Important success of the national strike in Belgium: the country was shut – freelancers and retailers also on strike!

Marina Kontara

Over 70% of Belgian workers were on strike on November 9 – a strike called by two out of the three major trade unions of the country- demanding a ceiling on energy prices and an adjustment of the index calculation that would correspond to the real cost of living. 

The whole country was seriously affected by the strike, while some sectors were completely closed: factories, public transport, the airports, rail, hospitals, schools, media, post services, firemen, supermarkets and even the police were on strike. It is of course important to mention that participation has been uneven at the different regions of the countries, with the southern part being more active. Yet, two important Flemish ports, Antwerp and in Ghent, were completely shut. More than 60% of the flights at the Brussels airport were cancelled, where participation in the strike was at 70%. At the same time, the Charleroi airport was completely shut. On top of that, it is worth mentioning that retailers and freelancers were also on strike, which is unheard of.

Impoverishment of the Belgian society

The high participation in the strike and its undeniable success is well justified. According to the most recent figures from official instances, 25% in Brussels, between 15.8 % and 18.8 % in Wallonia and right below 10 % of people in Flanders are right at or below the poverty line. Inflation is galloping at more than 12%, while salary adjustments and allowances increases are barely touching 2%. The energy bills and prices of basic goods are flying high and an average family is in great difficulty to make ends meet.

This national strike came as a normal sequel to the successful trade unions actions organised in September and in June. Since the beginning of the year, trade unions have been collecting signatures, asking that the Federal Parliament launches a discussion aiming at the revision of the indexation system; this initiative was taken because the 1996 law is way far from covering today’s needs and is practically beneficial for employers and big companies. More than 100.000 signatures have been collected up to now, which overpassed the trade unions expectations by far. Already in September, and even more so now, setting up a ceiling to the energy prices has been added as a top priority to the list of demands. Next on the list are demands to increase allowances, to tax the big corporations profits and to further support benefits for commuting.

Contradictions of the trade unions

Given the financial emergency of society and the pressure of workers to the trade unions for action, it is astonishing that no demonstration was called, neither at central level (in Brussels), nor locally. Traditions in the three regions of the country are different and demonstrations are called much more often in Wallonia and Brussels than in Flanders. Yet, it has been the case in the past that trade unions have called a central demonstration in Brussels and strikers from the other cities also participated. A very successful demonstration was one of the core elements of the action day in June and it would only make sense to repeat it. A demonstration would be necessary to make the strike’s demands better heard in society and contribute to developing links between the different striking sectors. On top of that, it would transmit a combative ambience into the streets and encourage the rest of the society to fight. 

Of course, plenty of local actions and picket lines were organised (more than 34 only in Flanders); a protest was called by the Brussels trade union for public sector (CGSP/ACOD) at the headquarters of the main energy provider in Belgium (Engie); the same trade union organised another protest in Antwerp, while in Liège a soup-kitchen was set up at the headquarters of a local energy provider (Resa). But without a demonstration, the impact of these successful actions was considerably limited. 

Surprisingly enough, retailers and freelancers made the difference. Apart from participating in the strike, their branch in Liège organised a protest in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, because “this is where all the decisions are taken”. 

What is even more astonishing is that in some cases workers of the trade unions calling the strike… were not allowed to strike! In these cases, information on the actions and meeting points failed to be circulated internally, while employees were requested to show some understanding because… “since there are already many public holidays in November, the trade union employees need to work in order to support the strikers”! A CSC/ACV representative told the Dutch-speaking television that “the country is not shut down, we want to strike at some places and send a message to the government and the bosses” – even some media gave a more combative picture of the strike…

What next?

Both these elements are only showing that the official trade unions in Belgium are not up to their task. In a conjuncture like the present one, when the financial and the energy crises are hitting hard on the working class people, they are only dragged to call a national strike, but are barely doing the basics in order for the strike to be successful. As if they practically did not wish a strike to take place… And yet, successful it was!

It is more than evident that the working class people, suffering from the reality of the crisis, are conscious enough of the necessity to struggle. What is actually needed though is vanguard structures of the movement to organise this struggle, coordinate with the workers of the other countries and fight for decent salaries corresponding to the cost of living and a fair distribution of the wealth in society. For this purpose, nationalising the main sectors of the economy (most importantly the energy sector) and bringing them under social and workers control is absolutely necessary. 

Considering the fact that existing trade unions are far from taking over this task because of their bureaucratisation, workers need to push them hard, but also take initiatives for new structures, able to precisely organise this necessary struggle. Next to that, these structures would need to work on a detailed plan for escalating future actions and strikes. However, it looks like they would need to also demand that trade union employees are allowed to strike and that demonstrations are also called on a strike day…

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