This article was written last week. Since then things have moved very fast in Belgium. In many factories the workers have started to discuss the new government decisions and they are very angry. Spontaneous strikes and demonstrations are spreading in Wallonia and in Brussels. On Sunday evening the night shift of the big Volkswagen factory in Brussels downed tools and went out to protest. All the other shifts up to Tuesday morning did the same.
Christian and Socialist unionists, Flemish and Walloon workers, are united in the struggle. In the South in Charleroi both unions have called for a new general strike for Monday, October 24 and several engineering factories also came out on strike on Monday. The same happened in Liège. Yesterday 500 metal workers demonstrated and called for a general strike.
The pressure on the leadership of both unions, but especially of the Christian union, is becoming uncontrollable. Under this pressure they have been forced to reject the government measures. The Socialist union had already done this.
Now a new general strike is on the agenda for Friday, October 28. According to the thinking of the union leaders, this was not supposed to happen. Even the left leaders of the Socialist union had declared last week that a general strike is a tool that you can only use once every ten or twelve years!
They used this argument to justify their position that another general strike cannot be called again at such short notice. But times are changing! There will also be a national demonstration on the same day in Brussels. If all that proves insufficient to make the government retreat the unions have announced new actions. This is a victory of the rank and file. As one newspaper front page headline read this morning: “Belgium from below has imposed a general strike”.
October 19, 2005
October 7, a very general strike
“The economy is paralysed, the transport system is immobilised, supermarkets are abandoned; school students are on holiday. (…) The scope of the strike is surprising. It did not only touch this Wallonia which is described by Flanders as being more ideological and having a culture of strikes. Also the North was blocked, its ports, its buses, its industrial areas. What? Such an ill prepared, such a badly explained and such a late convoked strike? A strike launched by the FGTB (socialist union) on its own, dismissed by the Christian union (the most important in the country) and by the Liberal union? The anger has flared up because the fire was just waiting be lit. In Belgium, just like in France yesterday, where one million workers have been on strike, the workers have shown that they are living in fear” (Le Soir, 8/9th October 2005).
This was the only comment from the bourgeois press which reveals a more or less reasonable understanding of the meaning of the general strike called by the Socialist trade union (ABVV-FGTB) in Belgium against the “work-till-you-drop plans” of the government.
The day before the strike a poll published by two right wing papers revealed that four in ten people supported the strike. In the same poll three quarters of the population also rejected the government measures. Still the bosses maintain that only ten percent of the workforce participated in the strike. For them the strike is not the result of a mass movement. An editorial of a bourgeois paper insisted on claiming that this strike “was not even worth a footnote in the history books”(De Standaard, 8/9th October 2005). Reading these words we do not have to have too vivid an imagination to see why Belgium is considered the birthplace of surrealism. It reminds us of the famous painting of a pipe by Margritte, with the comment “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“this is not a pipe”). If he were still alive the same Margritte would surely be tempted to draw a new painting of a general strike with the comment “ceci n’est pas une grève générale” (“this is not a general strike”).
“An overwhelming success”
The first general strike for 12 years that took place on 7th October was a considerable success for the working class. There is no room for doubt now. The deeply rooted feelings of anger and frustration on the part of the working class, for the first time in years are being expressed through collective and united action.
In a sense this was probably the biggest general strike the ABVV-FGTB had ever convoked on its own in the last 25 years. The leaders of the red union declared it “an overwhelming success” and they added “and beyond our expectations.” The participation was even more impressive if you consider that the workers faced a real monster of a coalition of all the big political parties, the establishment and the media who attacked the call for a general strike. Especially the so-called “left” media was unusually brutal in slandering the action of the Socialist union.
Thus, workers who went on strike did so in defiance of a powerful dominant ideological propaganda machine. The bourgeois media and the government, including the leaders of the Socialist parties, declared solemnly that the FGTB-ABVV had only succeeded in isolating itself and that it would now be disqualified from negotiating with the other “social partners.”
