Forges de Clabecq: struggle against decline in steel production
The fate of the Forges de Clabecq steelworks was due to be settled in June 1997. As examined in this article, for several years, the trade union delegation at the company has presented itself as the only spokesperson of the true interests of the workforce and the population of Belgium as a whole. This attitude could be understood both as a form of mistrust of the union apparatus and the political parties, and also as a reassertion of rank-and-file union action.
It is expected that the fate of the Forges de Clabecq steelworks will be sealed on 15 June 1997. However, whatever the outcome of the recovery operation by the Swiss-Italian industrial concern, Duferco, something will have changed in this Belgian enterprise located some 15 miles from Brussels in the province of Brabant. Beyond the event in itself - the closure of a firm leading to the loss of 1,800 jobs - which has not itself been exceptional over the last few months in Belgium, it is the style of activity undertaken by the Forges de Clabecq union delegation that has revealed a new union climate.
At this company, the future of which has been precarious since the early 1990s, the trade union delegation has persistently put forward two policies: on one hand to defend the firm's viability within an integrated Walloon steel industry, thereby opposing all attempts at restructuring considered inappropriate or doubtful; and, on the other hand, to present itself as the only spokesperson of the real interests of the workforce and the entire population, by demonstrating along with workers from other factories, public-sector employees, teachers, students, parents of missing children and - at the risk of conflict with its own union hierarchy - the Socialist Party, the Government, trade unionists from other enterprises and the Forges workers themselves, over whom it appears to some to exercise absolute control in a somewhat authoritarian way.
This dual policy echoes the discontent and the fears of the workers and the wider population, confronted with the difficulties of fighting effectively the rise of unemployment following closures and relocations. It was visible during the "multicoloured" march on 2 February 1997 when the Forges union delegation alone managed to rally 50,000 people from all walks of life to march for jobs and against the Government's perceived inertia (BE9702102N), and also during the European demonstration in Brussels on 16 March protesting against the closure of the Renault plant at Vilvoorde (EU9703108F).
The decline of Forges de Clabecq
The Forges de Clabecq, a 100-year-old family firm run by the last representative of the founding family until 1995, kept out of the regroupings in the Belgian steel industry which occurred at the end of the 1970s. It then still employed 5,000 workers and had its own markets and specific products. The public authorities became shareholders in the 1980s, but left the power of decision with the private shareholders, the families and their banking groups. Non-profitable installations were closed, but a modern steelworks was built, and in 1991 there were still 2,250 employees. A year later, in 1992, the firm entered a critical phase. A strike broke out in protest at the management's proposals to dismantle the operation and to cut jobs and wages.
To get the enterprise out of difficulty, the Walloon regional government granted a loan on the condition that the workforce accepted the management plan. The dispute ended only when the enterprise's trade union delegation was brought into the talks and the wage cuts were considered as a debt the firm would in future owe to its employees. The 1992 dispute remained in people's memory; the Forges workers and their delegation acquired the belief that they were alone in having the will to continue the struggle against the public and private shareholders and even against the Socialist and Social-Christian parties in the coalition government of the Walloon region.
In 1996, the private shareholders withdrew from the board of directors, leaving the public shareholders mandated by the Walloon region to manage the heavily indebted enterprise on their own.
The bankruptcy of Forges de Clabecq
The Walloon region then hesitated over the attitude to adopt: the expert's report it had requested from Jean Gandois, general manager of the Forges' competitor, Cockerill-Sambre, which had always refused to merge with the Forges, turned out to be negative. Despite the risk of prohibition by the European Commission, the regional government decided to recapitalise the enterprise to the tune of BEF 1.5 billion over two years. That decision was considered political, as closure would have had disastrous consequences for the region which was already seriously affected by deindustrialisation and, as such, had become a powerful symbol.
Bankruptcy was declared at the beginning of 1997, after the refusal of assent by the European Commission, and all the Clabecq employees were dismissed. Resources were insufficient to pay back the bank loans or pay the legal compensation and the debts owed to the workforce.
The workers were suspicious of the management of the bankruptcy and continued to meet in the works, where their delegates held rallies. In fact, A Zenner, the head receiver in bankruptcy, who is a solicitor and also a parliamentary representative of the Parti Réformateur Libéral, a right-wing opposition party, had expressed doubts about the future of the Forges at his party's conference. For its part, the delegation demanded control of the talks with the creditors and public authorities to ensure that debts owed to the workforce had priority over those owed to banks and other creditors.
Refusing quiet negotiations between its own officials, government representatives and the receivers in bankruptcy, the Clabecq union delegation imposed its presence and focused the attention of the media with spectacular and sometimes violent activity. It hoped to arouse public pressure and to force other workers to show solidarity in order to compel the politicians, the Socialist ministers and the union hierarchy to take a stand. This obstinacy, which was criticised by the press, was presented as suicidal and hazardous to any recovery plan.
In April 1997, "to general surprise", Michel Nollet, the president of the Socialist union confederation, FGTB (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, or Belgian General Federation of Labour), put himself forward as mediator. According to union rules, it was not his concern, as he headed the national structure and did not come from the steelworkers' federation - Centrale des Métallurgistes- to which the Clabecq delegates belong. At the request of the delegation, however, he imposed the reopening of talks on the social plan agreed outside the delegation, which had been rejected by the workforce.
That move, criticised by both the government representatives and the Christian and Socialist steel industry trade union officials, was actually in line with the logic of preceding events. It recognised the delegation's de facto position as authorised negotiator and made Clabecq a case of principle.
Union strategies similar to those of the Forges de Clabecq delegation are not exceptional. In several enterprises there has been a clear intention to take the fight against closures and dismissals out of the institutional framework of collective agreements by appealing directly to public opinion, politicians and the union apparatus. By broadening the rallying themes to include the rejection of the inevitability of an economic logic that destroys the industrial fabric, the union delegation succeeded in bringing together many people who were not at first sight concerned with the problem of the Forges de Clabecq. Whether it was a reaction of mistrust or a determination to shake up the country's institutions, those attitudes provoked a response that was all the stronger because Belgium is still being shaken by revelations in the cases of missing and murdered children. (Philippe Dryon and Estelle Krzeslo, Point d'appui Travail-Emploi-Formation)
"Les Forges de Clabecq, Chronique d'une survie fragile (1992-1996)", M Capron, Courrier hebdomadaire du CRISP, 1529-1530 (1996).
"Ceux de Clabecq", G Martin, Editions EPO, Bruxelles (1997).
"Belgique. Le désespoir militant des Forges de Clabecq", C Dufour , IRES Chronique Internationale, n°45, March 1997