Massive strikes in Norway, Finland and Belgium: From dispersion toward unification

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The massive workers' struggles which almost paralyzed not only Scandinavia, but above all Belgium, this spring, announce the opening of a new period of the class struggle. A period where two tendencies will more and more develop at the same time. On the one hand the bourgeoisie's increasingly frontal and massive attacks, and on the other at the level of workers' consciousness, the concretizations of lessons learnt in the course of numerous but dispersed strug­gles, which have characterized the preceding period above all in Western Europe.[1]

The greater the decomposition of a decadent society, the more the truth, the daily social reality, bec­omes contradictory to the dominant ideology. The ideology which defends and ,justifies the existence of a social and economic order which is rotten to its core, which is provoking the greatest famines in the history of humanity, which threatens to bring about the self-destruction of the species, which relies on the most insidious political total­itarianism, such an ideology can only rest on lies, for the truth is its negation.

The workers' struggles are the bearers of this simple truth which says that the capitalist mode of production must and can be destroyed if humanity is to survive and pursue its development.

This is why, with detailed scientific planning, the international bourgeoisie organizes a black-out on workers' struggles, in particular on an internat­ional level.

How many workers in the world know that in myth­ical Scandinavia, this homeland of ‘western social­ism', the working class is suffering an economic attack without precedent, and that, in response, the workers of Denmark (Spring ‘85) , Sweden (Winter, ‘85) , then those of Finland and Norway (Spring ‘86) have just fought their most important combats since before the second world war?

How many workers know that Belgium, in the months of April and May 1986, saw the development of a ferment of workers' struggles which repeatedly, practically calls blocked the economic life of the count­ry? That in this small country at the heart of industrialized Europe, in the middle of the largest concentration of workers in the world, the workers have multiplied their spontaneous strikes, break­ing out of union directives, to respond to the acceleration and threat of new economic attacks from the government; that they have begun to try to unify the struggles, acting collectively with­out waiting; for the unions, by sending massive delegations - such as the 300 Limburg miners who went to the public service workers' assembly in Brussels - in order to demand the unification of the fight.

The newspapers, the media, say not a word outside of the country concerned; instead they stir up nauseating ideological campaigns, internationally orchestrated, on ‘anti-terrorism', on the need for the strengthening of ‘law and order' (the calls for more ‘security') or on the impotence of poor starving human beings faced with the ‘fatality' of the economic crisis. On the international workers' struggle, the silence is organized. Only some short notes here and there, mainly to announce the end of such and such a strike.

The bourgeoisie fears reality; and the bluster­ings and braggings of the Reagans express a growing anxiety, not the serenity, of a class sure of its power and its future. And for good reason.

Struggles which show the way

The major characteristic of the struggles this Spring is their massive character: in Norway there were up to 120,000 workers affected by strikes, including lock-outs (10% of the active population); in Finland 250,000 strikers together confronted the state; in Belgium, it's also in hundreds and thous­ands that we must count the number of workers who, at the time of writing, have already taken part in struggles against the acceleration of the economic attack of capital.

It's no longer a question of a series of isolated, dispersed struggles, enclosed in bankrupt factories. These are massive mobilizations which paralyze a large part of the economy.

From the oil rigs of the North Sea off Norway to the mines of Limburg, from the Finnish Post to the national and local railways in Belgium, the proletariat has shown in a few weeks, in some of the most industrialized countries, a power and a force which announces the opening of a new stage in the class struggle.

Whether through objective economic conditions (the need of the bourgeoisie to make more and more massive and frontal attacks), or whether through the subjective conditions which characterize them (maturation of workers' consciousness, the tendency towards unification), these struggles express the debut of a new acceleration of class struggle: the opening of a new phase in the historic combat of the world proletariat for its emancipation.

I. The objective conditions: the European bourgeoisie can less and less disperse its attack

In the previous issue of the International Review we showed how, during 1985, the bourgeoisie of the industrialized countries of the western bloc con­ducted a conscious policy of the dispersal of its economic attack (planned and timed sackings, sect­or by sector attacks, etc) , so as to prevent front­al, unified reactions from the proletariat.

