Letter From Europe: The Belgian public sector strike

In September civil servants and other public sector workers in Belgium carried out a nation-wide strike, lasting for over a week, against the government’s proposals in its draft budget for 1984 to economise on its spending at the expense of their wages and pensions.

The strike started on Friday 9 September, after a section of the railwaymen heard the details of the government’s proposals from their union officials. Against the advice of their officials, they immediately stopped work. The strike, still at this stage unofficial, quickly spread to the rest of the railway network. The unions then decided to follow the movement and declare the strike official from the following Monday. On the Monday some other public employees unofficially joined the striking railwaymen, leading to the unions calling an official general strike of all public sector workers as from Thursday 15 September.

The strength of this strike lay in its essentially spontaneous nature. It was not something that had been planned and called by the union bureaucracies, but arose from a general feeling that, in view of the cuts in living standards workers have suffered in recent years, enough was enough. The present government — a coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals that emerged from the general election held in November 1981 — had assumed, soon after entering office, “special powers” to deal with the economic situation, which meant that it could rule by decree rather than by act of parliament. These powers had been used to end the automatic indexing of wages and salaries to rises in the cost of living, to increase social insurance contributions and to reduce benefits. It was the fall in living standards resulting from these measures that made the public sector workers so determined to resist any further cuts.

Trade unions in Belgium organise workers on the basis of their political opinion. This, of course, is absurd and has led to workers being divided into three more or less rival union federations: the Christian Democrats (SC. 1.3 million members). The “Socialists” (FGTB. 1.13 million members) and the Liberals (CGLSB. 210,000 members). But on this occasion the strength of feeling among ordinary union members was such that the rival unions had to act together in a “common front”. This, together with the fact that the strike took place in Flanders as well as in the traditionally more militant Wallonia, greatly strengthened the bargaining position of the strikers.

At first the government was somewhat bewildered by the strike, the Minister of Communications declaring: “I have absolutely no idea why there is this strike; there was no warning, no notice, no presentation of demands. It is a rather amazing action” (Le Soir, 14 September 1983). The government soon realised however that the strength of feeling of the ordinary strikers was deep-rooted and that, in proposing its attack on increments, bonuses and pensions of public employees — the section of the working class best able to resist downward pressures in a crisis because their work still needs to be done whatever the economic situation — they had perhaps gone too far. In the background too was the fear that the strike might spread to the private sector, resulting in a general strike as happened in 1960-1 (also sparked off by workers in the public sector reacting against a proposal to reduce their pensions). So instead of refusing to negotiate “under duress”, as governments often do in those circumstances, the government agreed to start negotiations straight away as from the Friday, indicating that they were prepared to make concessions. The Civil Service Minister spoke of a “misunderstanding” as to the government’s intentions.

An agreement was reached on 21 September. The government guaranteed that the increments, bonuses and pensions due to public sector workers would remain unchanged at least until the end of 1985; salaries would however be paid at the end instead of at the beginning of the month. The Christian Democrat and Liberal unions accepted straight away and the FGTB on Friday evening after consulting its members.

A number of lessons can be drawn from this strike. First, any strike against a government decision inevitably has political undertones. The unions managed to avoid this by concentrating on the decision as it affected the wages and conditions of their members rather than on challenging (other than verbally) the government’s general policy of spending cuts. Having obtained a relatively satisfactory result on the bread-and-butter issue, they wisely called off the strike. Otherwise they would have provided the government with a stick to beat them — that the strike was politically aimed at a change of government which, in the Belgian context, would only have meant a change of coalition partners. The Belgian PS, in opposition since 1981 and forgetting its role in helping to impose austerity when it did share power, did, in fact, try to exploit the strike for its own party political ends. The leader of its French-speaking wing declared that “the government must go” and clearly hinted that his party was ready to enter the government again. Fortunately neither the trade union leaders, nor even less the strikers. took any notice of this. If they had. the result would have been disastrous. If the strike had become political in the sense of demanding a change of government, it would have broken ranks, the resulting division among the workers would have strengthened the government’s bargaining position. In any event, the participation or non-participation of the PS in the governing coalition is of the utmost indifference from a working class point of view since, whatever party or parties are in power, capitalism can only function against working class interests.

Second, like the majority of strikes, it was entirely defensive, a reaction against an action taken by the employer — in this case the government. In the event the government employer was forced to withdraw’ the main proposals, but the workers still had to make some concessions, which meant that their conditions of employment had deteriorated even if by a great deal less than their employer had originally intended. In other words, the strike only slowed a downward movement. This, of course, is necessary and was worth fighting for, but shows up the limitations of trade union action. The workers are always on the receiving end under capitalism, however militant they are.

Adam Buick (Luxembourg)