Last May’s elections have created the conditions for what is considered a major political experiment in Belgium. For the first time in 26 years, the social democrats have been placed in the opposition on a federal level. The formation of a right wing coalition government of Christian Democrats, liberals and Flemish nationalists is under way. This coalition will stand for ‘change’. Its declared aim is to demolish a dizzying number of ‘sacred houses’ of the workers’ movement and for that it is ready to confront workers and their unions. But the unions have to flex their muscles. A mass meeting of workers’ representatives is scheduled for 23 September. Although it’s too early to raise it as an immediate demand, we believe the turn of events can put a general strike on the agenda for autumn or winter.
The Belgian system
Until the elections, a right wing coalition was not the outcome big business had hoped for. The Belgian system traditionally was meant to see high levels of productivity and abundant tax rebate systems guaranteeing increasing levels of profit in exchange for relatively decent living standards, at least for a layer of workers on permanent contracts. But in 1950 and again in 1960, the continuation of capitalism in Belgium was under threat during a period of mass class struggles.
In the early 1980s, a right wing government of Christian Democrats and liberals was formed. It faced major youth movements, a ten day general strike of public sector workers, six 24-hour general strikes, many sector and factory strikes and a massive demonstration of well over 250,000 socialist trade union workers etc. Although this government did succeed in cutting wages and benefits, it failed to bring down the public debt and deficit. In 1987 it collapsed, officially over the national question, but, in reality, due to mass social resistance.
Then, after 150 days of political crisis, a new coalition of social and Christian democrats was formed. The coalition brought down public debt from 134% of GDP to 86% of GDP, over a period of 14 years. It is still quoted as an international example on how to bring down public debt. Big business learned from those experiences: its interest is better served through collaboration with the union tops rather than confrontation with the union ranks.
Small and medium sized business
However small and medium-sized businesses are frustrated over this unofficial agreement between big business and the unions. This sector is especially strong in the northern Flemish part of the country, where local managers and subcontractors of multinational firms would like to enjoy the same advantages as big business. That would necessitate the breakup of the unofficial deal with the unions. None of the traditional parties feels confident to do this.
This petty-bourgeoisie has been looking for politicians to put its case. For a time, the extreme right Vlaams Belang offered its services, but its radical racist rhetoric rebuffed too many. Then in 2007 the right wing populist Lijst Dedecker stepped in but it was finally overtaken by the Flemish nationalist ultra-liberal NV-A, which is currently the largest party both in the federal and Flemish parliaments. Their line of argument is the same as everywhere: wages and benefits are too high and working hours and pension age too low for business to be competitive.
Unfortunately the policy of the union leadership has not been much different from that of the social democrats. They believe the best way to avoid worse cuts is to apply lesser and more gradual cuts, all of them at the expense of workers and benefit recipients. Over a period of time, this policy convinced many workers that cuts are unavoidable anyway and that the short pain is preferable over the longer lasting one. It also stimulated the bosses’ appetite for even more cuts. Instead of avoiding worse, this policy rolled out the red carpet for the right wing coalition.
What led to the change?
The NV-A increased its electoral support from virtually none in 2003 (only one seat in parliament) to a position now where the formation of a federal government without NV-A could over time become impossible. Big business has little confidence in the NV-A. The NV-A could be a threat to Belgium itself, at the heart of Europe. Such a development would be an enormous blow, for the Belgian and the whole EU establishment.
Big business is aware it needs to deal with this threat, a necessity confirmed by the results of the last May’s elections. However the elections also offered a window of opportunity. While NV-A was the biggest winner, the outgoing federal tripartite coalition also increased its number of seats. Even more important, it has enough seats in all three regions to form an alternative majority, even in the Flemish area where previously the tripartite was two seats short of a majority.
This parliamentary arithmetic considerably reduces the risk involved for big business in a right wing coalition. The ruling class does not yet know how much such a government can take from workers and their families. But if such a government would encounter too much opposition from the workers’ movement and collapses, an alternative exists without having to take the risk of new elections. This changed the position of the ruling class: a better and less risky opportunity to dirty the NV-A via government participation would probably not be on offer for a long time.
The NV-A is aware that its petty-bourgeois followers will desert if the party is unable to deliver. According to its logic, this can only be done by participating in government. That is why the NV-A accepted the demand of the liberals and the Christian Democrats to ditch its nationalist agenda, for at least five years, in exchange for coalition talks. The NV-A, however, boasts it stands for change, and as this cannot be done on nationalist issues, its demands on social and economic reforms only become more radical.
Amongst the future partners for federal government, the NV-A and liberals are competing over which has the most right wing radical policies, with the Christian Democrats trying to moderate the tone. The previous federal government, led by social democrat, Di Rupo, applied € 22 billion worth of cuts in two years’ time. This was an effort to convince the EU, OECD and IMF that he was able to balance the budget without having to attack some of the major gains of the workers. This coalition will cut € 17.3 billion worth in five years’ time, but it will attack nearly every historical gain of the working class.
Officially the government is still not formed and its policy declaration is only scheduled for 16 October. Unofficial leaks however indicate that every major gain of the workers, what the government calls ‘sacred houses’ of the workers’ movement, will be under attack. One of them is the sliding scale of wages. The right wing coalition considers a review of the system and skipping one or more ‘indexations’. The Christian trade union leader already warned the government negotiators not to touch it.
But there are many other ‘sacred houses’ under threat: early retirement age would be increased to 62; the civil servants’ favorable legal situation would be gutted; pensions would be calculated on a much less favorable basis; company shares in telecom and postal services, where the state is still the majority shareholder, would be sold; a minimum service requirement would be imposed on railways, airports and prisons to limit the impact of strikes; unemployed would be forced to community service in exchange for their benefit; VAT would be increased; the rise in public health spending would be limited to 1.5% resulting in a loss of 1,500 jobs every year. Employer’s social contributions would be reduced from 33% to 25% of gross wages. Many other proposed measures are also unacceptable for important sectors of workers’ and youth.