On the other hand, the [ACV-CSC] Christian union’s realism and “intelligent strategy” is being praised by all, including by the Socialist Party leaders who criticised severely the Socialist union. But, as the general strike will show, it is not the Socialist union that is now isolated, but the government, the reformist leaders, the bosses and the leaders of the Christian union. They all live in the same country but in two different worlds.
The strike centred on industry (the paralysis of the big factories and the closure of the industrial areas, of small and medium sized companies, the ports of Antwerp and Gent), public transport (trains, buses, trams and metro) and trade (shops and supermarkets). Other public services were only partially affected. Many post offices were nevertheless shut down. Education was largely disrupted. Thanks to the strike of the railways where not one train moved that day, the ministries were also badly affected.
The scope of the strike can only be explained by the fact that many workers and also shop stewards belonging to the Christian union did not listen to their leaders and went on strike. Passively or actively the ranks of the ACV-CSC union supported the strike call. The last minute attempt by the leadership of the ACV union to break the strike with a national advertisement (“Ten reasons why we are not going on strike”) in all the daily papers and with a leaflet in the workplaces had the opposite effect to that which they had hoped. It convinced even more workers to stay away. In an important chocolate factory in the Brussels area the ACV shop stewards who distributed that leaflet were strongly criticised by the activists of their own union who refused to identify with the content. In another metal factory, Atlas Copco, in the Antwerp area the convenor of the Christian union tried a last minute attempt to organise meetings explaining why workers should not go on strike. He was flanked in those meetings by one of the big managers!
Unity from below
The result was that more workers belonging to the ACV participated in the strike! These are just a few examples of what has been repeated in many workplaces all over the country. Despite the call of the Christian union leaders not to go on strike they added – as a small insurance measure – that all workers affiliated to their union who participated in the stoppage would get strike benefit! In the Caterpillar factory of Charleroi in the South the CSC felt forced to organise its own strike on Monday against the government plans. This was clearly an attempt to stop the beginning of a haemorrhage of members of their union to the socialist FGTB.
In front of the main factories pickets were largely symbolic. Although many CSC-ACV workers had decided not to wear their green colours for fear of sanctions they were present on the picket line. In contrast to the division at the top of the unions there was a clear cut unity of the rank and file.
Another important feature of this general strike was that the participation was evenly spread amongst the north and the south of the country. The Flemish workers decided to participate massively and to challenge the myth of a “Walloon general strike”. Also many young workers were noticeable on the picket line. This is the generation that entered the factories at the end of the nineties and have not known any defeat. If on the one hand they lack the experience of struggle of the older workers, on the other hand they have only known increased flexibility, intensity of work and deterioration of working conditions. This has shaped their consciousness. Now, thanks to this strike they have discovered the power of a general strike.
The flying pickets, organised mainly by the rank and file shop stewards, were also a hallmark of this strike. The flying pickets set themselves the task of helping the workers in small factories to participate in the strike by closing the industrial areas very early in the morning in all the main areas of the country. The workers had developed this method during the earlier general strike of 1993.
Although this time the bosses seemed to have made preparations for this eventuality, nevertheless, they were surprised by the scale and the determination of the flying pickets. In a last minute the bosses pressurised the local councils to act with their police force against the flying pickets. But most of the mayors did not dare to engage in a confrontation with the unions.
However, there was one area near Leuven where the courts were used to break up a picket in front of an industrial are. The workers were threatened with big fines and the union had to retreat. This represents a future threat to the right to strike. Despite this provocation there were almost no incidents reported throughout the whole day. The massive use of flying pickets has really infuriated the bosses who are now being forced to face the determination of the rank and file and not the soft approach of most of the trade union leaders.
One of the engines behind this strike is the continuous deterioration of working conditions. Belgian workers are internationally praised for being the most productive in the world. In our opinion this is not a record to be proud of.
The convenor of the Socialist union in a food processing plant explained during the strike how productivity has increased dramatically during the last few years in her factory. When asked if this had not been the result of investment in new machinery, she and her colleagues started to laugh. “Investment in new machines? No, here we haven’t seen new machines for a long time. They even neglect the cleaning of the machines. No, we are the only ones responsible for the increased productivity. We are forced to work harder and harder. And we are fed up”.
