SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 155 - February 2012

Belgium: massive resistance to new government austerity

AFTER 530 days of institutional crisis and intense negotiations, Belgium finally has a government, with Elio Di Rupo (from the Parti Socialiste, the francophone ‘social democracy’) as prime minister. The deal came just a few hours after the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Belgium’s credit from AA+ to AA, piling pressure from the markets on the negotiators to sort out the political crisis and engage in austerity policies without any further delay.

The true nature of this six-party coalition government was made crystal clear from its inception. The politicians reached a deal on an austerity budget for 2012, an avalanche of attacks against workers and their families. After having injected billions of euros into the banking system in recent years to save it from collapse, the ruling politicians are now ready to make the 99% pay the bill – to preserve the profits of the ultra-rich 1% who are responsible for the mess.

The budget will take €11.3 billion from the pockets of the most vulnerable: the sick, elderly and unemployed. This includes €2.5 billion-worth of cuts in healthcare expenditure, new attacks on unemployment benefits, and a plan to make public-sector workers work longer and receive a lower pension when they retire. Pensions in Belgium are already among the lowest in Europe, and there are over 600,000 unemployed in the country.

This is the biggest austerity plan in Belgium’s history. Hundreds of thousands of workers, unemployed and pensioners will be thrown into poverty. According to the bosses and their politicians, there is ‘no other choice’. While almost everyone, even right-wing economists, agree that austerity policies have recessionary effects, the Belgian capitalist class is pushing ahead with the same spiral that we have already seen elsewhere in Europe. The same devastating effects will result.

Like former social-democratic prime ministers in Spain, Portugal or Greece, Di Rupo appeals to the people for their ‘sense of responsibility’. The markets, he argues, do not leave him any other choice. In the same vein, pensions minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, argues that the assault on the pension system is an ‘absolute necessity’ because it has been imposed by the European Commission. This is what their democracy has been reduced to.

The measures are justified, supposedly, to ‘avoid the worst’. But most workers understand very well that the worst is still to come, and that this austerity plan is only the first in a long series. According to the governor of the national bank, €1-2 billion of additional cutbacks will be needed by March.

The liberal parties, pushed from behind by the FEB (the main bosses’ federation), talk openly of imposing structural changes to the index-mechanism, which adapts workers’ wages to the rising cost of living. When it comes to the Flemish nationalist party, the NVA, in opposition, it wants only to prove to the bosses that it would implement austerity even more brutally than the present coalition.

Before even being installed, the Di Rupo government received an initial and powerful illustration of workers’ discontent. On 2 December, 80,000 workers rallied in Brussels against austerity in one of the largest union demonstrations in Belgium for years.

Five days later, 40,000 people, mainly trade unionists, took to the streets in Liège to protest against the announced closure of liquid-phase steel production at the site owned by ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker. This raised the demand for a regional general strike, and was part of internationally coordinated strike action by metal workers. Stoppages, walkouts and rallies took place at other ArcelorMittal plants in France, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany, Spain, Romania and elsewhere.

Many workers from other sectors came out on the streets in solidarity with the steelworkers. Most shops in the city centre were closed on that day for the same reason, the biggest class showdown in Liège for decades. Significantly, the issue of the nationalisation of the plant and of the entire industry was prominent in discussions, as well as on the banners of the union delegations.

Of course, the PSL-LSP (CWI Belgium) supports this demand, but we argue for it to be under the democratic control and management of the working class, and without compensation for the owners. To put this into practice, and build a suitable relationship of forces on the ground to impose such a solution, the occupation of the factory would be an important step forward. This would be a striking manifestation of the power of the organised working class, while providing a space for collective discussion in democratic general assemblies to decide the next steps to develop the movement.

Then, on 22 December, the potential to build a sustained fight-back against the social massacre being prepared was seen clearly. The Di Rupo government has already broken a record as the Belgian government facing a public-sector general strike in the shortest space of time. Three days before Christmas, public transport, schools, hospitals, postal deliveries, governmental buildings, and other services were paralysed by a solid 24-hour national strike against the pensions plan. This success took place despite the evident lack of a serious preparatory plan – the strike had been called just three days before.

Now, a general strike of the public and private sectors is on the agenda for 30 January. But workers will need a serious plan of action to defeat the austerity programme. Although 30 January is a very important step forward, it should not remain a one-shot operation. Nico Cué, from the metalworkers’ ‘socialist’ trade union of Wallonia-Brussels, raised the possibility of an action plan with a 24-hour general strike in January, 48 hours in April, and 72 hours in June.

This is a good proposal, encouraging the struggle to escalate if the government does not step back. Nonetheless, the timetable for such an escalation of generalised strike action, if good in principle, might have to be reviewed. Above all, it needs to be developed democratically by involving the base of the working class, with a sustained campaign to mobilise and inform every factory and workplace. This would make sure that the discontent present in society could be transformed into a powerful force of resistance.

Rather than saving the banks at the expense of the public, they and key sectors of the economy should be put in the hands of the working class and of the broader community. In this way, the resources and wealth we produce would be directed towards the real needs of society. This is what we call a democratic socialist society: the exact opposite of what the supposed ‘socialist’ parties (PS and its Flemish counterpart, the SP.a) are now implementing. They are inflicting brutal cuts on the shoulders of the poor, to save the profits of the banks and the big companies.

The trade unions must break their links with these parties. Anyone knows that an easy victory cannot be won by fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. Union struggles and demands need to have their own independent political expression. So, the unions should break their links with their present political ‘partners’ and contribute to the building of a genuine workers’ party.

Such a party must be open to anyone who wants to fight against the austerity policies. In Flanders, Rood!, the movement led by Erik de Bruyn (a former presidential candidate of the SP.a, who has now left this party), is an attempt in this direction. In Brussels and Wallonia, the potential for a left pole also exists, and similar initiatives have been attempted, such as the Left Front.

Of course, as long as significant numbers of trade union activists are not involved in this process, such initiatives will remain limited. But, in a situation where the so-called ‘socialists’ are at the head of implementing austerity programmes in the new coalition government, and are leading a frontal offensive against the working class, increasing numbers will look for a political alternative to the establishment parties. That is why it is more urgent than ever to address this issue in the workers’ struggles in the coming months.

PSL/LSP (CWI Belgium)


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