Belgium: First general strike in 12 years against bosses’ “work-till-you-drop” plans

After years of so-called consensus politics the Belgian workers have had enough of longer hours, cuts in welfare, speed-ups and they are coming out tomorrow in a massive general strike. The mood is one of bitter anger and determination to win.

Tomorrow, Friday, October 7th we will see the first nationwide general strike in Belgium for 12 years. It marks a watershed in the recent social history of the country. With this impressive action Belgium is now rapidly catching up with the level of class struggle in other European countries.

What is provoking this profound backlash on the part of the workers are the plans of the federal Liberal-Socialist government to get rid of early retirement schemes. What we have to remember is that early retirement is very often not taken out of free choice. It is the last defensive measure that workers have left in the face of redundancies. Otherwise they would be facing outright sackings and be living on low unemployment benefits..

“Normally we retire at the age of 59, but the government want to make us work until we are 65” thundered one of the main socialist union leaders at the end of this summer. Now workers all over the country especially in the industrial sector are moving from the initial perplexity to anger and then to action. “How come older workers – above the age of 50 – are going to have to work longer, while there are 600,000 unemployed, 125.000 of them young people?” is a question that many workers are asking.

The big idea behind these plans is to increase the “degree of activity of the older workers” as a way of saving on social security spending. This is a demand of the European Union. In reality this is the plan of the European bosses who wish to increase the rate of exploitation as part of their commercial tug-of-war with other industrial powers in the world and to face up to competition from the United States and Asia.

Older workers will be forced into low paid jobs instead of being able to enjoy early retirement. They also want to reduce their contributions to the social security system, which are biting in their profit margins. But until very recently the coalition government had moved slowly on this question. This slowness on their part was criticised by the bosses, the Liberals and the right wing of the Flemish Socialist Party.

Last year, however, was declared a turning point in the onslaught on workers’ rights. In the last analysis the slowness in the process was a reflection of the impasse between the social classes in Belgium and the difficulty the bosses were finding in involving the union leaders in this project. As one bourgeois newspaper stated a few days ago, “the union leaders need to take their responsibility, they want to take their responsibility but they cannot because of the rank and file.”

Ranks impose strike action

Approximately ten days ago the Socialist union ABVV-FGTB, was forced ‑ in the middle of the negotiation period with the government and the bosses ‑ to announce a general strike. The union leaders confessed this was done “under very big pressure” from the ranks. The Christian union ACV-CSC, who before the summer had been the first to threaten a wave of strike action, including a general strike, if the government persisted in its plans to force older workers to worker longer also set a date for a national strike but for Monday October 10, i.e. after the end of the negotiations. The excuse they gave was to give the talks a chance…

The socialist union came under severe attack, including even some Socialist Party leaders, for its supposedly “irresponsible” behaviour in declaring a strike while still in the middle of negotiations. Apparently the Belgian tradition of “consensus” does not allow for such threats of general strike action while negotiations are still on! Some leaders of the right have also argued that a political strike is not part of this tradition either. One even went as far as condemning the call for a general strike as illegitimate and compared it to a call for an insurrection and that it should be treated as such. Surely this individual has never seen an insurrection….

However, he does have a point. What is developing in Belgium is not a normal situation and it is one that has not been seen for more than a decade or so. Having said this, one should remember that it isn’t so surprising at all. Such kind of strike action had become a common feature in the collective bargaining negotiations in the spring of this year. The metal, food and commercial workers rediscovered this weapon in the working class armoury and won some concessions, albeit modest, which they wouldn’t otherwise have achieved e. They didn’t bother with the so-called rules and “traditions”. They were writing their own new rules or, to be more precise, they were rediscovering some of the rules of the good old class struggle from their own past.

Yesterday the Christian union withdrew its call for a general strike for October10. The will live to regret it, because the Socialist union has not called off its strike. In an almost defensive statement, one of the Socialist trade union leaders explained that “the preparations for the strike have gone too far to cancel it.”

Indeed, as soon as the call for a general strike went out, it generated a lot of enthusiasm among the workers, especially in industry and the private sector in general. Where preparatory meetings were held the mood was electric and one of confidence.

An important thing to note is that in many of the big factories the Christian shop stewards have established a de facto united front with the their Socialist colleagues to shut down the factory on Friday.

The Socialist metal workers’ union and the general workers’ union (building workers, chemical workers, etc) had already called for a two-day general strike as a way of countering the divisions of last week. Now all attention will be concentrated on shutting down industry on Friday. They will be helped by the railway workers who will stop running the network tonight at 10 pm. Here both the Christian and the Socialist union are calling first for a 24-hours strike and possibly another strike next week.

The bosses started the hostilities

“The Christian union is not divided, it is torn apart” commented the leader of the red metal workers. Indeed, most probably this last minute retreat of the Christian union leaders will not be followed on the shop floor where unity will be maintained between the workers. This is quite an unusual level of defiance on the part of the ranks not seen in the last 10 or 15 years. It is the result of a whole period of attacks by the bosses over the past fifteen years. In this period many workers were grudgingly forced into accepting many setbacks and increases in the intensity of work. It is not so much that they accepted it; rather they did not see a way out, especially when the union leaders went along with all these measures.