In this factory one third of the workforce is between 40 and 50 years old. Most of them are women. They understand the reform of the early retirement scheme as a real threat to their health. Recent studies have shown how workers of 50 years and older are physically and mentally worn out in the factories. Two out of every three workers between the ages of 40 and 50 suffer one or more chronic disorders which makes it difficult or impossible for them to continue to work.
Many workers on the picket line were critical of the Socialist party ministers in the coalition government. The ABVV-FGTB leaders had to confess that they were “disillusioned at the attitude to the Socialist ministers”. Quite a few trade unionists, who are also members of the Socialist Party, correctly chose to participate in the strike and even took the initiative for it on their workplace. This will create new tensions between the union and the Socialist Party and also within the Socialist Party itself. Just as in France or as in Germany the new cycle of class struggle is not only increasing the polarisation between left and right, between the parties of the bosses and the reformist parties of the workers. It is also leading to a process of inner differentiation within the left as a whole, within the unions and also within the Socialist and Communist parties in Europe.
Belgian consensus politics shattered
The government has now unilaterally decided to go forward with its measures to make the workers work longer. For the moment there is no official agreement with the bosses and the unions. The bosses have already expressed their satisfaction with the measures taken to increase the age of early retirement up to 60 years. This will come into full effect in 2012. The number of years’ work needed to be eligible for early retirement has also been increased gradually from 25 years up to 35 years and possibly 40 years. Soon between 50 and 70 percent of the workforce will not be able to retire early. The overwhelming majority of women will not be eligible for early retirement either. By doing this, the government is creating a new army of older unemployed workers who will be competing on the labour market with younger workers. Through this the bosses hope to further undermine working conditions and the social security system.
The Christian union leaders seem moderately satisfied with all this. The Socialist union on the contrary is unhappy. On Monday 18th October the tops of the unions will decide what their position is to be. Meanwhile pressure is building up within the Socialist union, not only to reject the new government measures but also to prepare for new action, including a new general strike.
For instance the Socialist shop stewards at the Flemish university in Brussels immediately rejected the new government measures and have demanded a new general strike to be organised by both unions. In the South the workers of an armaments factory also went on strike this Tuesday to protest against the measures.
However, the leaders of the Socialist union have already warned on their part that a new general strike is not on the agenda. “It’s a weapon you can only use every 10 or 12 years!” they have declared. Within the Christian union many workers are not happy with this deal either, as opposed to their leaders.
The next few days will show how strong this internal opposition is. By playing the card of the division between the two main unions the government may temporarily succeed in neutralising the effectiveness of new actions. It is the only way by which they may save themselves – at least for a period ‑ from the anger of the working class.
One Liberal minister once said that no government in Belgium could stay in power without the support of one of the two main trade unions. If this scenario materialises, it will cause many activists to reflect more. Some will be demoralised as a result of it. Others, the bulk of the activists won’t have any choice but to continue their struggle and will be looking for some kind of alternative.
This is especially the case with the layer of younger workers. They have learned a lot in a few days. They have felt the power of generalised strike action, but will also be asking themselves wonder why this does not lead to more results. They will start to question the role of the leadership and the programme of reformism. New conditions are being created within the unions, conditions that will facilitate the building of a Marxist tendency.
Whatever the short-term results of this strike, it will not affect the general ascending line of social confrontation and pressure in Belgium. The old sophisticated method of containment of the class struggle in Belgium (through an elaborated structure of negotiation with the union leaders) is cracking and it is giving signs of exhaustion, if not outright extinction. The material conditions upon which this system rested, the capacity of capitalism to grant concessions, are rapidly evaporating. We are now moving in the direction of more open class conflict. A new stage has opened in the class struggle. And what a stage it is!
October 11, 2005
Pictures of the general strike of October 7 can be found on the Vonk website of the Belgian Marxists: