In the social and political history of Belgium, May 1, 2012, could mark a milestone. On that day the leaders of the Charleroi regional branch of the socialist trade union General Federation of Belgian Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) – the second biggest in the country, with 102,000 members – publicly broke with the social-democratic party and called for a rallying of the left to the perspective of a new broad, anti-capitalist force to the left of the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the Greens. An unprecedented thunderbolt… and not without consequences.
May Day speeches in Belgium are generally unsurprising but like all rules, this has its exceptions. On May 1, 2012, in Charleroi, a big stone was thrown in the water by Daniel Piron, the regional secretary of the FGTB [see YouTube video]. Before stunned and furious social-democratic leaders, and in the presence of several hundred enthusiastic trade unionists, Piron denounced the austerity policies with which the PS has collaborated for 25 years without a break. (Belgium can only be governed by coalition governments. Between 1982 and 1987, the social democrats were out of power. Since 1987 they have participated in all the federal coalitions and also lead the Walloon regional government.) However, the most spectacular aspect of this speech was not the denunciation of the role of the social democrats in coalition governments with the right, but rather the explicit call for the construction of an anti-capitalist political alternative, to the left of the PS and the Ecolo party (ecologist party).Those who believed it was an individual outburst without consequence, or a manoeuvre to benefit the FGTB in the context of the forthcoming works council elections were wrong. Not only did Piron reiterate his call a year later, in the name of all the professional union federations of his region, but also meanwhile he and his comrades had passed into action. In two directions: the debate inside the trade union movement and the left in general, on the one hand, and the call for political regrouping of left forces on the other.
A Broad Echo
The appeal by Piron and his comrades had a broad echo among trade unionists. The factions of the FGTB apparatus linked to the PS and the line of the “lesser evil” have certainly abstained from any public comment, but several left union leaders have expressed themselves openly. While not completely sharing the conclusions of the Charleroi comrades, the characterization of PS policies as neoliberal is very broadly shared. In his editorials, the president of the Francophone union federation of metalworkers, the FGTB (67,000 members), Nico Cue, has made a speciality of denouncing these policies and the change of regime which accompanies it. During a public debate with Daniel Piron in the FGTB offices in Liege, Cue confirmed that the union movement “had a huge need of a left political alternative, a real anti-capitalist alternative.” “The left organizations should overcome their divisions,” he added. 
Daniel Richard, inter-professional secretary of the Verviers regional organization of the FGTB, adds: “It is the role of the union, and even its raison d’être, not only to defend the works at the level of the workplaces, but also to impose another policy…I think that it is necessary to have, to the left of the PS and Ecolo, a more significant political force, better structured, more credible and unitary than what currently exists. And I encourage a left front, sharing and forwarding at the political level the programme of demands of the Walloon FGTB for example.”
More explicit support came from the general secretary of a trade union organization of the Confédération des syndicats chrétiens (CSC, Confederation of Christian Trade Unions), the Centrale nationale des
employés (CNE, 160,000 members). Known for his anti-neoliberal positions and involvement in the European Altersummit, Felipe Van Keirsbilck told the newspaper la Gauche that he was “absolutely in agreement with what I believe to be the two bases of this call from the FGTB of Charleroi….On the one hand, without having partisan links, in the CNE we fully agree in saying that the trade unions need a political expression.” On the other hand, “it is clear that a left political force is needed … which is sufficiently radical to face the situation…The radicalism of the austerity policies means that we need a political party which is ready to confront the Troika, the neoliberal dogmas, the single system of thought, the policies of the European Commission which are exclusively at the service of capital and the destruction of social benefits.”
From Speech to Deeds
“If you don’t go for what you want, you will never have it; if you don’t ask, the reply will always be no; if you don’t go forward, you will always stay in the same place.” What distinguishes the FGTB
unionists in Charleroi is that they follow these three simple rules, as pertinent in politics as in love. Once the works council elections and communal elections were over, all the political organizations to the left of the PS and Ecolo held an initial meeting in January 2013. A representative of the CNE attended the meeting, mandated by their union. A support committee for the appeal of May 1, 2012, was set up. During the meetings, a first concrete project emerged: to organize in Charleroi, one year later, a day of struggle and debate on the need for a political alternative.
On April 27, 2013, 400 people responded to the invitation of the Charleroi FGTB, the CNE and the support committee. The text distributed on this occasion said notably:
“This system cannot be reformed. It must disappear. But simply affirming this is not enough. We still need to give ourselves the means and political relays to concretise our objective. A political relay of a new type which is based on social resistance and strengthens it: that is what we need to build to give hope back to the world of labour, Some think that it would be possible to ‘weigh’ on the PS and Ecolo so that they once again become parties of the left. It’s an illusion. We prefer to invite the left activists of the PS and Ecolo to join us in building an alternative together… Our ambition is not to compose and dilute ourselves in power. It is to oppose until the time when we can impose an alternative worth of this name.”
