The demonstration of the common front of the FGBT (social-democrat federation) CSC (Christian democrat federation) and CGSLB (liberal federation) trade unions on 24 May marked the start of a new action plan. This will build up towards a national general strike on the 7 October.
Once again, the demonstration was successful. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Brussels and, as has become usual, there were more than expected. And this was only the beginning. Since then, several spontaneous strikes have taken place, the most notable being those of the prison guards and railway workers. The government’s attempt to exploit the terrorist attacks that took place in Brussels in March did not work. Contrary to what it expected, the government has even emerged from theses dramatic events considerably criticised and weakened. The new social situation shows how quickly the mood can switch from the security theme, towards the class struggle.
The demo on 24 May was mostly a demonstration of shop stewards and union activists who came together for the first time after the trade union elections. Several dates for new mobilisations are already planned, including a general strike called by the FGTB on 24 June (with the support of parts of the CSC) and a new national demonstration of the common front on 29 September. Reaching 200,000 demonstrators in September is possible, if we take up the building of the new action plan seriously.
The reasons are many…
When asked why he was there during the massive demonstration in May, a shop steward of the FGTB laughed: - “Do you have the whole day ? “. It is true that there are a countless reasons to go on the streets and get involved in the new action plan. After the skipping of the wage indexation and the raising of the retirement age, for example, now comes the “Peeters Law” threatening the end of the 38-hour week (with the introduction of a possible 45-hours weeks) and the tightening of the conditions to receive social benefits. Working conditions, wages, the funding of public services, long-term illnesses, social welfare for people with the most insecure incomes etc. The list of attacks by the government is never-ending. Nobody is spared. And the government will not change its stance, unless it is forced to.
Another demonstrator said: “And all this is supposed to be for job creation? Let them go back to school: you cannot create jobs by pushing people to work more and longer”. Her friend added: “ all their policies are one-sided, in favour of the companies. If some thought at the beginning that we must give some time to the government to prove itself, they might regret it by now”.
“We have come to Brussels... To overthrow Charles Michel”
Make the government back off? Fewer and fewer people believe in it. An activist confirmed this in her own way by saying: “The government has to be overthrown. I’ve always said that. But in the past, my coworkers needed to be convinced. Today, this is the decisive argument to mobilise them: this time, we don’t want to simply put pressure on them, we go all the way!”. A little further in the demonstration, a slogan of the FGTB youth organisation resonated: “We came to Brussels! To overthrow Charles Michel [the liberal prime minister]!”.
This is what is at stake in the new action plan. In the autumn of 2014, the previous action plan had driven the government into a corner. Since the demonstration on 6 November (around 150,000 strong, the biggest union demonstration in Belgium since 1986), a serious balance of forces had been built by the round of provincial strikes (in Brussels, in Flanders and in Wallonia) at the end of November and the beginning of December, up towards the big national general strike on 15 December. But later, while Charles Michel and his clique were faltering, while the press was openly wondering if the government would remain in place, the opportunity was wasted.
Little was needed to overthrow this government. Yet the union leaderships hesitated, then retreated, and there was nothing further serious in 2015 except for a national demonstration on 7 October (when more than 100,000 again took to the streets to “commemorate” the first year of the Michel government) and the general strike in Liège (in Wallonia) on 19 October.
This left a space for the government to continue its attacks and now launch a harder offensive, seizing the opportunity of a period very close to the school examinations for students as well as the summer holidays.
There is indeed a huge gap between the strike on 24 June and the next mass demonstration on 29 September. Still, there is a possibility that the ruling parties will never forget the general strike to come on 7 October 2016. This could be the beginning of the end. The latest opinion polls do not show a majority in favour of the government. The public transport minister, Galant, had to resign. The anger is spreading. Even the magistrates are preparing action against the “rogue state” for the first time since... 1917!
Prison officers in Wallonia and Brussels, who have been striking for several weeks, show us that we must fight to the end and not be satisfied with promises that will be at best distorted and at worst turned against us. This is what happened with the “tax shift” after the first union action plan: the measure was announced as a way to make the rich contribute, but in the end it was just one more attack against the working class!
If this government falls in the heart of Europe, it will undoubtedly have an effect on our brothers and sisters in other countries who are also fighting against austerity. A victory against the Belgian ’Loi Travail’ and government will strengthen the struggle of our colleagues in France and elsewhere. And in Belgium, no matter what the next government will be made up of, if its predecessor has fallen due to the action of the workers’ movement, it would have to take a very different tone!
A combative gap between Flanders and Wallonia?
It is true that things are more difficult in Flanders. But according to polls, 52% of Belgians supported the demonstration of 24 May (64% of Walloons, 55% in Brussels and 45% of Flemish). Today, that figure would be even higher. And it is in any case more support than the government has had in recent polls. No less than 93% of Belgians believe that the Minister Kris Peeters is wrong when he says that we are all living “beyond our means”. Just 7% of Belgians approve of the Prime Minister Charles Michel when he talks about the positive impact of government policy on purchasing power. 66% of French-speaking Belgians believe that their living conditions have worsened, as do 54% of the Dutch-speaking.