We insisted that the bourgeoisie drew the less­ons of experiences such as those of Poland 1980 or the combats which marked the opening of what we call "the third international wave of struggle" since 1968 (after those of 1968-74 and 1978-80), ie the public sector strikes in Belgium and Holland, Autumn ‘83.

But we also underlined that this plan, conducted in close cooperation through governments, political parties and trade unions, by and large was grounded in the economic margin of maneuver given to Europe by the American mini-recovery.

But this ‘margin' is rapidly reducing today under the pressure of the slowing down of the US economy, and under the pressure of the weakening in the competitivity of European exports against US products (see the article ‘Where is the economic crisis?'). The ‘new American plan', of which the sharp decline of the dollar is only the most spec­tacular aspect, is not a gift for Europe but a declaration of commercial war at the level of the planet. Whatever economies the European countries can make in the short term through the ‘oil factor' they are more than ever forced to lower their expenses and production costs, which means in the first place a more violent attack on the income of the exploited.

What's more, this attack implies - above all in Europe - drastic reductions in the ‘social' expend­iture of the state (in Western Europe, above all the northern countries, public administration costs are equivalent to half the national product!). This means taking measures which immediately and simultaneously hit all the workers:

-- the unemployed because their only source of income, when they have one, is government allocat­ions;

-- all wage-earners because it is the ‘social' part of the wage which is under attack (social security, family allowances, education, etc);

-- state employees because thousands of their jobs are being cut.

It's this global reality which is the basis of the world economic attacks which provoked the strug­gles in Scandinavia and Belgium. The specific economic weaknesses of these countries are not ‘except­ional cases'; these are among the first in Europe to carry out such attacks[2]. The impossibility of continuing to organize the dispersal of economic attacks, the recourse to more and more massive frontal attacks against the working class - such is the future for all the European governments.

II. The subjective conditions: the maturation of class consciousness

In the same way as the governmental plans which have provoked the struggles this Spring are an indicat­ion of the future for all capitalist governments, so these struggles, in particular those in Belgium, show the way to the rest of the world proletariat.

The will to fight

All of the struggles confirm the tendency to an international simultaneous development of class combats. Sweden, Britain, Spain, to talk only of Europe, have seen a development of workers' struggles at the same time. We've seen it with the British oil rig workers who joined the strike with their Norwegian colleagues[3]. Internation­ally there exists, not a mood of resignation but a profound discontent, a combativity which daily belies the official propaganda which says that -with the crisis - the workers have at last under­stood that their interests are the same as those of ‘their' national capital.

In practice, these struggles are a living negat­ion of the capitalist economic laws based on the profit of the market place, where misery is respond­ed to with more misery (lowering of wages, of bene­fits, increase in unemployment, etc) , and by the destruction of the means of combating this misery ( factory closures, destruction of stocks, product­ion of armaments and military costs, etc), all at the expense of the exploited.

This will to fight shows that for the workers, it is more and more clear that the question of their means to subsistence is posed in simple terms: either capital's life or theirs. There is no poss­ible conciliation between the interests of decadent capital and those of the exploited. It's in this first of all that the struggles of this Spring announce the future.

Beginning struggles when combativity demands it and not when the unions decide

One of the main weapons used by the state through its union apparatus is the power to decide the moment of combat. The force of the working class lies in the first place in its unity, its capacity to strike together. The unions, by deciding to open the struggles in a dispersed way, staggered in time, by avoiding simultaneity which is the source of unity, by preventing the fight breaking out when anger is most generalized, have a great power for dividing and weakening the movement. A power which they rarely hesitate to use.

In Belgium the unions haven't ceased to try to do this. It's in this way, among many other examp­les, that they called the public service workers to strike on the 6th May; the teachers on the 7th; the shipyard workers three days later, etc. Syst­ematically, carefully, they tried to organize... the dispersal of the movement.

The response of the workers has been - as is more and more the case in all countries - the ‘spontaneous' strike. That is to say, outside of union directives.

