Belgium: Towards a major confrontation after successful general strike

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Strikers march on December 15, 2014.

[For more on Belgium, click HERE.]

By Daniel Tanuro

December 17, 2014 -- International Viewpoint, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The 24-hour strike that mobilised the Belgian working class on December 15 was an enormous success. The country was completely paralysed: in Flanders, in Wallonia and in Brussels, in the private and public sectors, in industry and the services, transport and the trade, the big and small companies. Such a massive movement has not been seen since the strike of November 1993 but, unlike that one, the strike of December 15 should not remain uncompleted.

Organised in a common front of trade unions (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, Centrale des Syndicats Chrétiens, Central Générale des Syndicats libérales de Belgique), this strike is (for the moment) the last stage of an action plan against the austerity plans of the rightwing government resulting from the elections of May 25, 2014. Launched following installation of the coalition led by Charles Michel, this action plan started with a mass demonstration by 130,000 November 6 in Brussels and continued with a series of strikes by province (November 24, December 1 and 8). The mobilisations grew at each stage.

PS struck hard against workers

To understand the events, the political context should be pointed out. In Belgium, the attacks against workers have been going on for 25 years by governments in which the social democrats participate. After the long political crisis following the 2010, marked by the victory in Flanders of the Nieuwe Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA), right-wing Flemish nationalist party, the Socialist Party (PS) prime minister estimated that “to save the country” it had to step up these attacks, so that the Flemish traditional right could beat the neoliberal-nationalists and that the coalition with social democracy could be continued.

This policy -- which cost the workers the trifling sum of 20 billion Euros -- was a terrible fiasco. Last May, the retun of the coalition seemed the most likely option. But, to general surprise, the French-speaking Liberal Party, put into the saddle by the Palace, formed a homogeneous right-wing coalition with the Flemish Christian Democrats, the Flemish Liberals and the NVA. The NVA agreed to keep quiet on its separatist goals, in return for an ultra-neoliberal program. Today the right-wing government wants to break the existing social model that has been in place since 1945

On the socio-economic level, the program of the Charles Michel government continues and deepens the austerity imposed by its predecessor. There is a new cuts cure, to the tune of 11 billion euros. Wage earners, civil servant, recipients of social benefits, pensioners, the sick and disabled, job seekers and asylum seekers are all hit very hard, in particular young people and the women.

The leader of the NVA, Bart De Wever, describes himself as the political arm of the VOKA, the association of Flemish employers. He is not a minister but he sets the tone. The whole government is at the service of the bosses, with an essential mission: to push the trade unions into a corner, to radically reduce their weight in political life and society in general.

The mainstream media actively collaborates in this project. It poured out torrents of vicious propaganda against the December 15 strikers and trade unions.

The Belgian trade union movement is not very politicised, focused on class collaboration (“dialogue”), but massive (3.5 million members in a population of 10 million) and very well organised. From day to day, it rests on the activity of tens of thousands of activists, delegates and organisers. These cadre have understood that they are confronted with something new: an attempt to qualitatively change the power relations in society. The old project of a strong state has been brought back onto the agenda, and at the centre is the desire to make the right to strike an emplty formula.

Trade union activists organise the fight

It was the consciousness of this danger as much as the indignation of the activists at the social cutbacks that pushed the trade union leaderships to link up and propose a true action plan, and this plan in turn encouraged activists to go into the action with growing energy and enthusiasm. Tens of thousands of men and women have mobilised and organised in all the areas of the country.

The movement enjoys extremely broad public support. This had already been seen at the November 6 demonstration and has increased since. This support has taken shape in particular in the formation of broad coalitions of artists, intellectuals and actors, which have contributed to delegitimisng the austerity policy. The current is turning at the ideological level. The revelations of the far-right past of several NVA ministers has played a part, but the essential point is the rejection of social injustice, symbolised in the fact that Belgium is a tax haven for rich people and a tax hell for others.

Six months after the election, the Flemish regional government led by the NVA (which has also imposed drastic cuts) is only supported by approximately 35% of the population. All the levels of government are discredited, including the Walloon executive led by social democracy, whose policy of “rigour” is no different from “the federal austerity”. The PS dreamed it would change its profile in opposition, but the current climate of toughening and rising consciousness has prevented such a change in opinion.

The trade union common front raised four demands:

  • maintaining and increasing buying power through freedom to negotiate and the resumption of wage indexation;
  • strong federal social security;
  • investment in the revival of long-term employment including in quality public services;
  • tax justice.

This platform is insufficient (it does not oppose retirement at 67 nor measures that result in the mass exclusion of people from the registered unemployed imposed by the previous coalition government). But the government cannot yield on any of them. From an economic point of view, it could restore wage indexation, whose effect for businesses is in fact very small. But from a political point of view, this retreat would be interpreted as weakness, which would compromise its project. It could also promise a readjustment of taxation, but it would be only elementary justice, and would not make it possible to justify the new sacrifices imposed on workers.

The trade union leaderships cannot go to their members without any real gains given the confidence it has gained thanks to the fight. They are currently trying to re-enter dialogue with the employers’ associations, proposing to adopt a joint “road map” to present to the government on competitivity of businesses, wages and retirement conditions, in particular. But this scenario is unlikely to occur. In any case, the government is very clear this road map will have to fit into its program.

Towards a major confrontation

Everything is thus pointing to a major confrontation. The semi-spontaneous outbreak of a general strike on the model of 1960-61 is not the most probable scenario in the short run. But, if the government makes parliament vote on its measures in the next few days, the trade unions will have to continue and radicalise their action plan, which will mean riding the tiger. In this case, and provided that trade union unity is maintained, many things will become possible.

The radical left is enjoying a considerable echo, but the covergence dynamic started with the May 25 election did not continue. This is partly the result of a choice of the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) to count above all on building itself, in a social-democrat type relationship with the trade unions (by keeping its distance from the call of the FGTB of Charleroi[1]).

But there are also different orientations and demands in the movement: unlike the PTB, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR-SAP) defends the idea that it is necessary to drive out the Michel government as quickly as possible, and to begin a debate in the trade unions on an anti-capitalist action plan, from the point of view of the fight for a social government.


[1] See "The LCR, the radical left and the Charleroi Appeal".