“Our work deserves respect” May First speech of Peter Mertens, President of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA)

Peter Mertens

A jar of chocolate spread. That's what the garbage collectors in Bruges get as a reward for their hard work. A jar of chocolate spread.

What happened? Since the pandemic, garbage collectors pick up an extra 3,000 kilos of waste during their rounds. Three tons!  People are more at home because of corona, we buy more online, pick up take-away food. All that waste is collected every week, in all weathers. The management of the waste company promised 'a little extra', and came with... a jar of chocolate spread.

People don't ask for chocolate spread. People demand respect. Respect for those who make the economy run, but don't get paid for their work. Respect for everyone who works for society. From textile workers and kindergarten teachers, to dockworkers and artists, to young people and nurses. May 1 is Labour Day. Because all that hard work deserves respect.

I can well understand why the Bruges garbage collectors didn't like that jar of chocolate spread. There's not a gram of respect in a jar of chocolate spread. Resistance came. And a strike.

On 29 March not only the Bruges garbage collectors, but also many people in our country ceased work to demand respect for their work. Not a jar  of chocolate spread, but a fair wage increase.

Pieter Timmermans, the chairman of the FEB, the lobby organisation of the largest Belgian companies, was furious. "The unions don't want to help bake the cake, but they do want to be in the front row when it's distributed," he says. I beg your pardon? Perhaps Pieter Timmermans should go and see who is baking the cake in the factory halls. Has Mr Timmermans ever been with the garbage truck? Has he ever loaded a ship in the port? Does he know what that is, doing the fixed night shift in a retirement home, or working in the hospitality industry?

The cake, Mr Timmermans, is baked on the shop floor. By people who work. It makes sense that the working class wants more than crumbs. Crumbs are for the pigeons.

No crumbs, but a real wage increase

Why doesn't Mr. Timmermans ever mention that four out of ten listed companies have increased their dividends for shareholders, right in the middle of this corona crisis. Why is he not telling us thatthe CEOs are giving themselves big paychecks? The big boss of Delhaize gives himself a pay rise of 1.6 million euros. 1.6 million euros: how many jars of chocolate spread would that be?

It is a shame that the multiparty coalition government is siding with the FEB in the national wage negotiations. If we let the government and employers do it, our wages will be allowed to rise by a maximum of 0.4% over the next two years.

Apparently they didn't quite understand there in the Wetstraat why so many people went on strike on March 29. We do not want crumbs, a one-off bonus of twice nothing, no binding wage standard, but a real wage increase.

Together with Marc Goblet, the former secretary-general of the FGTB (the socialist trade union federation), PTB-PVDA member of parliament Raoul Hedebouw has submitted a bill to abolish this binding wage standard and to allow free wage negotiations. We will continue to work for this, together with you. Because our work deserves respect.

At 67, any job is too tough

Before the elections, the socialists promised to lower the retirement age from 67 to 65 or they would not enter government. Meanwhile, the socialists are in government, but the retirement age is ... not lowered.

Freddy has worked as a painter in the construction industry all his life. He has almost literally worked himself to death, but he cannot take early retirement because the government forbids it. "Those politicians," says Freddy, "I'd love to take them on one day, on those big stands, dragging full pots of paint. And then we'll see if they continue to insist that we can safely work longer." At 67, any job is too tough.

With this government, early retirement is going to be tackled even further. Within two months, on 1 July, the early retirement age will be raised to 60. The majority parties promised a solution for people with heavy duty occupations, but do you still hear them talking about it now?

We will not be silent: Those who started working early in a tough profession have a right to rest and freedom at the end of their life. Freedom to enjoy life, to spend more time with children and grandchildren, to travel, to take up that hobby you no longer had time for.

That is why we demand full early retirement from the age of 58. Rest and freedom for people who have worked hard all their lives. It's a matter of respect.

408 variations on the same theme

Freedom doesn't fall from the sky. Today we are at day 408 after the start of the first lockdown. We crave for freedom. Going out for a drink, a barbecue, hanging out in a bar with your mates. Young people are struggling, and a lot of people are at their wits’ end. We are social beings, we miss each other. We lack perspective.

You can't open all the taps at once, that's true. Then the pandemic gets out of control again. But it's always the same taps that get turned off and the same ones that stay open. The biggest source of contamination is not the terraces, but the industry, which continues to operate at full capacity. Where's that million free rapid tests the government promised us so we could work safely?"

While big business remains open, the cultural sector is closed and the hospitality industry is locked in. First it was supposed to reopen in the spring. Then on May 1. Later that became May 8, now it's "maybe" May 8, and only the terraces. We are being given the runaround, again and again.

Should we consider it normal for the government to take drastic corona measures, such as the curfew, which have no legal basis whatsoever? The government now wants to introduce a "pandemic law" that would allow it to suspend basic rights. "That's unconstitutional and historically wrong," says the Human Rights League. Absolutely right.

Should we consider it normal that we have been making great efforts for 408 days, while the government continues to muddle along? We've already had 408 variants of the same policy.

Are we supposed to think it's normal for every left-wing dissenting voice to be boycotted in the media? On VTM and VRT (the major private and public TV channels in Flanders), the government fills 97 percent of the political talk time. The opposition parties barely make it to 3 percent. That has never been less than today. Is that democracy?

We will not be silenced. It can really be different. It has to be different. Do a decent job of testing and tracing. Provide one single command center instead of ten ministers of health. Invest again in strong public services. Make sure workers and the self-employed don't go under. Make sure the greatest assets make their contribution. Even the IMF is now advocating a wealth tax, so why not our government?

No profit on the pandemic

And put pressure on those greedy pharmaceutical companies. What is it with the government's blind faith in the free market? Too few vaccines, too late, too expensive: we are being held hostage by private multinationals for whom a pandemic is a profit model. Pfizer has announced that in the future, they want to sell their vaccine, which costs 3 euros to produce, at 150 euros per dose. It's not the government that rules, the monopolies rule. That's what Karl Marx used to say: "The only cogs that set the political economy in motion are greed and the war between the greedy."

Pharma capitalism puts profit before public health. They refuse to share their vaccines with the world. Half of the total production capacity for vaccines is not being used today. If we wanted to we could produce millions and millions of additional vaccines worldwide, but for Big Farma only profits count.

That's a crime against humanity. As long as the whole world is not safe, nobody is safe. We need to spread the vaccines faster than the virus. Lift the patents! Less profit for shareholders, more vaccines for the world.

When our MP Sofie Merckx proposed this in parliament in April 2020, all parties voted against it. All of them. Today, our demand is gaining support. Together with authentic left-wing parties from all over Europe, trade unions, NGOs and citizens, we want to collect 1 million signatures to abolish patents on corona vaccines. "It always seems impossible. Until it's done, " Nelson Mandela said. It always seems impossible, until we do it.

Hands off the right to strike

If we want to, we can move mountains. Today, on May 1st, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the right to strike. Before 1921, you weren't allowed to strike. Hundreds of young men and women were imprisoned and prosecuted as criminals for standing up for trade union rights.

After years of struggle and action, on May 24, 1921, the hated article 310 - which prohibited striking - was finally removed from the Belgian penal code. This is a milestone in our social history. Without the right to strike, there are no social rights. The eight-hour day, universal suffrage, paid holidays: for every millimeter of social progress, the working class has had to fight. And Mandela is right. All those social rights also seemed impossible, until our predecessors enforced them, through social struggle.

Today the right to strike is once again under fire. In 2016, pickets were driven apart in the Port of Antwerp. Afterwards, union leaders Bruno Verlaeckt and Tom Devoght were convicted. Allegedly because they were 'obstructing traffic'. In Liège last year, 17 trade unionists, including current FGTB president Thierry Bodson, were convicted for the same reason.

We know that parties like N-VA (right-nationalist) and Vlaams Belang (fascist) dream aloud of a world without trade unions. That would catapult us back a hundred years.

On this first day of May, we say loud and clear: hands off the right to strike. Respect for the generation that enforced union rights a hundred years ago   We are not going to let that go. Promise.

Capitalism is a sick system

Dear friends and comrades,

More than 3 million people lost their lives in this pandemic. But the American business magazine Forbes is almost euphoric: "2020 was a record year for the world's richest despite  the pandemic, with wealth increasing by $5,000 billion and an unprecedented number of new billionaires."

Extreme wealth on one side, extreme poverty on the other. In one year, the number of people living in poverty has increased by 500 million. "The gap between rich and poor is as deadly as the virus itself," says Oxfam. "Never since the beginning of recording has global inequality grown as much as it does today."

Capitalism is a sick system. And it will only lead to resistance. Look at India, where the corona pandemic is completely out of control. The hospitals are overcrowded. Oxygen is only available to those who can afford it, at ten times the normal price. The anger of the population against the government is enormous. In India too, corona is a class virus.

The super-rich have enough care, but the poor die on the streets. There are those who refuse the corona vaccine because they can't afford to lose a day's pay. The working class in India gets no rupee support, but the profits of India's largest companies have tripled. That is why the Indians are now taking action. And we together with them.

May First is the day of international solidarity. We are on the side of labour. On the side of the Indian farmers and day labourers who fight for a decent wage. On the side of the seasonal workers in the Spanish tomato greenhouses. On the side of Amazon workers who are uniting to form a union. On the side of justice.

More than ever: socialism

What kind of society do we want? We send robot cars and helicopter drones to Mars, but we fail to solve the most basic, pressing problems on Earth. It's a matter of making choices. We need to change course. Showing what really matters. Access to health and education for all. Clean public energy production. Efficient and affordable public transport. A society without digital divide, with public data carriers and free wifi. That's far less far-fetched than a helicopter drone on Mars, but that thing does fly there.

"Of the past let us cleanse the tables," echoes the International, 150 years young today. Our society cannot remain based on ice-cold egoism, competition and ever more profit. That dogma is way past its expiry date.

We need a society based on solidarity and cooperation. Where people feel good about themselves. Where people get appreciation for their work. A society where everyone is included, where everything of value is no longer defenseless, where people really get a grip on their own future. Where strong healthcare, accessible to all, is the new normal. A society that invests in an ecological shift and a digital revolution. Where the chaos of the market is exchanged for ambitious planning. And where social priorities will from now on determine the agenda, and not the short-term interests of stock market speculators and power politicians.

We don't need capitalism, we need May First more than ever.

More than ever: international solidarity.

More than ever: socialism.

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