SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Victory for the Clabecq 13

ON 22 MAY, the Brussels court ruled in favour of thirteen metalworkers from the Forges de Clabecq in Belgium. The legal action against them had begun in November 1998, after they were accused of clashing with the police during demonstrations against the closure of the factory. Roberto D’Orazio and Silvio Marra, two union representatives who had led the struggle, risked several years in jail and heavy fines on the basis of an anti-strike law of 1886 which holds the workers’ leaders personally responsible for any criminal acts during a strike. Significantly, this victory was achieved because of the mobilisation of thousands of workers and young people, without the support of the national trade union leadership.

In the early 1970s, Forges de Clabecq employed 6,500 workers. The economic crisis of 1974, however, saw the beginning of the running down of the factory. Thousands of jobs were lost. There were numerous restructurings and, by the 1990s, only 2,500 workers remained.

The union leadership’s strategy was to organise action to secure improved severance deals, rather than building a movement to prevent the closure and layoffs. Although that would ease the situation for the redundant workers, the jobs would disappear and thousands of young people would be deprived of the possibility of work in the future.

In the Forges de Clabecq, the social democracy-led FGTB union had always held a majority. But for many years there had been a number of workers allied to the Communist Party at the plant. Most of these Communist Party members were also members of the FGTB and tended to be active union militants. An opposition within the FGTB began to form in the 1980s. Its main objective was to develop a democratic unionism based on action. Little by little a network of activists developed throughout the factory. These activists were the eyes and ears of the union representatives. They organised around workplace issues but also held discussions which attracted and developed the most politically conscious workers.

The discussions were linked to action. For example, many of the workers were immigrants. The leading militants signed an anti-racist statement. This was not merely a symbolic act because some of the managers had racist attitudes. After many discussions, a crushing majority of the workers signed the statement and Forges de Clabecq became known as a ‘racist-free factory’. In another example, the far-right Front National had distributed racist leaflets in Clabecq village. The union took the Front National to court and organised coaches to every court session so that workers could attend the hearings en masse.

In the beginning of the 1990s, after three weeks of strike action against redundancies and a wage cut, there were new elections for union representatives (the ‘union delegation’). The FGTB won a very large majority and many of the militants were elected. D’Orazio became president of the union delegation. During this time, the Clabecq workers organised solidarity action with strikers in other sectors – Caterpillar and Volkswagen workers, teachers and students, etc. It was also during this period that the bosses, like rats leaving a sinking ship, sold the factory to the Walloon regional government.

In December 1996, the regional government announced the bankruptcy of Forges de Clabecq. The workers were preparing for a fierce resistance but the union bureaucracy declared that it would provide only two days strike pay! To get around this blackmail, the factory’s union delegation waited for the bankruptcy to go through before starting the fightback. This was so that the workers could receive some unemployment benefit, which would enable them to resist longer than the two days proposed by the national leadership. As it turned out, the struggle was to last for seven months!

The workers occupied the factory to guarantee the security of the plant and machinery. All general assemblies took place inside the factory and union activists from other workplaces, as well as political organisations, were welcome. Although LSP-MAS (the CWI section in Belgium) did not have many members in the area, it had been involved from the beginning. LSP-MAS organised solidarity for the strikers and participated in the discussions in the Mouvement pour le Renouveau Syndical (MRS - Movement for Union Renewal). This had been set up by the Forges de Clabecq union delegation with the aim of building combative currents inside all the unions. In February 1997, the Clabecq workers organised a demonstration of 80,000 people from all over Belgium.

The bosses, union bureaucrats and the government were worried by these developments, especially as the Renault factory in Vilvoorde was also shut down. That was when the counter-attack against the Clabecq workers was set in motion. Initially, a media campaign was launched, presenting the strikers as mindless wreckers in an attempt to isolate them. Even the smallest incident was exaggerated by the media to cut across workers’ solidarity.

The Walloon government, feeling the pressure of the movement, sold the factory to the steel-making group Duferco for a very low price. Restarting the factory was gained through the workers’ resistance. For the first time, the struggle had resulted in keeping the ironworks going, instead of merely securing a better severance deal. The victory, however, was not total because Duferco announced that it would not re-hire the union activists.

To ensure the deal was accepted, and to prevent a workplace vote, the bosses, government and national union leadership organised a postal ballot. The media urged the workers to accept this ‘last chance’ compromise. The pressure was enormous. With no other alternative on offer, a sizeable majority accepted the proposal. The result was that 400 union activists were not re-employed. All the workers going back had to undergo ‘psychological tests’ to prove that they were ‘suitable’ for work in the industry – even those who had worked in Clabecq for 20 years!

The manoeuvres of the union leadership continued. Despite the heroic struggle led by the union representatives in Clabecq, they were not invited to the FGTB metalworkers’ section conference in April 1998. When they turned up outside, there were angry confrontations. The FGTB leadership took advantage of these incidents to expel six union activists, including D’Orazio and Marra.

This was the signal for the legal action to get underway. In April 1997 the strikers had tried to block a freeway. The police attacked them with water cannon and tear gas. The workers defended themselves with bulldozers, destroying several police trucks. In September 1998 the police and the Walloon government brought a lawsuit against thirteen Clabecq workers. From the beginning, there were numerous irregularities in the way the action was brought. The police had prepared the file instead of an independent judge, which is the legal requirement. The case lasted three-and-a-half years. At every court session, hundreds of sympathisers came to support the Clabecq 13.

The FGTB leadership refused to support D'Orazio and Marra, or any of the sacked workers. There were no official mobilisations and no financial support. The legal action had already cost the workers more than £45,000.

The fact that the case has ended without a jail sentence or fines being imposed is a big victory, especially as it was achieved without the support of the union leadership. There are now three important objectives. Firstly, to continue the financial support. More than £20,000 has been collected. But solidarity must continue because the lawyers’ bill is high and the union refuses to pay. Secondly, the reinstatement in the FGTB of the expelled activists. The Clabecq workers had the right to speak in their defence in court, but have not had that right in their own union. This battle has become harder since the last FGTB conference elected Mia De Vits as chairwoman, indicating a new turn to the right in the leadership. Thirdly, MRS needs to be relaunched – this task was cut across by the legal action which has taken up a lot of time and energy, and cost a lot of money – but it is more urgent than ever to ‘renew the unions’ for the struggles ahead.

Guy Van Sinoy

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