In this way the strike of 16,000 Limburg miners, which marked the beginning of a whole period of strikes which were to follow, broke out spontaneously in mid-April, against the advice of the unions who considered any strike "premature". It's the same for most of the movements which since then, in the railways, post, telecommunications, teaching, local transport, ministries, hospitals, naval dock­yards, parts of the private sector, etc, started or stopped, to restart a short time after, spontan­eously, outside - sometimes against - the unions' commands.

From May, the unions organized, under pressure from the workers, days of ‘general strike' (6, 16 and then 21 May) in order to take a more efficient control of events. But these ‘days of action' , although they've seen important mobilizations, remain particular moments in a general ferment, which - often in a clumsy and jerky way - is seek­ing to take things into its own hands.

The Belgian bourgeoisie isn't mistaken about the risks such actions pose to its power. As a union official of the FGTB (J.C. Wardermeeren) declared in the newspaper Le Soir, 23 May:

"The government can impose its will by force... up to the moment when the discontent provoke explosion which will no longer be controlled by the union movement. And which will be more and more difficult to get hold of through sitting down together. You see all the difference between precise negotiations, conducted on the basis of a list of demands, and those which follow from spontaneous actions. And you can calculate the risk." (our emphasis).

The unions know better than anyone ‘the risks' of allowing the strength of proletarian life to escape from the union prison. Professionals in controlling and sabotaging struggles, they are masters in the art of keeping ahead of movements. Faced with spontaneous explosions, they know very well how to radicalize their language as much as necessary, in order to regain control over the direction and organization of the movement as quickly as possible. In this they are aided and abetted by the ‘base unionists' whose criticisms of the union leadership are the last knot tying the workers to the trade union logic.

The proletariat in Belgium has not yet managed to rid itself of all the union shackles (we will come back to this). But the dynamic of the actions it has undertaken is going in the right direction.

The necessity and possibility of launching struggles without waiting for the green light from the union bureaucracies - this is the first lesson about the means to struggle confirmed by the com­bats in Belgium. We say ‘confirmed' because the tendency towards the proliferation of spontaneous strikes has been manifest for three years, from the very beginning of the third wave.

Looking for extension and unity

But probably the main lessons coming out of the struggles in Belgium this Spring lie at the level of the practical means of building workers' unity. The struggles in Belgium clearly show:

1) that this unity can only be built through the struggle. Capital divides the workers; its politic­al and trade union apparatus organizes the dispersal of the workers' forces. The proletarians can only build their unity by combating those who divide them, by combating capital and its representatives;

2) that this unity doesn't fall from the sky, nor from the unions who are its main saboteurs. It must be built practically, deliberately, consciously. The search for this unity must constitute a perman­ent objective, by sending massive delegations to seek active solidarity, the extension and unificat­ion of struggles, breaking through sectoral, ling­uistic or professional barriers. This is what the Limburg miners did when, from the beginning of the struggle, they sent massive delegations, from one to several hundred strong, to other sectors of the class: the big Ford-Genk factory (10,000 workers), the postal workers, the railway workers of the SNCB, the high school students as the unemployed of the future - calling them out on strike. The same was done by the workers of the Boel shipyards, near Antwerp, who sent delegations to the miners and joined the struggle. After the outbreak of the struggle itself, this is the first practical step in response to the necessity for the proletarians to constitute themselves into a class, a force cap­able of acting on the direction of society;

3) that ‘the street' , demonstrations, rallies, play an essential role in the constitution of this class unity. It's not enough for struggles to start up; it's not enough that sectors in struggle meet up through mass delegations. It's also nec­essary for all the forces in the struggle to recognize each other in common actions, for them to feel and measure their power. In Belgium, it was in the street that the unemployed recognized their class; in the street, the miners and the teachers, the steelworkers and the public transport drivers sought to act as a single class. In the street there is a coming together of all the energies born out of struggles in a thousands workplaces. If the movement has sufficient force, if it is able to neutralize the efforts at divisions of the bourgeois­ie, these energies can then return, even stronger, to the workplaces[4].

