Unions fight the far Right's hijack of May Day
For the second year running, an extreme right-wing Flemish party, the Vlaams Blok, organised a demonstration on May Day 1997 posing as a representative of the working class.
The Vlaams Blok, a xenophobic and extreme right-wing Flemish nationalist party, is currently seeking legitimacy as the defender of "ordinary people". With its populist stand against immigrants and French-speakers, the party has won a large number of votes in some towns in Flanders, particularly amongst those sections of the population most badly hit by unemployment and worsening living conditions.
To portray its popular and working-class nature in a symbolic way, the Vlaams Blok chose to organise a May Day march in Tamise, a town to the south-west of Antwerp, which has been affected by the brutal closure of Belgium's largest shipyard. However, lacking the mayor's permission, the rally had to be postponed to 3 May. On that day, in front of 1,500 people, the Vlaams Blok leaders, surrounded by a delegation of workers dismissed by the shipyard but only one representative from Renault Vilvoorde, introduced their party as the supposed leading workers' party in Flanders. They denounced the alleged corruption of the Socialist parties and the unions and their alleged contempt for the interests of Flemish workers. With the slogans "Give us work in our own region" and "Our own people first", they demanded independence for Flanders and blamed Wallonia for the closures of enterprises in Flanders.
Last year, the Vlaams Blok organised a similar demonstration, but that was in honour of Father Daens, a symbolic figure of the labour struggle at the end of the 19th century.
The new strategy of this extreme right-wing party worries the unions. In Tamise, the leader of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Algemeen Belgische Vakverbond, ABVV) promised a 10,000-strong counter-demonstration by the union if the Vlaams Blok were allowed to march on Labour Day. However, instead of such a massive demonstration, a multicultural festival was organised.
In 1993, the Christian and Socialist union confederations, ACV-CSC and ABVV-FGTB, decided to expel any of their members who had also joined an extreme right-wing group. But the Vlaams Blok, with its roots amongst the workers and its public positions on economic and social struggles, has forced them to look for more practical ways of combating xenophobia and nationalism and opposing the attempted "hijacking" of the labour movement by the far right.
FGTB (Welkom asbl) and CSC training documents
Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation