The three union confederations in Belgium — the FGTB, linked to the social democratic parties, the CSC, the Catholic confederation, and the liberal-linked CGSLB — have called a general strike for 15 December against the new right-wing government’s cuts plans.
There have been regional general strikes on 24 November, 1 December, and 8 November and a demonstration on 6 November.
The demonstration was the biggest labour protest in Belgium for many years. The regional strikes have been well-supported too: in each area, nothing has moved on the day of the strike. Teachers have struck nationally for the first time since the 1980s.
Even the demonstration on Thursday 6 November was a sort of strike. Most people on the demonstration had struck in order to join it. There were running battles with police, and cars set on fire.
The strikes have been well-supported in the Flemish areas as well, although politically those areas are dominated by right-wing political movements, such as N-VA [a right-wing Flemish nationalist party now in the coalition government]. Hundreds of Antwerp dockers formed a visible and noisy presence on the 6 November demonstration.
N-VA has built itself up off the back of the far-right Flemish nationalist movement Vlaams Belang, superseding it in something like the way Thatcher gazumped the National Front after 1979. To some extent, commonplace anti-immigrant rhetoric has been transmuted into talk about the supposedly “lazy” French-speaking inhabitants of Southern Belgium. Nonetheless, the strikes have been very well-supported in the Flemish north.
The trade union bureaucracy here in Belgium is behaving better than its equivalents usually do in England these days. The point at which a deal will be cut, or maybe a sell-out, is a long way down the track. There will be a lot of dispute before that.
There are voices in some unions for “grèves au finish” — indefinite strikes.
In the strikes we have had working-class unity across the different union confederations, even though some unions are affiliated to parties in the government. Speakers at the rallies say things like “we don’t want a Thatcher here”. The economic policies are an attempt at an accelerated version of the monetarism we saw in England in the 1980s.
The social democratic parties [Belgium has two, the French-speaking PS and the Flemish sp.a] have generally been supportive. The mayor of Brussels was on the 6 November demonstration, and got attacked for that in the press.
They support the movement only because they are in opposition at the federal level. A lot of anti-working-class measures had already been put through by the previous government, or put in the pipeline. The protests will also include strikes against the devolved regional governments in Wallonia and elsewhere.
A lot of the PS support for national action against the federal government is aimed at bypassing local action against things the PS is doing in regional government.
The union leaders seem to be digging in for a hefty old winter of discontent.
The government’s plans include cuts in public services, but the issues most talked about on the demonstrations are the increase in the pension age and the measures to cut wages. Belgium has a legal requirement that wages be indexed so that they rise in line with inflation. The government plans to delay an indexation-increase, so that pay is cut in real terms.
The current coalition government was formed in October after negotiations following Belgium’s general election in May, and then moved very quickly.
In Belgium, a lot of old social-democratic gains have not yet been removed in the way they have been in the UK. Some gains have been hollowed out, but not abolished.
I don’t think the government will be able to get everything it wants. Thatcher had years to prepare and the government in Belgium does not have anything like that time period in which to prepare its attacks. If the opposition melted away, the government would go for the lot, but I don’t think that will happen.