A large majority of the population still thinks that the unions are crucial to defend their rights (81% of the French-speaking and 75% of Dutch-speaking). After the 2014 Action Plan, a survey had revealed that 87% of Flemish people were in favour of a tax on wealth.
The best way to mobilize this potential is to boldly organize our anger. 80 years ago, in May 1936, the great strike against the government of Van Zeeland began. This movement forced the government to resign, and the new government introduced paid leave and the beginning of social security. At that time too, crisis was brewing. And at that time too, there was supposedly "no alternative". But all this was achieved because there remained no other choice than to strike. The slogan then was: "Your first name is Walloon or Flemish. Your last name is worker."
Building the action plan
Now, a 9 day-long railway strike disrupted public transport in Wallonia, Brussels and partly in Flanders. On 31 May, some 15,000 workers gathered again in the capital in a day of action and strike in defense of public services. Many actions took place on the same day in Gent, Anvers, Mons, Charleroi, Liège, Namur, etc. In Brussels and in Wallonia, the social-democratic federation called for strikes for “the fall of the government”. In Liège, at the end of that day, union officials claimed at the railway station: "This government of scoundrels and bastards must go!"
The next step is now the national strike called by the FGTB on 24 June (with the support of parts of the Christian democratic federation). But meanwhile, the railway workers will go on strike again on 13 June, and the postal workers and other municipal workers will be on strike (especially around Liège) some time before June 24.
The best way to ensure that this action plan does not just stop on 7 October is to involve ourselves in its success and to make sure that the action of the rank-and-file does not simply allow the union leaderships to send everybody back home. Everyone should contribute to this.
As we wrote in the leaflet we distributed on 24 May: “As locals from a district, talk to your neighbours. As students, visit the strikers or do a solidarity protest. Organise staff assemblies in your workplaces or ask a shop steward to do so. Share information, but propose also that the action plan to be voted on, so that it becomes a collective decision that cannot be blocked by the union leaders. Think of the way to organize the picket and of specific demands for your workplace or your sector in accordance with the interests of the whole community, not profits”.
The bosses’ programme, for competition and division is well-known. The programme for a society based on solidarity is not discussed enough yet. At the demonstration, collective demands were many on the banners and on the placards, especially the demand for the collective reduction of working time without loss of pay and with compensatory job creation. Let us continue in this way, for the total reinstating of wage indexation, the defense of retirement gains and a raise in pensioners’ income, the restoring of early retirement and of all social welfare, a programme of massive public investment in services, etc.
The aspiration for a fairer tax system was also clear in the demo and on the picket lines of the national day of action and strikes in public services on 31 May. This is more than understandable in the light of the Panama Papers and Lux Leaks scandals, and the notorious big business-friendly taxation existing in Belgium. The PSL-LSP (CWI in Belgium) is not opposed to a tax on the rich, far from it. But we consider that only the nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy (including the financial sector) under the workers’ and community control would prevent capital outflow and mobilise all the technological and scientific capacities and the present resources for the benefit of all. The capitalist system is obsolete and causes a succession of disasters on an ecological, economic and social level. We must link our present demands to the need to build an alternative society, of democratic socialism in our view.
This requires, as we have been saying for a long time, “a party that defends workers with as much fierceness as the establishment parties defend the bosses”. Elsewhere in Europe, new left organizations like the Spanish coalition “Unidos Podemos” challenge the establishment parties. Since Jeremy Corby has become leader of the Labour Party, a civil war is taking place between the Blairite right wing and the Corbynite left. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the USA reflects the potential for a party that breaks with Wall Street’s policies.
In Belgium also this is a necessity. The latest polls show that the former Maoist PTB (Workers’ Party of Belgium) has 13% support in Wallonia, just behind the PS (social-democratic party) and the MR (conservative party). The Belgian trade unions have to break with their traditional political “partners” and take a resolute political initiative open to the new social movements, to the PTB and other radical left forces, including the PSL-LSP. This would generate an overwhelming enthusiasm and, within a few months, would redraw the political map in our country.
- Stop austerity and the anti-social attacks against workers and their families!
- Total re-introduction of wage indexation, free wage negotiations, minimum wage of €15 an hour
- No more undermining of work contracts through outsourcing, temporary work and other insecure jobs
- Hands off the conditions of public workers, no dismantling of public services,
- Raise the minimum pension to 75% of previous wages with a minimum of € 1,500 a month!
- Stop harassing the unemployed and the welfare recipients, no to the 45-hour week! Yes to a reduction to a 30-hour week without loss of pay and with additional recruitment!
- For the immediate lifting of bank secrecy and the establishment of a registry of wealth! For a strengthening of the struggle against major tax fraud and tax evasion! For the full repayment of €942 million of tax gifts from the “Excess Profit Rulings” and other such tax gifts! Get the money where it is: in the pockets of the super-rich and in tax havens.
- We cannot control what we do not own: nationalise the financial sector under the democratic control and management of workers and users, with compensation only on the basis of proven need, in order to stop the capital flight that would inevitably follow the introduction of tax on wealth!
- For the public ownership, control and management of the main levers of the economy: (including energy, banking, steel)
- For the rational management of natural resources and economic production based on the democratic planning of industry and services, the only way to ensure that the economy responds to the social needs of the population.