In addition to its breadth, an extremely important feature of this movement was that many of the strikes broke out spontaneously, and in some cases there were signs of direct conflict between workers and the trade unions, whose job it is to control the working class on behalf of the capitalist state:
- many of the strikes began without going through the legal palaver of ballots and warnings;
- workers frequently left the confines of the factory or depot to demonstrate in the street and even call on other workers to join the struggle. This is how the urban t. This is how the urban transport strike spread outwards from Charleroi, an extension which encouraged other sectors to come out;
- workers began to raise demands that could be taken up by all categories. This was particularly the case with the demand for a 10,000 franc flat wage increase, which the Charleroi urban transport workers raised and which was then echoed by other sectors and in demonstrations, generally without union approval (for the transport workers and others this would have meant a 20% increase in wages);
- where the unions did call for actions, they were often surprised by the scale of the response. Thus on October 3rd they had envisaged a rally of union delegates in Brussels, but 20,000 workers turned up to march in the streets.
On a more limited scale, there were also cases where workers directly challenged the authority of the unions. At the STIB, the workers had taken up the demand for a 10,000 franc increase, but were dissatisfied by the unions’ handling of the negotiations, so they sent the union negotiators away and called for direct talks between the management and the strikers’ assembly. The unions refused to recognise the strike and the state had to respond with direct repression – judicial injunctions and police dispersal of pickets.
This was however only an embryo of workers’ self-organisation and overall the unions retained control of the movement. They used all their usual manoeuvres to keep the workers divided – emphasising sectional interests, differences between unions and between the French and Flemish speaking parts of the country. They also used another tactic which had the appearance of ‘unifying’ the movement but that in reality aimed at diluting it. In contrast to the unions in Britain, who mainly expressed support for the government against the fuel protesters, the Belgian unions tried to confuse the workers by calling on them to join the fuel protests which had taken place around the same time as the strike movement. They tried to get workers to focus on the demand for linking fuel costs to the price index, and sent them to join the hauliers’ blockades in a demonstration of ‘solidarity’. Not surprisingly, the media outside Belgium gave publicity to the fuel blockade and the workers’ participation in it, but passed in silence over the actual strike movement.
In the struggles of the ‘80s workers had begun to draw many lessons about the real role of the unions and the need to take charge of their own struggles. Many of these lessons have receded from the consciousness of the class as a result of the reflux of struggles that followed the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989. But the movement that has just taken place in Belgium reminds us that these lessons have not been totally lost. The working class everywhere is becoming more willing to fight openly against capitalism’s attacks, and it’s through the development of this resistance that workers will be able to become more conscious of the real aims and methods of their struggle.