For 2 weeks, Inbev brewery workers at the different Belgian sites blockaded factories in an attempt to stop the company’s international management from sacking 303 workers. The plans for Inbev in Belgium were part of a European-wide offensive aimed at cutting the workforce by 10%: about 800 workers, out of a total of 8,000. Besides Belgium, with its 303 job losses, mainly German workers would be hit, with 386 lay offs planned. Unspecified numbers would have to go in France, the UK and the Netherlands, while the Inbev brewery in Diekirch, Luxemburg, would be closed down.
The workers’ 2 week blockade in Belgium ended with the international management pulling back from its initial plan and promising not to lay off workers! Of course, within the capitalist system, every victory is temporary and prepares the stage for more decisive battles. "We have won a battle but not yet the war" Luc Gysemberg, of the ‘christian union’, ACV, declared. But what had brought about this remarkable retreat by the Inbev multinational in this, widely reported, struggle?
Inbev workers blockade Leuven brewery
Cutback plans - big bonuses for management
This was the fifth ‘restructuring plan’ proposed by Inbev in five years. For years, the number of people working at the Belgian plants had been cut, slice by slice. Extreme cost-cutting became a ‘religion’ for the international management, reinforced by an inhuman obsession with “targets”, emanating from the board of directors.
Inbev had made profits amounting to €2.8 billion euro in 2009. In fact, while the physical output of beer had gone down by 3.8% on a yearly basis, profits had increased from $837 million to $1.13 billion, in the third quarter of last year. Crisis? Not so much for the Inbev bosses!
Even in the capitalist media, reports began to reveal the incredible greed of AB Imbev CEO, Carlos Brito, and his closest colleagues. In 2007, Brito had pocketed an income of €4.25 million, €3.4 million of which consisted of bonuses. The rest represented his "normal salary". Clearly, it is not only the banks which have been infected by the ‘bonus culture’. After the first half of 2009, the 13 members of the company’s international board of directors divided $73 million in bonuses between them!
The press was also full of reports detailing the bonuses management would receive if the objective of debt reduction, caused by the expensive takeover of Anheuser Busch, was achieved by 2013. The 13 directors would receive 9.3 million stock market shares, worth €10.32 each. Clearly, AB Inbev were losing their propaganda battle here.
At the same time, the workers have been squeezed to produce more and more per worker, and they felt this wouldn’t be the last round of ‘restructuring’ either. So they decided enough was enough and a blockade was mounted in Leuven, the main Belgian site, as well as in Jupille.
A new tactic and a new phase of trade union militancy
Belgian management had been preparing for a showdown with the unions for months. During the winter, beer production was suddenly as high as in the summer, as management had been supplying important customers with stocks. But they weren’t prepared for the reaction of the unions.
Union militants blocked all entrances to the Leuven and Jupille plants, but work continued inside. In this way, Inbev had to pay workers, as officially there was no strike, and workers didn’t lose any income.
Such a tactic might not be appropriate for all types of companies and if the conflict had hardened, a strike of all Inbev plants would have had to be called. But, in the circumstances, it took the management by surprise: they had prepared for several days of strikes, maybe even a week, but now they had to keep on paying workers while no raw materials came in to the plants, and no beer left the factory.
Management reacted with the threat of sending bailiffs to break the blockade, threatening union militants with big fines. But because of the principled position of the unions, backed by all workers and even higher paid layers of the workforce like sales people, this didn’t work. Also, they must have felt - with all the solidarity coming from the wider population and, with even the press having a difficult job to defend them, that this kind of repression would backfire against them.
Members of the Linkse Socialistische Partij (LSP - CWI in Belgium) in Leuven were present, with significant numbers, from day one of the blockade. It was clear this could become a hard and long conflict. The unions took the clear and correct position not to negotiate lay offs. The plan would have to go before talks could resume. LSP was able, because of our contacts with comrades in the main Brazilian ‘Ambev’ plant (with the help of Liberdade Socialismo e Revolução - CWI in Brazil), to communicate a solidarity statement, signed by union militants from Ambev Brazil, to the workers in Belgium. This was of course received very well by the workers and militants in Leuven. It raised the authority of LSP as a serious supporter of the Inbev workers.
In discussions with militants at the picket, it was clear that our references to a recent victory of the unions at Bayer in Antwerp struck a chord. Since the beginning of the recession, a series of lay offs and cuts had been pushed through by different companies in Belgium. The reaction of trade union representatives was mostly one of resignation and the opening of talks with management to negotiate the details of the defeat.
There were some exceptions, like the struggles at Tecteo and Bridgestone, but this was the main pattern. This string of defeats or half defeats was suddenly punctured when in November/December, unions at the chemical plant, Bayer, in Antwerp, simply said "no" to a plan of wage cuts and other cuts by the bosses. They were pilloried by the media but stuck to their combative stance. Eventually, the Bayer management had to renounce their plans, under the threat of a possible strike. After these events, LSP/PSL organised a successful meeting, with 50 people present, with one of the main shop stewards at the Bayer plant speaking.
It is clear that Bayer was a point of reference for the most active and combative Inbev workers. Indeed, after almost two weeks, the Inbev blockade had become a case study, for both the bosses and the workers’ organisations in Belgium. And with the refusal of the Dutch Inbev workers to take over some of Belgian production, the first actions in Inbev Bremen (Germany) and the solidarity actions in Brazil, the management was facing a generalisation of the struggle, further disruption of its supply chains and - possibly - a European-wide strike.
After ill-fated attempts at "reconciliation" talks with the unions, with government officials present, AB Inbev finally beat a retreat. After two weeks of the blockade and with stocks depleting, it gave up on its intended lay offs in Belgium. A clear victory for militant unionism and solidarity in action.
Prospects for union struggle
The events at Bayer and Inbev could be a turning point for the wider class struggle in Belgium. In fact, the day before the Inbev workers could declare their actions a success, the unions at Opel in Antwerp had also begun a blockade of the factory: no cars were allowed out. Other workers, like the firefighters, were - it seemed - starting to follow the militant example of the Inbev workers. Fearing this, it is possible that government pressure, during the attempted "reconciliation", might have contributed to the dismal retreat of the Inbev management.
Whether these lessons of militant unionism and the rewards of struggle will be registered will largely depend on the outcome of another, even bigger threatened catastrophe: the announced closure of the Opel factory in Antwerp, which threatens the livelihoods of, 8,000 to 10,000 workers and their families, subcontracting firms included. Until now the Opel unions have, unfortunately, favoured political lobbying over militant action.
The wider union movement, we think, should learn from the struggles at Bayer and Inbev. A general mobilisation of the Belgian working class is necessary to stop the job massacres at Opel Antwerp and in numerous other companies. LSP/PSL (CWI in Belgium) will present a clear program, for jobs and nationalisation under workers’ control in the coming struggles and demonstrations. We will fight to popularise, with all the means at our disposal, the struggle for socialism and workers’ democracy in the broader movements which are imminent.