Belgian trade unions are mobilising against ruling class plans to “do a Thatcher”, cutting pensions and workers’ rights, and removing the automatic link between inflation and wage increases.
Following the election of a right-wing Flemish nationalist dominated government last year, Belgian trade unions — divided by political affiliation and linguistic groups — formed a common front and conducted a wave of national demonstrations and regional strikes culminating in a highly effective and well supported general strike on 15 December.
The trade union bureaucracy then entered into long and fruitless negotiations with government and bosses’ representatives. Following the traditions of compromise in a multi-linguistic society, this delay was, initially, largely accepted by the rank and file and not seen for what it was — tactical stupidity.
The strike action lost momentum, the common front was broken (the Catholic CSC was in the negotiations more than others and won support for suspending action by 51-49%), and actions in the spring by the Socialist FGTB were poorly supported and ineffective.
It is with this background that the renewed action is all the more surprising and hopeful. A demonstration in Brussels on 7 October, supported by all unions, was attended by 100,000. The Socialist FGTB has begun a series of regional strikes — the first, in Liege, being well supported.
A common front strike has been agreed for 23 November in Charleroi. It is for positive demands — the economic restructuring of the city in the interests of the population. Media reporting has focused on peripheral negative events — violence on demonstrations and two deaths in hospitals because surgical doctors were delayed by pickets blockading motorways. In so far as such reporting leads anywhere, it is towards gaining support for anti-trade union laws. The anti-strike phrases are lifted straight from the language of Thatcher in the miners’ strike.
Receiving very little coverage are the random attacks on pickets (basically people ramming strikers with their cars) and the organised attack by fascists on union offices during the last regional strike.
It remains to be seen whether the common front will resume nationally, but hopes are high.
A collective response to the anti-trade union laws must come quick and fast to prevent them becoming an excuse for inaction by the right of the trade union movement.