The debates were launched by representatives of the two organizations, Daniel Piron and Isabelle Wanschoor. Rank and file activists then witnessed the ravages of austerity among rail workers, teachers, and the unemployed. Finally, Piron read messages of support from Pierre Laurent (Parti de la gauche européenne), Olivier Besancenot (Nouveau parti anticapitaliste, France) and British film director Ken Loach (“You are right, we need new parties.”). The participants then broke up into working groups to exchange views in a very constructive atmosphere, and discuss the working perspectives to adopt. At the end of the day, the latter were summarized as follows by the organizers: to broaden the initiative, link up with similar initiatives outside Belgium, approach the associations, the cultural and academic world, and above all “all those who suffer today.” The support committee was charged with drawing up a plan of action, but also an emergency anti-capitalist plan, to be submitted to a subsequent meeting.
It was necessary to await this day of April 27, 2013, for the mass media and commentators finally to take the affair seriously. It should be said in fairness to them that the approach of the FGTB in Charleroi is unprecedented. The Belgian workers’ movement is characterized by the existence of massive trade unions (more than 2 million members) that leave the monopoly of political expression to their social-democratic or Christian-democratic “friends.”
This division of labour and the under-politicization which flows from it are the results of history. In 1898, the ancestor of the FGTB was created as the “Trade Union Commission” of the social-democratic party, the Belgian Labour Party (POB). After the general strike of 1936, this commission gave way to the Confédération générale du travail de Belgique (CGTB), whose affiliates were automatically members of the party.
The social-democratic grip was weakened during the Nazi occupation. Thus, in 1945, the CGTB merged with organizations of underground resistance origin. The FGTB dates from this time. It is formally independent of the PS, but its leaders sit as observers on the party bureau and the latter controls the Action Commune Socialiste, which, since 1949, groups all the social organizations of the “socialist column.”
It isn’t the first time that trade union sectors have broken with social democracy. André Renard, leader of the Liege metalworkers, did so after the general strike of 1960-61. But Renard only created a hybrid movement, neither party nor union (the Mouvement populaire wallon), that ended up in the dead end a fight for federalism cut off from anti-capitalist demands, so that its existence was ephemeral.
The appeal of the FGTB of Charleroi is the very first time that union bodies of such a level of responsibility have favoured the emergence of a political alternative, and it should be specified that they do it in an explicit rejection of “Walloon isolationism.” This development is then qualitative and of great importance. Several factors contribute to explaining it.
Why There, Why Now?
First, some local specificities should be noted. Two of them are linked. The first: the local PS was up to its neck in corruption, to the point that a mayor and several deputies have been jailed. The second: social democracy has increasingly lost its ability to control the trade unions. When the old union leadership, traditionally very right wing, retired, a new generation of union cadres emerged almost simultaneously in the leadership of the professional and inter-professional federations. This generation was marked by a series of testing struggles: the fight of the steelworkers in Clabecq against closure, the long strike of AGC glassworkers against job losses (denounced by the PS as “a stain” on Wallonia), and movements of resistance against neoliberal policies in the public sector, notably in rail. A team was formed, which drew on the lessons of these experiences, notably concerning relations with social democracy: in May 2010, the FGTB in Charleroi held a congress of political orientation during which it decided to institute regular links with all the organizations of the democratic left. Since then, it has no longer participated in Action commune socialiste and organizes its own May Day demonstration every year.
France, Greece, Spain: the international conjuncture has given ideas to trade unionists in Charleroi. In his speech on May 1, 2012, Daniel Piron had cited the example of the Front de gauche (Left Front) in France. “Yes, the example of the Front de gauche in France has inspired us. Yes, it has given our activists an extraordinary hope. Yes, we identify with the essence of the programme defended by Mélenchon.” At the time the presidential campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon enthused numerous Walloon trades unionists. Several hundred of them, notably in Charleroi, came to Lille to participate in his meeting on March 27, 2012.
The general tone of the Front de gauche campaign and its programme seemed in synch with the hopes of an alternative in Belgium. In his speech, the regional secretary of the Charleroi FGTB nuanced his support, however: “It is not however the case that we can apply a cut and paste in Belgium. We are concerned moreover at Mélenchon’s support for the formation freshly emerged from the ranting of Bernard Wesphael, which divide the left a little more again and all this without any anti-capitalist basis.” Does this criticism explain why Mélenchon did not respond to the invitation of the FGTB Charleroi to organize a meeting with him in the context of the communal elections?
“Today, comrades of the PS, the politics of the lesser evil will no longer impress our activists. The magic phrase ‘it would be worse without us’ offends their intelligence.”
