BRUSSELS, BE—Defending worker-led, democratic, and militant unionism in Belgium is certainly no easy task in a labor union landscape dominated by two bureaucratic behemoths, the socialist FGTB and the Christian-Democrat CSC.
For several decades, radical unionists have been trying to change traditional unions from within, or developing para-union initiatives to “pull them to the left.” However, these strategies have proved incapable of reversing the pacification of traditional unions trapped in a corporatist, service-oriented spiral.
However, in a climate of neo-liberal assault on social benefits won by previous generations and increasingly precarious working conditions, the working class needs a democratic and militant unionism able to win immediate victories more than ever, without abandoning the aim of radically transforming society.
Anti-democratic union leadership
Certainly, unions are still the main (if not the only) mass working-class organizations in Belgium. Despite good access to services (unemployment, legal support, etc.), many workers turn to unions to defend their rights. For many of us, unions provide opportunities to build solidarity among the exploited and to be stronger against the class violence we suffer on a daily basis.
This fact should not, however, lead us to romanticize traditional unions by convincing ourselves that it is the rank-and-file workers who run them. On the contrary, anyone who has been a union member (in the FGTB or the CSC) has witnessed how traditional unions are entirely dominated by a bureaucratic class whose salaries and working conditions disconnect it from the workers it pretends to defend.
This bureaucratic class functions through reproduction (career officials recruiting other officials to take up positions within the structure) and cooptation (union committees, mandates, etc.).
The democracy on display is in fact a sham. The overwhelming majority of decisions are taken without ever being put to the vote of union members, and most of the time without even “consulting the rank-and-file.” As for the committees that bring representatives together, their purpose is generally to ratify decisions already made at the very top. In reality, the mandates of union leaders are neither limited by time, nor subject to any democratic control. As a result, most union leaders behave like tyrants with total power over “their” officers and “their” delegates. They call the shots in “their” union, not hesitating to use the worst management methods when it comes to suppressing internal dissent.
Between change from within and para-unionism
Although it may seem shocking, this fact is well known. Most radical unionists are aware of it and try to work around the authoritarian nature of traditional unions. They try to animate the few union spaces abandoned by the bureaucracy, exploit internal opposition or develop alliances with “left-wing bureaucrats.”
One of the classic examples of these alliances between radical unionists and left-wing bureaucrats is what we might call “para-union” initiatives. The idea is always the same: To evade the bureaucracy’s control over the workers’ struggle and give it a more militant character. They’ll create “committees, platforms, and/or alliances” to mobilize against anti-social-welfare measures alongside sectoral or company battles. Often bolstered by political activists, the aim is to build up pressure on union leaders in order to pull them to the left. However, in reality, none of these initiatives succeed in achieving this objective. There are many reasons for this, but at least three are worth mentioning.
On the one hand, these initiatives generally fail to attract rank-and-file workers, and therefore struggle to bring people together beyond militant networks. They often boil down to activism (external and abstract actions) or broad mobilizations (aimed at getting people out on the streets), without involving a process of collective organization in relation to a problem that affects our material conditions.
On the other hand, they generally have no influence on the strategies (whether based on mobilization or advocacy) put in place by union management. Their existence depends on the union leadership’s plans and will to act. As a result, they disappear as soon as the leaders blow the whistle on mobilization.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these initiatives serve primarily as a stopgap measure. Their aim is to mobilize workers in the heat of the moment, except that these workers are dispossessed of their struggles for the rest of the time, and are therefore not trained to manage their own struggles directly, due to a lack of empowering union practices.
The only ones who stand to gain from this are left-wing bureaucrats, who gain individual legitimacy and a reputation as “good staffers.” Regardless if, at the same time, the whole bureaucracy is strengthened, since it leads to placing one’s hopes in supposedly better bureaucrats.
Co-management or direct action?
As we’ve said, traditional unions are entirely dominated by a bureaucratic class that ultimately defends its own interests.
Unions as we know them today are the result of a long social history in Belgium. The creation of social security in 1944 and the practice of social advocacy led to the institutionalization of unions (which are, for example, responsible for the payment of unemployment benefits). At the helm is a ruling class whose historic function is the co-management of capitalism. This explains the collusion between the labor-union apparatuses and “sister” political parties, whether socialist or Christian-Democrat.
This vision of a co-management (or even service) unionism is now dominant within the union bureaucracy. All union activities are geared towards the appeasement of labor at every level: from the company, to the industrial, to the national. A tendency for union leadership to call for a “general strike” should not be seen as a break with the co-management credo, but rather as continuity. Strikes, mobilizations, days of action, etc. are essentially aimed at strengthening the position of the bureaucrats at the bargaining table with employers or the government.
This means that most of the time, union action bypasses the workers, since it is set according to an agenda that serves the plans of the union leadership. These same leaders set the union’s priorities, rarely the workers themselves. The leadership does not hesitate to go against workers’ demands, or even to manipulate their collective strength in order to strengthen its own power.
This situation is obviously causing discontent among workers, and particularly among the most militant unionists, who are constantly waiting for action plans that never come. It’s also causing more and more disinterest among the rank and file, who no longer understand leadership action or remember the many betrayals of the past (such as the December 2014 general strike).