Through the search for unity, the struggles in Belgium have been drawing the lessons from past defeats, the defeat of the British miners in 84-85 and of many other small or big strikes which died through isolation. A collective memory exists in classes which have an historic mission. There is a progression in collective consciousness, a matur­ation, sometimes explicit, sometimes subterranean, which links up the principal moments in the collect­ive action of the class. ‘Don't let what happened in ‘83 happen again!' In this phrase, heard so often in discussions amongst strikers in Belgium (referring to the isolation of the public sector strikes in September ‘83), there is an explicit posing of the problem of the search for extension and unity as a priority to be assumed consciously if there is to be any chance of going further than in the past.

Thus the collective experience and consciousness of the revolutionary class moves forward. The practical responses the Belgian workers have made to these questions concern the entire world working class; their present struggles will have consequen­ces that go well beyond Belgium. Here again, they reveal the future.

Seeking self-organization: the struggle to master one's own forces

By launching its strikes, by uniting its struggles, by taking to the streets, the proletariat creates a gigantic, redoubtable force. But what use is this force if it isn't in control of it? Without a minimum of self-mastery, of control over the course of events, this force will soon crumble, first and foremost under the impact of the systematic and demoralizing maneuvers of the unions.

If the workers of Belgium have been able to show such strength, it's not thanks to the unions but despite or against them. This isn't an exaggerated interpretation of the facts. The principal figure of the forces of political and union containment in Belgium, the leader of the Socialist Party (which controls the country's biggest union, the FGTB) recognized this clearly on 30 May, in an in interview with Le Soir:

"The movement has come from people and not from the union apparatuses. People want Martens scalp. Those who believe that the union premeditated the events or that the parties are controlling the actions are making a monumental error. In many places the workers don't follow union slogans. They don't want to go back to work."

This is clear.

However, while it's true that "in many places the workers don' t follow union slogans", at the time of writing at least, the workers haven't created centralized forms of organization regroup­ing delegates of strike committees elected by assemblies, capable of giving orientations for all the forces of the struggle, of allowing the move­ment to effectively master its own strength.

The workers in Belgium haven't yet reached this stage of the struggle. But they have advanced in this direction. They have developed their capacity to unmask the demobilizing maneuvers of the unions by launching struggles without waiting for union directives; they've been able to limit the damage done by the unions' efforts to disperse struggles in time; by taking charge of organizing extension through delegations without relying on union structures, they've limited the effects of the unions' efforts to disperse struggles in space. By making the assemblies the real centers of decision in the struggle, they have been able to expose the union maneuvers to get them back to work[5].

And this again is a rich source of lessons for the coming struggle of the world proletariat.

The confrontation with the state is also the confrontation with the unions

The Belgian workers face a bourgeoisie which has been preparing this attack for a long time, which has entered the battle with its left forces, the ‘working class' forces of the bourgeoisie, not in government (where the obligation to take violently anti-working class measures would dangerously ex­pose them) but in opposition, in the midst of the workers in struggle, in order to sabotage the move­ment from within. The ‘Socialists' have no intent­ion of abandoning their state function of policing the workers. This can be seen clearly through their practice in the streets: "The imposing pro­cession marched calmly and serenely", said an art­icle in Le Soir (23 May) describing a demonstration of 10,000 in Charleroi (the unions had only expect­ed 5,000). "Among the demonstrators close to the Socialist milieu, there was an unease about the ‘tepidity' of the speeches and the absence of top SP leaders. Many see this as a sign that the SP ‘doesn't want power'".

The bourgeoisie needs its left in opposition and will continue to give itself the means to ensure this. The policy of dispersing struggles, as we analyzed in the previous issue of this Review has been based on the one hand on concerted action between the state and ‘private' employers who disperse the attacks, and on the other hand on the div­isive actions of the left and the unions. The growing impossibility of the state and the bosses carrying on with the dispersal of the economic attack means that it will be more and more up to the unions and left parties to prevent the unific­ation and strengthening of proletarian resistance.

The Belgian workers have, throughout their str­uggle, confronted in their own ranks the three faces of trade unionism: ‘moderate' (the Christian union), ‘militant' (the Socialists) and base union­ism (the Maoists - particularly in the Limburg mines). Here again the struggles in Belgium reveal the future.

