A "multicoloured" march for jobs: the human element first
On Sunday 2 February 1997, a so-called "multicoloured march for jobs" drew about 50,000 people from all over Belgium to the streets of Clabecq, a small industrial town on the borders of the provinces of Brabant and Hainaut.
The demonstration expanded on the themes that had inspired the "white march" held in October 1996, which had been initiated by the parents of missing or murdered children and organised by the trade unions. It had gathered more than 300,000 people in Brussels in support of the reform of the country's institutions, particularly its system of justice. In the same way, the "multicoloured march for jobs" was conceived and organised by the union delegation from the Forges de Clabecq steelworks, which had been declared bankrupt on 3 January. It drew together unions of all persuasions and ordinary people from all walks of life.
The special feature of this march was that it had been set up entirely outside the framework of the major union confederations, FGTB/ABVV (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, or Belgian General Federation of Labour) and CSC/ACV (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, or Confederation of Christian Trade Unions). The CSC did not even call on activists to take part, but the parents of missing or murdered children did, appealing to people to join the march to "guarantee our children's future".
Many workers and union members from other factories, both Flemish and French speaking, as well as bodies such as the League for Human Rights, unemployed people, students, teachers, artists and families with their children marched around the factory to support the delegation, which was regarded as a symbol of the fight against unemployment and industrial decline.
For years, the union delegates at the Forges de Clabecq have been well known throughout the country on account of their support for disputes in other factories, and their participation in students' and teachers' demonstrations in the name of solidarity and jobs.
The idea for the march had been launched on 8 December 1996 by the union delegation's leader, Roberto D'Orazio, following a decision by the European Commissioner responsible for competition, Karel Van Miert, preventing the Walloon regional Government from recapitalising the company, and condemning it to bankruptcy and the dismissal of its 1,800 workers. In the eyes of the public, this bankruptcy was as much the consequence of an inhuman economic logic as the inability of the government and other institutions to resist it.
Without challenging the legitimacy of their respective union structures, but bypassing the traditional hierarchies, the factory delegation, thanks to the march, managed to reflect more truly the real aspirations of union members and the public at large. This phenomenon would therefore appear to challenge traditional industrial relations processes in Belgium.
"Les Forges de Clabecq, chronique d'une survie fragile (1992-1996)", Michel Capron, Centre de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Politiques (CRISP), Courrier Hebdomadaire Nr. 1529-1530 (1996).