A Thatcherite provocation
Virtually all sectors, private and public, young and old, will be touched. As if this would not be convincing enough, the coalition partners also plan to tax union premiums - workplace wage agreements according to which union members are repaid part of their union membership fee - and strikers’ money. The coalition is also discussing removing the unions’ right to pay out unemployment benefits.
It is clear this coalition has a specific agenda. It considers the cautious attitude towards the unions as counter-productive. It believes its own propaganda about the unions being outdated. It overestimates the loss of strength of the unions and thinks only a small but noisy minority is ready to struggle. It is actually convinced that once the unions stop paying unemployment benefits and union premiums are not recuperated anymore, the membership will collapse. On the basis of this estimation, it believes it can win an open confrontation and realize what the right wing coalition in the 1980s failed to do: impose a Thatcherite change in the relation of forces.
Some of this has to be seen, but we believe the right wing coalition is playing a dangerous game. The Flemish regional government, a similar right wing coalition to the one being formed on a federal level, launched an attack on education and plans to increase the fees. Even though its official declaration of policies will only take place on 21 September, universities and further education schools are only shortly starting courses and opposition activity has begun in the secondary schools, which have only just re-started. A first small demonstration of school students against the proposals took place on 10 September. Though small in numbers, this was crucial to assemble the first students who are now preparing for battle and creating action committees in their schools.
Although a lot of the discussions have already leaked, the parties negotiating the formation of a right wing federal coalition still have to conclude. The declaration of policies will only take place on 16 October. Nevertheless the three union confederations, the large socialist, Christian, and even the smaller liberal one, are already mobilizing for a mass meeting. Officially they are aiming for 5,000 participants. From what we hear, it might be much more.
The importance of perspectives
The Active Left Students (the student’s organization of LSP/PSL, the Belgian section of the CWI), were the initiators of the first school students’ protest activity. We are also part of those initiating students resistance at university level. Forces amongst the students, amongst them the student organization of the PTB, the Belgian Workers’ Party that won two federal MPs, last May, argue resistance should be limited to protesting against the increase in fees. Otherwise, they argue, things will become too complicated. While we agree the fees should be central, we also think we should oppose all cuts. If not, concessions to the students might be used as an excuse for more attacks on the workforce or the other way around. A number of shop stewards at university and in colleges are LSP members and together with their shop steward delegations they are aiming to link up workers to develop the resistance of students.
LSP/PSL members have been preparing for weeks. The LSP/PSL is already making suggestions on what an action plan to prepare and mobilize for action could look like, with an information campaign, a concrete appeal for national or regional demos and/or meetings, the announcement of workplace general assemblies, possibly regional strikes followed by a national 24 hour or 48 hour strike and a deadline to the government etc.
Because the Christian Democrats will be in government, part of the ACV/CSC Christian trade unions might hope in vain they will be able to stop some of the worst attacks. This is an illusion, which will possibly lead to tensions between the unions. We believe many members of the Christian union will be ready to struggle, possibly even a majority.
Unfortunately some trade union leaders have been stressing that the planned measures of this right wing government will hit the Walloon area harder because unemployment there is higher, and benefit the Flemish area more because of the bigger number of small business there. It is true the federal government will have a large parliamentary majority in the Flemish area and only a minority of Wallonia’s federal MPs (20 seats out of 63). It is also clear this right wing government will try to divide working people and youth through measures which hit one region harder than the other. But there are many Flemish workers who are as much opposed to the right wing policy as their colleagues in Wallonia and Brussels. It is necessary to help them to find a way to convince workers in their own community.
The general strikes in 1993, 2005 and January 2012 did not aim to topple governments. In those cases, every possible alternative seemed to be even more to the right than the sitting governments. This prevented the strikes from becoming political strikes. This is not the case this time. But does it mean the unions should shoulder a repetition of the outgoing tripartite coalition or look for a federal version of the regional governments of social democrats and Christian Democracy in Wallonia and Brussels? It is true they do not aim for ‘sacred houses’, nevertheless the Walloon-Brussels federation is planning proportionally more cuts in education than the right wing Flemish government. They are also planning to replace only one in five of the public servants who retire in the next two years. This is not an alternative.
The LSP/PSL is proposing to fight for demands which fulfill the real needs of the overall majority of the population instead of the greed of a handful of capitalists.
- We demand a full restoration of the sliding scale of wages, free wage negotiations and a € 15 an hour gross minimum wage.
- No undermining of labor contracts by subcontracting, casual or other precarious jobs.
- Hands of public servants, no privatizations or liberalizations, insourcing instead of outsourcing
- Restoration of retirement schemes in case of restructuring. Hands off early retirement and all career-end systems involving reduction of working hours. Increase in pensions to 75% of the last wage with a minimum of € 1500.
- Stop the attacks on the unemployed, no to lowering benefits, no forced community service, but full employment through a generalized reduction of working hours to 32h a week without loss of pay.
Of course, the employers believe all the above demands are ‘unaffordable’. But society produces more wealth than ever. The problem is not a lack of means, but a lack of political will. LSP/PSL agrees with the unions when they demand a more just fiscal system. However capital owners and house owners will charge the increased taxation on consumers, workers and tenants. Only the nationalization of the key sectors of economy, under democratic control by the community, offers guarantees against this. We want an end to this outdated system of the privately owned, profit driven economy and a modern democratic socialism, with free access to knowledge and means according to the needs of all.