But the basic reason for the trade union radicalization is the exhaustion of the margins of manoeuvre of social democracy. The PS and its Flemish equivalent, the Socialistische Partij Anders (Sp.a) have participated in all the coalition governments with the right since 1987. It goes without saying that the policies of these governments have been neoliberal. The social-democratic leaders claim that their participation allows them to limit the damage, and even to implement some trade union demands, but this is no longer credible, notably because the PS does not conceal its hostility to the mobilizations, demonstrations and strikes that the FGTB organizes against the employers and the government. That is why Daniel Piron was strongly applauded on May 1, 2012, when he said: “Today, comrades of the PS, the politics of the lesser evil will no longer impress our activists. The magic phrase ‘it would be worse without us’ offends their intelligence.”
Discontent has only grown since the formation of the current government, led by Elio Di Rupo. Belgium had not had a socialist prime minister since the very short (six months) reign of the Leburton government, in 1974. The trade unionists, who really believed that the PS did its utmost in the context of coalitions where it did not have the upper hand, and who thus hoped that a team led by a “socialist” would allow a certain number of advances, were quickly disillusioned. The Di Rupo government, since its formation, has led a vast offensive of social regression which sought to pay the bill for the bailing out of the banks, on the one hand, and to tie the Belgian economy to German levels of competitiveness on the other.
A wage freeze imposed by law until 2018, massive exclusions of the unemployed, lengthening of professional careers, dismantling of the status of civil servants, manipulation of the index and other painful measures contrasting sharply with the impotence displayed toward the multinationals (Mittal and Ford), or the fierce defence of the arrangements which make Belgium a tax haven for the rich (notional interest rates, banking secrecy, no registry of wealth). In fact, the attack which has continued since late 2011 has been almost as brutal as that launched by the government of the right alone in 1982-87. And, as at that time, the trade unions who do not accept the neoliberal diktats are deprived of consultation.
Crisis of the ‘Belgian model’
This situation tends to put the “Belgian model” in crisis. On the Francophone side, the existence of the FGTB underpins the link between the PS and its popular social base, and this link explains in turn the astonishing durability of the PS, which remains the biggest party in Francophone Belgium. More broadly, whether socialist or Christian, this mass trade unionism is at a low political level, accepting the pre-eminence of the parties is a token of stability and control over the working-class. But this “model” can only function if there is “social dialogue” and the parties relay effectively at least some of the trade union demands. Without that, the situation of the trade union cadres becomes untenable and leaves them at the end of the day only two possibilities: either accept a substantial reduction of trade union weight in society in general and in the workplaces in particular; or challenge the model, which would involve both breaking with the trade unionism of dialogue and seeking new political relays.
This question of political relays was approached by André Renard in the context of the post-war boom. Today, faced with the systemic crisis of globalized capital and the key role of the European Union in the offensive against social benefits, the anarcho-syndicalism of Renard is no longer relevant. The alternative must be both at the political and trade union levels.
As the president of the Charleroi FGTB metalworkers, Antonio Cocciolo, has put it:
“Greece is a veritable laboratory for the parties of the European right… We are today in Greece almost on the 37th day of the inter-professional strike… And …we are not seeing a change of political orientation. As a union leader I am obliged to analyze this kind of thing. I think that we need, today more than ever, political organizations close to the workers, to the people, capable of mobilizing. On this level, the approach made by the FGTB Charleroi Sud-Hainaut on May 1, 2012 is the culmination of the following analysis and reflection: political relays are needed, a political transmission belt which can help the mobilization and capacity of union organizations to halt the demolition of social benefits. Yes to trade union organization! Yes to a strengthening of combative trades unionism! But also on the other hand we need a political, legislative, voice, which can lead the political battle in the democratic institutions taking account of the aspirations of the working people…”
A Complex Process
In the context of the crisis of the Belgian model of dialogue and integration of the workers’ movement, the Charleroi initiative can only resonate with the processes of political recomposition underway in the union movement as a whole. But the complexity of the situation and the double cleavage of FGTB/CSC, Flanders/Wallonia means a long process involving mediations as well as tactics allowing the different stages to be traversed.
On the one hand, the echo of the appeal concerns almost exclusively the Francophone part of the country. The Flemish trades unionists of the FGTB are certainly unhappy with the policies of the social democrats and 700 of them have shown this by signing an open letter to their union leadership demanding a break with the Sp.a. But this initiative has remained without consequence, notably because the FGTB is very much in the minority in Flanders in relation to the CSC (where the debate on political relays is only carried on in minority circles) and that the trade union movement as a whole in the north of the country operates in a political landscape completely hegemonized by the right and the far right.
On the other hand, the support of the CNE is important but the leaders of this union are obliged to take account of the fact that the other professional union federations of the CSC are very far from sharing their viewpoint: they cannot then allow themselves to commit like Piron and his comrades. Also, in spite of the excellent collaboration between the CNE and the FGTB of Charleroi in the organization of April 27, an old “anti-Papist” base subsists in the socialist union, which the social democrats tend to exploit.
Discordance of the Times
Trade unionists in Charleroi are highly conscious of these difficulties. That is why they insist systematically on the fact that their initiative is a long-term project, which involves a fundamental debate inside the trade union organizations. To fuel this debate, they have produced a pamphlet in 10,000 copies, in which they respond to eight questions concerning their approach. Tactically, the problem for them is to continue advancing concretely toward their objective – a new left-wing political force – without isolating themselves by a premature initiative, notably on the electoral level. Indeed, the question is complicated because there is a social emergency and 2014 will see three simultaneous elections (European, federal and regional) which will be decisive for presenting an anti-capitalist alternative to social democracy and attempting to break its monopoly of the parliamentary representation of the left.
That will be all the more important inasmuch as the objective of the PS and Sp.a is to win over the traditional Flemish right from the liberal nationalist New Flemish Alliance (NVA) by showing that class collaboration remains the best means of imposing austerity, and that the latter can thus be imposed more surely in the federal context than by a Denis Horman new state reform which would threaten the country with institutional chaos. The prize for the social democrats is to hold power, for four years – for all the governments at all levels will henceforth be “de legislature.”
At the same time that they give the maximum of concessions to the right, the PS and Sp.a mobilize the trade union bureaucracy to close ranks around the “useful vote” and the politics of the “lesser evil.” They feel threatened on the left by the Parti du travail de Belgique (PTB-PVDA, Workers Party of Belgium) and wish to avoid opposition to the neoliberal policy that they will carry out during the next legislature being expressed inside Parliament.
A formation of Maoist and Stalinist origin, the PTB-PVDA has succeeded in winning election to the communal councils of some working-class areas where it has set up medical centres providing free health care. Some years ago, noting that it had not succeeded in making a breakthrough, it decided to change its image, and to a certain extent its strategy, so as to appear as less “extremist” and divisive of the left. At the same time, it improved its media operations. In spite of a few slips, this has succeeded. At the communal and provincial elections of October 2012, the PTB-PVDA did well in several big towns in Flanders and Wallonia as well as in two communes in the Brussels conurbation. In Antwerp it obtained 7.96% (four elected representatives) and beat the Open VLD list (5.57%, two elected representatives) led by justice minister Annemie Turtelboom. In the Liege region, it won four seats in Herstal, five in Seraing (where it is now the second biggest party after the PS), two in Liege and one in Flémalle. In these two provinces, in particular Liege, its scores allow it to hope to cross the threshold of eligibility at the parliamentary elections.
Articulating the Short and Medium Term
The question is posed of articulating the medium-term combat launched by the Charleroi trade unionists and the short-term electoral struggle against social democracy. The PTB, because of its success, bears a major responsibility here. Only it can hope to gain parliamentary representation. But it is not sure of doing so, because the pressure for the “useful vote” will be enormous. The PS will dramatize to the maximum the threat of division of the country so as to establish itself as the last rampart protecting social security.
In these conditions, the interests of the left and of the PTB would be that the latter makes a proposal which takes account of its legitimate concern to maintain its own existence, gains and visibility, while creating the conditions for a broad campaign, involving activists from other political currents, the associative world and the trade union left. Such a campaign would be a support to the Charleroi unionists and an encouragement to others who, while sharing their analysis, today hesitate to commit themselves.
What will the PTB do? Follow the sectarian tradition which runs like a red thread through its innumerable political zigzags? Will it attempt to justify itself by reducing the appeal of the Charleroi unionists to the umpteenth attempt at unifying the “little left”? Or will it take the unprecedented opportunity to finally begin to contest social-democratic hegemony at the very heart of the organized workers’ movement, in the trade union base, by contributing to restructuring the latter around an anti-capitalist axis? In the short term, that is the key question.
As Felipe Van Keirsbilck of the CNE puts it:
“The PTB represents something today. We salute it! And we salute also the proof that in the electorate there is an aspiration to a policy other than the micro-nuances of neoliberalism. Now, the scenario is not fixed in advance. If the PTB can consider that the political and historical stakes posed today in Belgium and Europe justify an opening … then (its) electoral victory in the communal elections could accelerate the constitution of a significant left force, democratic and ecosocialist, supportive of trade union mobilizations and radical in the sense that it defends the interest of the great majority of the population…Now the opposite scenario is also possible. The successes of the PTB can go to its head and let it believe that its campaigns of propaganda, albeit generally very well done, can bring it from 3% to 5%, then one fine day from 5% to 7%. If that is the case, it would not take into account the historic urgency which faces us.”
The response to these questions is one of the major issues of the social and electoral calendar for 2013-2014. •
This article first published on the International Viewpoint website.