It also means that all union activities are geared towards the goal of labor peace. This is the purpose for which workers are recruited as representatives. All the potential of workers, all our collective strength as a class, is therefore directed towards coordination and bargaining. Our power is delegated to joint committees, permanent officers and union leaders, and even to political parties. Collective action by workers is always seen as secondary, or as an extra to coordination.
The logical consequence of this co-management credo is that members are no longer trained to practice union democracy and collective direct action. How do you set up a workplace committee? How do you get your colleagues involved? How do you take direct action to improve working conditions when dealing with your boss? In traditional trade unions, we no longer learn how to trade unionize, but how to “get things done for employees through social bargaining.” In most cases, union training is limited to the functioning of coordination committees. Union democracy is limited to consulting or informing workers, never to collectively building mandates or organizing democratic committees. This horizontal approach to trade unionism obviously contradicts the bureaucracy’s authoritarian approach and its claim to take the place of workers in their struggles.
Searching for the trade union left
This does not mean, however, that the bureaucracy is a homogeneous class. Power battles are played out within it, and can sometimes be extremely violent. Between reds (socialists) and greens (Christian-Democrats), between Flemish (north) and French-speaking (south) bureaucracies, and between socialists and the new left. But these internal struggles are generally fights between interests that have little to do with union principles.
In fact, the opposition between a co-management wing and a “class struggle” wing is now an old memory. It has to be said that the trade union apparatuses have gradually purged the most democratic and combative components.
Of course, there are still many militant unionists, but they are often atomized, lacking any common strategy, and their vision of unionism is tarnished by the co-management model instilled by the Apparatus.
Why does the trade union left struggle to exist? Once again, there are many reasons, but let us try to explain three of them.
Firstly, because part of the left-wing protest movement is now being absorbed by the Belgian Workers’ Party (new Left). It’s no secret that the BWP’s influence is growing within the union ranks. More and more workers see it as a credible electoral alternative to the Socialist Party’s betrayals. On the other hand, the BWP has long been engaged in a “long march” within the union bureaucracy. This strategy of seizing power is gradually beginning to bear fruit, and the BWP now has a growing number of “fellow travelers” within the various layers of the bureaucracy (though not yet a majority). Even if this growing influence of the BWP goes some way to reviving “class struggle” internally, it actually weakens a potential trade union left. Firstly, because it diverts the most militant elements towards political action rather than union action. Secondly, because the BWP’s aim is to essentially replace the Socialist Party, they have absolutely no intention of democratizing trade union organizations.
Secondly, because the trade union left remains deeply convinced that the battle must be waged within the traditional trade unions, in order to democratize them and make them more militant. Yet, for at least 20 years, this strategy has been incapable of transforming traditional trade union organizations. It has in no way led to the organization and structuring of a trade union left (on the contrary, it is in the process of disappearing), and has done even less to give impetus to a democratic dynamic among workers. In spite of this, the trade-union left dismisses out of hand the possibility of building an alternative, that of a self-organized, direct-action trade-union organization.
Finally, let us not forget that traditional union organizations are not democracies. The apparatus takes it upon itself to repress any internal dissent eventually when it fails to control it. How many combative comrades have we seen banned from the union, deprived of their mandates, or even expelled individually or collectively? Should we recall the hostility of some union leaders when workers dare to organize without waiting for their approval? Today, some comrades might believe that their strategy of taking control of the apparatus is working, but past experiences proves that, at the very least, they will either be swallowed up by the structure, or spat out like pariahs.
Don’t mourn, organize!
Transformation of bureaucratic, management-friendly unions from within has proved a failed strategy. Likewise, it is illusory to hope for a so-called split in the traditional unions that is supposed to lead to union revival (it is hard to say on what basis this will take place). In reality, democratic and militant trade unionism will only happen if we put it into practice now, by organizing with our colleagues, in our workplaces, in our sectors and across sectors. It will only exist if we develop an experience of union democracy that can only grow with time. It will only exist if we train ourselves in direct action to become aware of our collective strength and win victories. Finally, it will only exist if it takes the form of a strong, long-lasting and experienced organizing campaign.
Advocating direct-action unionism in no way means adopting fantastical or radical leftist stances. The organizing methods promoted by the IWW are in fact very concrete and pragmatic. They push us to organize from our workplaces, to use an educational approach to discuss the struggles with our colleagues, and move away from a model based on representation and top-down campaigns.
Nor does it mean condemning ourselves to marginality. The trade unionism promoted by the IWW emphasizes relations between colleagues as the driving force behind union action, and the solidarity we need to build in our workplace and within our class. Every IWW member is trained to become an organizer and to encourage collective action among workers. Traditional trade unions may have large numbers of members, but all the collective strength and capacity for action of workers is annihilated by a bureaucratic class.
Far from claiming any specific ideological influence, the IWW defends the principles of union independence and the dual purpose of improving today’s working conditions and paving the way for tomorrow’s emancipation. These principles serve as a compass for militant unionists, and can only be achieved within a democratically-built union.
Our class needs a democratic and militant unionism. Not “later” or “in a few years,” but right now. And because we’re in a hurry, let’s build it slowly… but surely!
This article was originally published on IWW Brussels’ website and has been translated into English and published here with permission.
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