I went on strike for the first time in my life on Monday.
It was part of a General Strike in Belgium against pension cuts and the government’s plan to scrap annual inflation-linked wage increases, following the election of a particularly vindictive right-wing coalition earlier this year.
It wasn’t just a one-day action however. This is part of a growing campaign against austerity in Belgium which began in October and has been building since. It included a mass demonstration in November which saw tens of thousands take to the streets of Brussels. And while the media has focused only on a few overturned cars, the scale of anger was widespread and palpable. Perhaps that’s why, for the first time in years, the majority of people actually support the strike regular strikes which have taken place across different sectors – particularly transport – over the past two months, with considerable impact.
In some ways, none of this should matter to me. Firstly, I’m not Belgian – nor do I expect to stay here in the long-term. And nor am I in a union yet – I’m an intern, albeit (thankfully) paid. And, being part of the increasingly precarious Generation Y, I know that I probably won’t ever have a decent pension. For young people across Europe, that’s just the way it is at the moment – although it clearly shouldn’t be.
And yet I’ve seen how destructive and ideological austerity is in the UK, from benefit cuts causing people to take their own lives, to service privatisation and outsourcing – including our health care system, our postal service and even our education sector through the tripling of tuition fees. The impact of these attacks is clear and well-known, with over 1.5 million people using food banks to survive each month, as public sector wage freezes bite and so-called ‘zero hours contracts’ – where workers are not guaranteed any hours from one week to the next – become the employment norm rather than a disturbing anomaly.
With all this in mind, I really don’t want to see neoliberalism taking hold in yet another European country, especially not while I’m living there and if I can help oppose it. There’s a word for this, and it’s one that many have sadly forgotten since the individualist mind-sets of consumerism and hyper-capitalism took hold in the 1980s. It’s called solidarity. And it’s time to bring it back. The fact that General Strikes work – particularly in terms of their symbolic effect and their ability to first discredit and then bring down unpopular governments – can only add to the momentum.
So there’s a first for everything. And Monday probably won’t be the last time I go on strike in my life, given the degeneration of working conditions in ‘developed’ countries. But I was proud to support the massive and surging campaign here. Because if governments know that they can’t get away with it in Belgium – maybe, just maybe – they’ll realise they can’t get away with it elsewhere, too.
For the sake of the rest of Europe, let’s hope this campaign succeeds and sets an example and a lesson to people everywhere faced with awful conservative governments (of all colours…) – that cuts can be defeated. This is a fight Greens should be supporting on all levels – whether that be on picket lines or in Parliamentary chambers. This is too important to write off as just a small wealthy country making some ‘reforms’ – it represents the mantra of neoliberalism infecting the heart of Europe. Either the neoliberals win, or working people, Greens and social justice movements do. That’s the stark choice that we face in these divided times.
So. Vive la révolution. And see you on the next grève générale, mes amis.
Josiah Mortimer is a co-editor of the progressive UK publication Bright Green, and is an intern at the Green European Foundation in Brussels.