemic was beginning to spread to other companies in the metal industry in the province of Limburg where Ford has its factory. This province has a reputation of being "slow" and is even considered to be "backward" by many activists. But recent events confirm Biblical wisdom: "The first shall be the last and the last shall be the first..." Other provinces and industrial sectors were also affected in the following months. As inflation knows no language borders or nationalist divisions the whole of the Belgian working class has become involved in this movement. Even in the middle of June, factories were still facing spontaneous strikes related to the question of falling purchasing power. Such a wave of wildcat strikes has not been seen for more than 30 years. We need to go back to the seventies to remember strikes similar to the ones seen today.

An interesting feature in the situation is the fact that most of the strikes were initiated in the Northern and wealthier provinces of the country with a highly unionised workforce and traditions more similar to those in Germany or the Scandinavian countries. Spontaneous strikes are usually identified with the character and temperament of the Walloon workers of the southern part of Belgium. Not so anymore! The general picture from strike figures indicates that the Northern working class has taken over the torch of the Walloon workers. Since the 1990s, and even some years earlier, the number of strikes in the Flemish area have exceeded those in the French-speaking part of the country. Last year for instance in the province of Antwerp alone there were more days lost through work stoppages than in the whole of the Walloon region! Antwerp has in fact become the strike capital of Belgium!

Pressure from below

It was not the union leaders who called these strikes. In effect in many cases no one called them. Ordinary workers were just emulating their friends, their colleagues in other factories. Images on TV news that in this or that factory workers had won a wage increase or a bonus were enough to provoke new strikes. In reality, the bosses tried to head off strikes by immediately entering into talks with the unions. Often the sole talk or rumour of a possible strike on the shop floor was enough for the boss to come up with concessions and renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The VBO bosses' federation (that section of the bourgeois that has a more general and long term view of the interests of the capitalists) was trying desperately to stop these concessions from being made. But to no avail! At the beginning of March in the Flemish metal industry alone more than 90 collective bargaining agreements were renegotiated. The national and regional union leaders were quick to come out and explain that they were not behind the strike wave! And unfortunately they were speaking the truth!

Demonstration in Antwerp on 9th of June
Demonstration in Antwerp on 9th of June

The bosses were very angry and demanded that the union leaders keep a stronger check on their members. Local shop stewards and militants in the workplaces faced opposing pressures. The union bureaucracy asked them to restrain the workers. The bosses wanted the union leaders to act as policemen in the ranks of their members. To their shame some did play that role, particularly in the socialist union at Ford. Here a leading shop steward of the socialist union who supported the spontaneous strike lost his position and was moved to another job in the factory.

On the other hand the pressure of the workers for immediate action was overwhelming. The rank and file often bypassed local union people. This meant that despite the bosses' hysterical talk of "illegal strikes" the work stoppages were almost everywhere "recognised", i.e. made official, by the unions and strike benefit was paid out. This is different from what happened with the strike wave in the 1970s where the union leaders refused to recognise the strikes fuelling anti-trade union feelings and some ultra-left reactions among the workers. Shop stewards and union branches in the factories started to take initiatives and put forward new wage demands and threatened strike action; this despite the fact that all CBA's include a clause where the union commit itself to respecting the sacred "social peace".

Public sector joins the dance

The movement of the private sector workers was followed by that of the public service workers. The workers in the Flemish regional administration went on strike in March demanding higher wages. These workers control the locks on the canals (part of transportation goes through the canal system) and sections of the harbours. To maximise the effect of the stoppage they organised a rolling strike, of 24 hours in each province, one after the other. At the end of one week of official action workers in the harbours and those who control the locks threatened to continue the strike. Very quickly, the regional government signed a deal offering a moderate wage increase reluctantly accepted by the ranks.

Then the railway unions were forced to call a 24-hour general strike after a revolt of the rank and file and the local branches over a bad pay deal. The strike completely paralysed the whole railway system. Not one train moved for a day and a night. This was another powerful signal. In general "spontaneous social conflicts" have increased throughout the whole of society on other issues as well. The railways have witnessed many spontaneous strikes as a result of problems related to insecurity. In different parts of the country bus drivers also have been regularly on strike in protest against violence at work and insecurity, against the advice of their union leaders. The right-wing political parties and the bosses therefore are calling for a minimum service to be imposed during strikes. For the moment they have not been able to implement this. For now, they prefer to try to rely on the union leaders to keep a check on the workers.