The workers of Belgium, like those in the rest of the world, still have a long process of combat to go through before they can really throw off the union shackles and have a real mastery over their own forces. But this mastery will be the result of the present battles.

* * *

The class movement in Belgium is a political movement, not because it denies economic objectives but because it is assuming the political aspects of this ­combat. The workers aren't fighting the proprietor of a small provincial enterprise, but against the state and, through that, against the whole ruling class. The proletariat is fighting against the economic policies of the exploiting class. The movement is political because it is confronting the state in all its forms: the government, the police in numerous confrontations in the streets, and finally, the trade unions.

"...the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilization of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continuously change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two inter­lacing sides of the proletarian class struggle..." (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike).

This is a characteristic of workers' struggles which has been particularly strengthened in deca­dent capitalism where the working class must con­front a capitalism stratified to the extreme.

***

The Belgian state has unleashed a particularly powerful attack on the working class in the last few years. It has imposed economic sacrifices as well as organizing a gigantic strengthening of repression under the pretext of ‘anti-terrorism'.

The bourgeoisie has closely followed the unfold­ing of this attack: certain papers have even talked about the ‘Belgian test': how would the working class respond? The class has given its response and in doing so has shown the way forward to the rest of its class brothers and sisters.

* * *

At the time we are finishing this article the wave of struggles in Belgium seems to be far from ex­hausting itself. But right now and whatever the latter development of events, we can say that the class combats which have shaken this country are the most important since Poland 1980.

Their significance is crucial. After the struggles which swept through Norway and Finland, they confirm that in Western Europe and the rest of the world, the class struggle is entering a new phase.

RV

30 May 1986

Readers will find more detailed information and analysis of the struggles in Belgium in our monthly territorial publications: Internationalisme (Belg­ium), Revolution Internationale (France), World Revolution (Britain).



[1] See International Review no.46, ‘Workers' struggles in 1985: balance sheet and perspectives'.

[2] Norwegian capital, which derives a good part of its profits from the export of oil, has suffered violently from the consequences of overproduction and the world fall in the price of black oil (a 70% fall in its oil revenues). The bourgeoisie has not been slow in making these losses felt through an unprecedented attack on the working class. As for the Belgian economy (certainly one of the most sensitive to the international economic conjuncture because it imports 70% of what it consumes and70% of what it produces!), it's been hit hard by the economic crisis since the beginning of the ‘80s: the industrial sectors which had been Belgium's strength (steel, textiles, coal) are among the most affected by world overproduction; the rate of unemployment (14%) is one of the highest in Europe; the public administration deficit reached 10% of the GNP in 1985 - a rate only sur­passed in Europe by Italy (13.4%), Ireland (12.3%) and Greece (11.6%) . Belgian capital is also one of the most indebted countries in the world, since its debt is equivalent to 100% of its annual GNP! The Martens government has pushed 'special powers' through the Assembly, decreeing a new plan for draconian austerity, in order to make the exploit­ation of labor power more cost effective: massive lay-offs, in particular in the public services, the mines and shipyards; drastic reduction in all soc­ial benefits, particularly the suppression of unemployment benefit for the under-21s, etc.

[3] The Swedish bourgeoisie, certainly aware of the danger of contagion, applied an almost total black-out of news about the strikes in neighboring Norway and Finland. When the need is felt, the very ‘modern' democratic European governments know how to behave like the Duvaliers of this world.

Equipping themselves with the means to inform the rest of the world proletariat is an objective which the next mass movements must set for thems­elves straight away.

[4] The unions know what they are doing when, in each demonstration - and with an attention to detail and material means worthy of a better cause -they organize a careful control and separation of each category into whatever divisions are possible (by factory, region, sector, union organization...).

[5] It was the railway workers' assembly in Charl­eroi which on the evening of 22 May was able to say no to the Christian union's appeal to end the str­ike; no to the FGTB's proposal to organize a vote because it considered that the ‘cowardice' of the union bosses meant a terrible weakening of the movement. A few days later, in La Louviere, near Charleroi, a local of the Christian union felt the full force of the anger of a workers' demonstration as it went past. This wasn't the only example of a brutal confrontation between workers and union forces in Belgium.

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