SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 178 April 2014

Belgium: 50,000 join Europe-wide demo

According to the organisers, over 50,000 protesters from 21 countries participated in the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) demonstration in Brussels on 4 April. This was more than expected, in spite of the abstract character of the demo with no clear calls for action. With a bold appeal, however, the turnout could easily have been doubled or trebled.

Brussels-based European Union (EU) leaders, on the other hand, are getting used to such events, considering them an unavoidable nuisance which does not really endanger their neo-liberal agenda. They could prove to be mistaken. The turnout, the obvious openness to more radical demands than the official ones, and the tense atmosphere on the demo, reflect pressure from below for more decisive action.

German demonstrators called for a legal minimum wage and a wealth tax. Dutch cleaners argued for in-sourcing as opposed to out-sourcing. Protesters from Lithuania complained that strikes for wage increases are forbidden there. French CGT union activists protested against the so-called ‘responsibility pact’ between the Parti Socialiste government and the bosses – making working-class people pay for the present crisis.

Although far from sufficient, the Belgian trade unions’ demands against unemployment, job insecurity, social dumping, deregulation, and increasing poverty and inequality, offered a more concrete focus at least. Nevertheless, their mobilisation was poorly organised, aimed mainly at shop stewards who were offered the possibility of leaving work but without an official strike call for the workers they represent.

Mostly, the event was used by the ETUC leadership to present its weak demands to the EU in the run-up to the European elections. It was intended as a one-off, with no further initiatives announced let alone any real action plan. However, as a consequence of the increased attacks by the bosses on wages, retirement rights and work contracts, some sections did seize the opportunity to express their opposition, trying to push the union leaders into proposing more determined action. There were delegations from many workplaces threatened with closure or being ‘restructured’, including from northern France, and others involved in struggles over wages and early-retirement.

Most prominent were the 1,500 dockworkers from Antwerp, Gent and Zeebrugge. They immediately took the head of the demo and ended up in a physical confrontation with the police. Scandalously, Bernadette Ségol, ETUC general secretary, distanced herself from them: "I hope the violence of a tiny minority does not detract from the serious and peaceful message of the overwhelming majority". Not a word about the European Commission’s backing for one of the most aggressive bosses in Belgium – through the Commission’s attack on the law which states that only officially recognised dockworkers are entitled to work in the ports.

If the ETUC and Belgian trade union federations stood firm against privatisation and deregulation, co-ordinated national and European-wide campaigns, and appealed for solidarity, the dockworkers would not feel forced to resort to violence, as in 2006 in Strasburg, to defend their jobs and working conditions. At that time they stopped the EU guidelines being implemented. Because of the inaction at the top, many of them have drawn the unfortunate conclusion that this is the only way they can stop the EU’s plans.

The LSP/PSL (CWI in Belgium) believes that the leaders of the ETUC and Belgian unions should take a more combative stand in defending workers’ rights, jobs, pay and conditions. However, we do not think this capitalist Europe can simply be reformed into a ‘social Europe’. Workers need a different political perspective and their own independent parties, based on a programme that rejects the EU directives, demands the cancellation of public debt, and puts forward the necessity of nationalising the key sectors of the economy under workers’ control and management. Combined with international solidarity and co-ordinated struggle, this could lay the basis for a really different and better Europe: a socialist federation of European states.

Eric Byl, Linkse Socialistiche Partij/Parti Socialiste de Lutte (LSP/PSL)

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