Union leaders by-passed

The whole situation pushed the union leadership to declare a week of action from the 9th to the 12th of June around a series of demands to protect real purchasing power. The main intention of the union leaders was to let off steam by organising what are known as "quota" demonstrations. These are demonstrations with a limited number of participants. Something like a banquet where you are only allowed to attend if you have a formal invitation.

Young workers at demonstration in Antwerp
Young workers at demonstration in Antwerp

Every day there would be a demonstration in a Flemish and a Walloon province, stressing the importance of unity across the language border. The result was overwhelming and very much beyond what the union leaders had wanted. The readiness for action of ordinary workers is very strong. Over just four days 100,000 workers took to the streets in very militant demonstrations, much more than expected.

In Antwerp 10,000 turned up, in Liège 25,000 and so on. In a clear act of defiance to the dominant nationalist or regionalist agenda of the ruling parties, the Antwerp oil and chemical workers sent a delegation of Flemish workers to the demonstration in the French-speaking Liège. The speech they delivered defending the unity of the working class across the language borders was received with rapturous applause. In Antwerp the demonstration was led by young workers of the Daf truck factory, all of them Flemish workers, chanting in French ‘Tous ensemble' (All together) in the streets of this city where the extreme right-wing and nationalist party, Vlaams Belang, used to win one third of the votes!

More importantly were the spontaneous strikes that again accompanied the week of action, even though it had clearly been announced that this would not be a week of strikes. Many of the shop stewards or regional trade union leaders rejected the idea of quotas. They issued the call that anyone who wanted to go on the demonstrations was authorised to do so, even if it implied not going work and stopping production. This had a terrific effect on the demonstrations, which were composed of many young workers who were demonstrating for their first time. Important factories were paralysed and others worked at limited capacity.

The leaders of the socialist metal union in the North tried to sabotage the movement by not informing their members. But the mood for action was too strong for bureaucratic manoeuvres to stop it. For instance in one big metal factory a young Marxist trade unionist took the initiative to distribute the union leaflet to his workmates. Within a few days 80% of the workers had enlisted to go on strike. Pressure and phone calls from the bosses' federation to the local union or from the national leadership to stop the strike had no effect. Important was also the decision of the rank and file shop stewards of the public transport sector to go on strike in Antwerp.

The rest of the week, region by region, bus and tram drivers went on strike. In Brussels for instance, a convenor of a chocolate factory told us she had rejected the quota imposed on her by the union bureaucrats. "Every worker in the factory must be authorised to go on the demonstration or else nobody will go." Reluctantly this was accepted. Within a few days 96% of the workers enlisted to go on the demonstration. The factory stopped production that day. This example is typical of the mood and reaction of the workers today in Belgium.

Ten days later 140,000 Flemish local government workers (council administration, libraries, fire-fighters, hospital staff, etc) went on a one-day strike. They demanded an extra 1000-euro yearly wage increase! Here again the mood was quite militant. Now one of the biggest socialist unions has called for a general strike for the second half of September if the government does not take measures such as the reduction of VAT on energy prices, etc. Other unions are also considering a 24-hour strike. "If the government does not take action we will have to take on the bosses to get our demands met" declared one of the main trade union leaders. The peasants also demonstrated with hundreds of tractors just as the truckers did in the centre of the capital. The bourgeoisie fear a more generalised movement of the working class over the next few months, and correctly so! This is how things stand nowadays in Belgium.

Paralysis at the top of society

This rank and file activism among workers is in sharp contrast with the utter paralysis of the federal (national) government since the elections of June last year. First of all it took them 195 days of negotiations to form... an interim government, then a few more months to establish what is presented as a "real" government. Composed of the Flemish Liberals, Christian Democrats and Nationalists on one side and the French-speaking Socialists, Liberals and Christian Democrats on the other, this government was completely paralysed from the very beginning.

Demonstration in Lieges
Demonstration in Liège

At the root of this unprecedented inertia lies the tug-of-war over the "state reform" between Dutch and French speaking parties, which actually reflects a strong division within the bourgeoisie itself. The party that is posing demands is the Flemish nationalists (all Flemish parties including the Socialist party is infected with this disease). They want more powers for the regional government with the aim of obtaining a regional split of the social security system, labour laws, fiscal policies and labour market policies. To put it bluntly, this is the agenda of the most rabid right wing in Flanders backed by the bosses and middle class federations who see in this state reform a way of further dismantling the welfare state. This "reform", they consider, would proceed more slowly, or with greater difficulty, on a federal level. Opposition at that level would come from within the state (opposition from a layer of the bourgeois and the monarchy) and would also face a united and, because of this, a stronger working class.

