Belgian workers demonstrate today!

Jun 14, 2011

Les travailleurs du non-marchand manifestent en masse aujourd’hui!

“Gimme all your lovin’, all your hugs and kisses too… Gimme all your lovin’, don’t let up until we’re through!”  ZZTop

In the distance I hear the massed horns and megaphones of resistance, and I am drawn towards them like, well, I would say moth to a flame, but in this case perhaps a fish to a bicycle is more appropriate. I am about to become part of an anti-cuts demonstration – Belgian style.

I’m standing at the top of Boulevard Du Roi Albert II / Koning Albert II laan in the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode/Sint-Joost-Ten-Node commune of Brussels. The Brussels-Capital-Region, as the city is officially known, is made up of 19 communes, with Saint-Josse-ten-Noode being the smallest of the them. Yet it has the highest population density in Belgium. It also has the largest representation of immigrant populations in the capital, and perhaps it is fitting that such a show of solidarity should choose to start its route here.

Belgium is more manifold than any other Eurozone country that I’ve been to. The Flemish North (Dutch) mutters under its breath at the Walloons of Wallonia (French) in the South, whilst the German speaking community seems to keep itself to itself hidden over in the east.

Then there is Brussels.

Its a (multipli)city polyglot of a town with the highest GDP per capita in Europe outside of the City of London. And boy does it show. The glass and steel structures of the EU Quarter reflects the rundown quarters of a city in schizophrenic breakdown. The Eurocrats and lobbyists, the ones behind the mirrored windows, lock themselves into the gated self-perpetuation of administrative folly and snobby, bourgeois cliques. Whenever I am there I am struck as to how incongruous this situation is; and just where the blistering barnacles the money disappears to. There is no trickledown effect here. Add to this the highest taxation in the Eurozone of around 50% of gross income, and it becomes mind-achingly obvious when walking the streets of Saint-Josse or Maurice Lemmonier, that something is rotten in the mini-city state of Brussels.

And so it was a joy to stumble upon a national demonstration, organised by the Belgian Trade Unions, and fully supported by EPSU (The European Federation of Public Service Unions) representing those working in the social services (ambulances, hospital, help to people with disabilities, Red Cross…), in defence of workers’ terms and condition in the non-profit sector, no matter whether they were Flemish, Walloon, Bulgarian, Congolese or Moroccan.

The cause: well, no surprise there, cuts to social services. The method: a national trades union demonstration. The outcome: 5000 dancing, singing and generally partying..uh…parties…

Apart from chocolate, waffles, Magritte and Jacques Brel, the Belgians are famous, believe it or not, for hardcore, banging techno. At the head of the march stands a flat-bed truck with a soundsystem and DJ pumping out (ok, a little cheesey) techno where the massed ranks of the CNE-GNC union are pogo-ing up and down, all dressed in green, blowing whistles and singing god only knows to the eurobeats…it was fantastic. Then it just got what I can only describe as very Belgian.

As well as the CNE-GNC (in green) there were the Algemene Centrale – Centrale Générale, SETCA-BBTK, LBC-NVK, CSC-Services Publiques-ACV-Openbare Dientsen, ACOD-CGSP and probably some others, all dressed in the respective colours of their unions, and all neatly arranged in the correct blocks, yellow followed red followed blue followed green, and each had their own sound system. It was Gary Clail does Tellytubbies.

Albert Einstein (he lived in Belgium doncha know) was pushing around a patient in a wheelchair; there was a complete section of broom carrying ravers; a large unit had worn large brown paper bags on their heads (I didn’t ask); and, a parody-come-customised American Fire-truck blasted out ZZTop hits. The explosif de rigeur seemed to be a flash powder of considerable power – my chest cavity noticeably impacted on the first, unexpected detonation. I couldn’t help thinking that in the UK, anyone detonating explosives in the middle of a demo would be sniped out of existence before you could say ‘Ian Blair’. On that note, I did see four motorcycle cops and one traffic cop, who was more intent on playing Angry Birds on his smart phone (I asked).

Overall the feeling was one of joy and comradeship, and a lot of fun was had. I couldn’t help wondering though if there could have been a little more anger directed at the (newly formed coalition) government’s sweeping public services cuts, but the point was made, albeit in party mood: the people of Europe, no matter from which country, are sick of cuts to their social services. It may not have been the confrontation of last September’s ‘No to Austerity’ demonstration, but it was significant, and in its own way, demonstrated the grievances that exist across the whole of Belgian society.

I came across another foreigner caught up in the party. Raul, from Portugal, like me had heard the horns and drums and sound systems. “I don’t know exactly what they are demonstrating about”, he smiled, “but I thought I’d join in, you have to – its European solidarity!”

justin davin smith


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