The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Volkswagen in Belgium:
Return to work, but nothing is settled

Jan 22, 2007

The following article concerns a strike at a Volkswagen plant in Brussels, Belgium, appearing in the Jan. 12 issue of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), newspaper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

In November, VW announced that 4,000 jobs would be cut at the Brussels factory. The workers there went out on strike. On January 8th, they finally went back to work as a result of some maneuvers between the company and the union leaders, maneuvers that might sound familiar to workers in the U.S. under similar pressure to give up their jobs or accept worse conditions.

On January 5th, the three unions representing workers at the VW plant in Brussels, Belgium organized a referendum so workers could vote whether or not to "continue the strike movement." Out of 4800 at the plant, 2000 workers voted. Despite the pressure from the union leaders to give in, 46% voted to continue the strike.

One problem related to the workforce in Belgium is its division into three parts, speaking three different languages: French, Flemish and Walloon. The metal workers' union even allowed itself to be divided into three "wings," using an excuse going back decades. The French-speaking union leaders argued that a Flemish-speaking union leader had been in an extreme right wing group – which he had at age 16! This kind of division based on ethnic background kept some workers apart during the strike.

At the January 5th meeting, when the leaders of the union defended their agreement with VW management, they were coolly received by the workers. A strong minority booed them. Many of these workers had already opposed the union officials by maintaining a picket line in front of the factory for seven weeks.

When a delegate from another union spoke against the agreement and proposed to vote against a return to work, he was applauded. Unfortunately, he spoke in French, so the majority could not understand what he said. It had been the custom to translate so that everyone knew what was being said. Another union leader who had helped negotiate the agreement with VW jumped on this, accusing the French-speaking official of having no respect for the Flemish majority. In that way, he deflected criticisms away from what he had helped negotiate. The real problem was not one of language but the contents of the agreement.

When the results of the vote were announced, 150 workers were still picketing in front of the plant. Almost all of them were French-speaking. And many of them hope to go back on strike as quickly as possible.

In effect, nothing is settled – 2200 will continue working at the Brussels plant, but they don't know what the conditions of work will be, nor even, how much they will make. About 900 workers are close to retirement. They could lose 20% of their wages and they are put in a position where they have to accept any kind of "reasonable" job demanded of them – or else. The VW workers are the first victims of this new global "buyout" agreement.

One thousand nine hundred workers were pressured into accepting the supposed "voluntary" buyout. About 200 of them have asked to rescind their choice, which they made when management tried to stampede them. Some of these workers went into the plant on January 8th because they didn't even know if management had agreed to the terms of the buyout. They are not even sure if VW will allow some of them to leave.

Finally, there are the contract workers in the plant. They neither receive a bonus nor anything else, and many expect to get laid off. Some didn't return to work on January 8th.

Those wishing to continue the strike have every reason to do so. But they cannot allow themselves to be divided by what region they come from or what language they speak. They cannot accept the divisions that have been introduced through the demagogy of the union apparatus.