Their agenda resembles that of Bossi's Lega Nord (Northern League) which reflects the demands of a section of the northern Italian bourgeoisie. Their attempt to push forward this agenda right in the middle of the negotiations to form the federal government has led to an impasse rarely seen in Belgian politics. A bourgeois newspaper recently compared the government to the living dead, a political zombie. Ministers confess that no one trusts anyone in the cabinet. The main activity of the ministers is to undermine the activity of their "colleagues". Only eight (!) new bills have been presented by the government over a 13-month period. Moreover, it was the "interim government" that was replaced by the "real government" in January that presented them. The present government, that has been in charge since then, has done almost nothing. Can one imagine a worse kind of paralysis? The old system of dealing with regionalist demands - the centrifugal forces among the bourgeois - seems no longer to work.

Ordinary people are either indifferent or just fed up with this state of affairs. It is also true that a layer of the working class and the unions has been affected by nationalist prejudice. One commentator said this was "a crisis without a public". The government is satisfying nobody: not the bosses who want to see some measures in their favour, not the nationalists and, of course, not the workers.

The government could fall by the middle of July. But as there is no political alternative it could teeter on for a while, eventually being recomposed and languishing until the regional elections in 2009. Meanwhile a new right-wing party - a split from the Flemish Liberals (in reality conservatives) - is making serious headway in the polls. There is renewed talk of establishing a kind of "Forza Flandria" (referring to the right-wing bloc around Berlusconi in Italy) a joint collaboration between the Vlaams Belang and that new party of Liberals.

This brings back memories of the situation in the second half of the 1970s where one government followed another until a homogenous right-wing government came to power in 1981 and launched a savage attack on the welfare state. Already the public budget specialists have calculated that serious cuts will be necessary very soon. The regional elections of 2009 will therefore play a most important role, as they will have a greater influence than ever on the future of the federal government. Regionalism in Flanders and Wallonia will then play the most pernicious role in attempts to divide and confuse the working class in the face of an attack similar to that of the 1980s. Fortunately, there are already strong countervailing tendencies in favour of class unity in an organised form within the unions, once again thanks to the initiative of the rank and file shop stewards.

Socialists inside and outside the government!

The situation is rather unique within the Belgian Socialist movement. For the first time ever we have something that resembles an asymmetrical government, where the French-speaking Socialists are in the government and the Flemish Socialists are out. The electoral rout of the Flemish Socialist party in June of last year and the defiance of the rank and file towards any repeat of the policies of the last government, make it difficult for the leadership to jump back into the government.

Demonstration in Lieges
Demonstration in Liège

An important part of the leadership of the Flemish Socialist party is nevertheless eager to participate in any kind of government and has swallowed the nationalist argument. They are calling for a kind of so-called "social state reform", which is fundamentally the same as the agenda of the bourgeois nationalists but with a "social" phraseology. The Socialist opposition towards the government is weak. Silently they hope to passively capitalise on the people's discontent by doing and saying as few things as possible. The main initiative they took towards their own rank and file was to invite them and their families to... the zoo!

All this, combined with the surge in the class struggle, is focussing attention on the left within the Socialist Party around the Marxist Erik De Bruyn. The new left inside the Socialist Party, as well as the Marxists around Vonk, intervening in the strike movement, are also the only forces raising the question of nationalisation and the complete socialist reorganisation of the economy.

Soon the economy will be affected by a slowdown. Belgium is considered to be one of the countries that are most vulnerable to the recession spreading from the USA because of its very open economy. Only Luxemburg has a more "international" economy. The main industrial associations have a gloomy perspective for economic activity over the next six months. They are predicting factory closures and sackings to start soon. The renewed working class militancy that has emerged since the beginning of the year will be put to the test by a recession. The partial successes in the economic struggles have had the effect of starting to transform a layer of the working class and have given them a new confidence. A new round of wage negotiations is scheduled for the autumn. The bosses are on the offensive and are preparing for a showdown if necessary; the working class also. In this situation new class conflict is inevitable and it will provide new opportunities for socialist ideas to spread among the workers and youth.

See also: