The struggle at the Forges of Clabecq (Belgium)

By Jo Cottenier and Jean Pestieau, Workers’ Party of Belgium

On November 26, over a thousand workers and trade unionists held a demonstration in front the Law Courts of Nivelles (a small city 25 km from Brussels), Belgium, against the holding of a virtually unprecedented trial . Thirteen union representatives and workers were before the court charged with “armed rebellion, attacking the police with bulldozers, attempting to set fire to a police station, kidnapping two secret service agents, striking and injuring policemen, theft of material and disruption of traffic”. They risk years in jail and ruinous fines. It would be necessary to go back to 1886 to find a trial of such a scale in Belgian social history.

The Forges de Clabecq, a steelworks, is the story of a works closure, the kind which happens all the time nowadays, and will become even more frequent in the months and years to come, given the harsh world depression that will soon turn on the capitalist economy of Europe. In such cases, it has become customary in Belgium for the union leadership to squawk a few protests while getting on with the `real business’ of negotiating a closure plan, making provision for some kind of so-called `social’ follow-up and securing vague promises of regional regeneration. This approach, however, did not appeal to the union representatives and workers of the Forges de Clabecq.

When the Clabecq conflict exploded in December 1996, the workers demanded the site be kept open and fully maintained, without job losses, and further that there should be investment to restore the economic viability of the enterprise. Nothing more, nothing less. They refused to negotiate a `social plan’ that would amount to accepting the closure. They called on their fellow workers to refuse to bow down to the dictates of the economic laws and the capitalist system that was ready to consign 2000 families to a life of poverty and unemployment.

In the course of their struggle, the workers had to fight against the police several times. They won a famous victory against the police when they used bulldozers to overwhelm the watercannons that had been brought to disperse their mobilisation. And bulldozers were also used to great effect in the town of Clabecq to smash the windows of banks that were trying to force the closure of the steelworks by refusing to provide money to meet wages.

The Clabecq union representatives took the daring initiative of mobilising nationally on the question of jobs and closures. They organised a march for jobs, which took place on February 2, 1997, when Belgium witnessed an unprecedented event in its history. In response to the call of a the leadership of a union branch, 70,000 people demonstrated for jobs in the streets of Clabecq and before this crowd Roberto D’Orazio, the main shop steward, made a speech in the factory grounds, announcing the dawn of a new era:

“This march must be the beginning of victory for the workers. What we want is for the economy to be at the service of the workers, of education, of our children and of labour. All the wealth in this country is produced by the workers. This wealth therefore belongs to us.”

he said.

A major right-wing newspaper commented the following day:

“It has been a long time since socialism has been as much in demand as it was yesterday in the streets of Clabecq” .

Gigantic portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin were paraded in the march. An employer’s magazine reacted with astonishment:

“If there are those suffering from nostalgia in Moscow, Dresden or Sofia who still ally with the demons of destructive Communism, so much the better. But 25 km from Brussels, the capital of Europe?”

On the other hand, for workers it was a truly historic day. Since Roberto D’Orazio’s appeal to become active and to resist, the spirit of Clabecq is haunting Belgium and especially its union organizations. On the day of the march there was born the idea of creating a movement for renewal of the unions, a movement which would be inspired by this spirit of revolt, by the spirit of refusing to cow down before the blows of the system.

The dispute ended in June 1997 when, as a result of the struggle of the workers, it was agreed that the works would be re-opened, and that there would be jobs there for 800 workers.

But once the dispute was settled, six shop stewards, including D’Orazio, were expelled from the union. The union leadership would not allow them to follow a union strategy, other than the `official’ strategy of negotiated surrender. By its actions against its own members, the union leadership thus paved the way for legal proceedings, effectively saying to the bourgeoisie: `we also disapprove of these methods, we also condemn D’Orazio, you can do what you want’.

In the trial two different conceptions of trade unionism were brought face to face with each other. On the one hand, there was the type of trade unionism which represents the power of the bourgeoisie within the working class, its proponents being under t he thumb of political parties dedicated to the management of capitalism. This kind of trade unionism fears the mobilization of the masses and tries to convince workers that it’s no use fighting, and that their interests are best served by enhanced competition and profitability. Such union leaders don’t want to defend those who “use violence” – but they submit readily enough to the violence of the system, completely failing to react to it. When bosses kill workers through lack of security arrangements, through excessive work-loads and greed for profit, these union worthies preach resignation and hopelessness. The system is plunging more and more people into conditions of injustice, poverty and depression, yet these toadies are satisfied to play the role of the firemen to quench the flames of struggle. They propagate the spirit of cowardice and submission.

The Movement for Union Renewal (MRS), on the other hand, has drawn up a basic document demanding a return to the path of class struggle and socialism.

A vast movement of solidarity is developing in Belgium to halt the legal proceedings against the Clabecq shop stewards and to demand their reinstatement in the union.

There are two essential lessons of this magnificent struggle, that open up tremendous opportunities for the working class. First of all, the struggle in Clabecq allowed a new voice to be heard: that of the refusal to accept of the laws of the market. The shop stewards told workers not to surrender to fatalism.

“Dare to fight, dare to win”

said Lenin. It is this spirit that the Clabecq activists applied when mobilizing all the progressive forces of Belgium. Secondly, faced with the serious depression that is pending, this new unionism can count on enormous support.

“That is the kind of shop stewards we need”,

say people everywhere. But this sort of trade unionism was possible only because there was a vanguard educated in Marxism-Leninism.

Organization in a revolutionary party and education in Marxism-Leninism are essential elements in a successful struggle. Only they can guarantee that this unique struggle will bear lasting fruit and that the movement will be capable of ensuring progress along the revolutionary path. The most important lesson of the struggle has been that it has shown that the working class is capable of organizing to beat the adversary, of imposing the law of the workers, of creating another society.

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