It was in the summer of 2004 that all this started to change. In August 2004 the bosses – in a more arrogant mood than ever ‑ confusing the soft and compromising attitude of most of the union leaders with the mood of the workers, launched an unprecedented attack throughout the whole of Europe and also in Belgium on the working week. They organised a venomous campaign in the press against the 38-hour week, calling for it to be increased to 40 hours a week or more.

In Germany they tried ‑and succeeded in some factories ‑ to increase the working week. In Belgium they tried but came up against some resistance. The average real working week has already reached 48 hours despite the official 38-hour week. Belgian workers are among the most flexible and the most productive in the world. This is not at all a record to be proud of, because it is paid for in higher stress, higher consumption of drugs, more accidents and more mental disorders.

The merely verbal opposition of the union leaders did not scare the bosses. So they continued their attacks during the national all-sector collective bargaining negotiations. But what they succeeded in doing with this was to push the workers and some of the trade unions over the limit. Here again, in the middle of the negotiations both the Christian and the Socialist unions called for a national demonstration against the wage freeze and the increased flexibility being demanded by the bosses.

The response was magnificent: 50,000 workers marched through an ice-cold capital on December 21. In some big factories workers had downed tools. This was contrary to the union leadership’s line. Bus drivers in the south also stopped work that day. More important, however, was the nature of the demo. This one was not at all like so many of the ritual and drab marches of the previous, made up of the usual, same old activists. No this was a stormy march, an undisciplined and quite an irreverent march composed of many ordinary workers.

This was a clear signal! That demo was a turning point as it revealed a strong and sharp consciousness deep within the ranks. It was summed up in one of the most popular slogans “Enough is enough,” Another slogan graphically expressed the mood that had now developed: “We have give in a lot over the last few years, now your time has come.”

Unfortunately this mood and readiness for action on the part of the ranks was not matched by the union leaders and an opportunity was lost. But for the first time in history no deal could be reached at national level between the bosses and the unions. Interestingly, there was also a revolt within the bosses’ camp where in some industries they rejected the deal as not going far enough and they accused the national negotiators of being soft. These sectors were pushing for a more decisive confrontation with the working class. On both sides of the class divide there is growing desire for bolder action against the class enemy.

The government then unilaterally imposed new wage restraints as a way of breaking the stalemate. But the union leaders did not dare put their signature to these proposals and preferred passive opposition rather than be identified with this deal. The spring negotiations for collective bargaining agreements in the different industries confirmed the beginnings of a new mood of militancy among the workers.

Increased level of confrontation

The metal workers threatened their first nationwide strike in 46 years. Even more important than this, however was the appearance of sections of the working class not previously noted for their fighting tradition: the workers of the food industry. They organised a series of strikes and succeeded in breaking through the ceiling of the wage restraint. This did not go unnoticed by the other workers. And now we have a general strike.

The general level of social confrontation has also increased, following an irregular and at times contradictory process, but it has been slowly increasing in many factory disputes. Social pressure in general is increasing. Incidents where bosses physically attacked workers on the picket lines of some small factories became national news on two occasions this spring.

This will not stop after this general strike. On the contrary! In the North, the Flemish part of the country, we have an interesting development. The dominant national myth is that this part of the country is more inclined to reasoning, negotiation and consensus. But the Flemish bosses have sent a letter to all the mayors, as they are the heads of the local police, calling on them to take measures tomorrow to stop the workers from blockading the industrial areas where many small companies operate. In the letter the say that if necessary they should do so “manu militari.”

These companies have historically been “no go areas’” for the unions. Workers there are under very big pressure not to go on strike. This, during the last general strike of 1993, led to a new tactic of flying pickets organised by the workers in the bigger factories to close down the smaller companies, blockading them with barricades of cars, burning tires and other material.

Back in 1993 the bosses were taken by surprise. This time they are preparing. But so are the workers. In the big factories the successful experience of 1993 has not been forgotten and many plans have been drawn up to repeat the same tactic to help their colleagues in the smaller factories. For them it is an expression of elementary class solidarity that is being rediscovered. The bosses will most likely condemn this form of struggle as “social terrorism.”

Tomorrow’s general strike will bring to the surface and make it evident to all that the Belgian working class has monumental power. The old myth of a “nice and peaceful Belgium” will be shattered tomorrow. It will be seen for what it really was: just a myth. The mere fact that under capitalism the word “progress” has seized to mean working less and now implies working longer hours until you drop is a terrible historical condemnation of the system as a whole. The struggle for a real socialist leadership that can match the combativity and the hopes of the workers will be given a new impetus by this mobilisation. Things are changing rapidly in Belgium, and there is no going back.

Brussels, October 6, 2005

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