2021, a year of resistance and solidarity. New Year's Address by Peter Mertens, President of the PTB-PVDA

Analysis
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Peter Mertens
PTB.be

When I got here, I ran into a childhood friend I hadn't seen in a long time. He became a delivery boy. He was getting out of his van, a package in his hand, and he said, "I'm exhausted. I deliver Zalando, Amazon... I'm on the road all day. Little hours till late at night. With the overtime that's unpaid." I asked him how much money he made on this job. "Not even 1,400 euros. " A pittance. How can we let this happen?

Peter Mertens

A class virus

Perhaps the biggest lie of 2020 is to pretend that the virus is democratic and that it affects everyone equally. The reality is that the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. Let's be clear: this virus is a class virus.

On the one hand, you have the e-commerce giants. They are the big winners in this crisis. Their profits are exploding.

On the other, you got these drivers in their white vans. The workers who prepare the orders. The ones who work in huge distribution centers. These are people who travel 20 kilometres a day, process 225 packages an hour, for an hourly wage of barely 10 euros gross. People of all nationalities, staying in residential containers, in campsites, where they pay 400 euros for a single mattress. It's modern slavery. Pure and simple.

Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, is the richest man in the world. In the midst of the corona crisis, he saw his fortune swell by another $78 billion. Whereas those who prepare the orders earn three times nothing. It is therefore not surprising that Amazon workers have taken to the streets all over the world, not only in France, Germany and Poland, but also in India and Bangladesh.

It's the same everywhere. Rich Amazon stockholders are rubbing their hands together. Their fortunes explode at the expense of thousands of delivery men, storekeepers and small self-employed who had to close shop in the middle of a lockdown. This is the perversity of capitalism in the days of the coronavirus.

With the PTB-PVDA, we are stepping up to the plate to defend small self-employed. Because hairdressing salons are closed, fairgrounds are drowning, the cultural sector is completely devastated and half of the cafés are threatened with bankruptcy. And what do banks do? They are putting pressure on the small self-employed who are having the hardest time at the moment. Therefore, the PTB-PVDA requests the deferral of all payments without conditions. We want more support and lower taxes for the small self-employed. In the town where we are in coalition in Zelzate, this is the choice we are making. 

But we also need a lot more tax justice. Last September, the new government promised to finally introduce a tax on the wealthiest. PS President Paul Magnette repeats on all television channels and social networks that he will "make the strongest shoulders pay". 

But on closer inspection, unfortunately, there is nothing left of that promise. What does Prime Minister Alexander De Croo say? That there's no question of taxing the super-rich even more. According to him, "those with broad enough shoulders are there to help us get back on track. That would not be the right choice."

The tax on securities accounts that the government wants to put in place therefore spares the biggest fortunes. Quite simply because the parties in government offer them every legal means to avoid it. Especially because the wealthiest have financial assets in the form of registered shares that are not affected by the tax on securities accounts. Small savers, on the other hand, may well have to pay this tax. It's the world upside down.

It is understandable that the Liberals are opposed to a tax on wealth, but not so for the socialists and the ecologists. And the worst thing is that not only do they give up trying to make the greatest fortunes contribute, but that they try to make us believe the opposite. 

In 2021, more than ever, let us fight together for a wealth tax worthy of the name. A real millionaire's tax. Right now. So that we don't have to pay for the crisis. 

Class solidarity

When the government is unable to provide for the needs of the people, the working class organizes itself in a spirit of solidarity. 

The metalworkers of Charleroi collected more than a ton of food for the food bank. In Antwerp, bus drivers prepared rice pudding for a care home. Safran workers in Liege collected toys to offer "a Saint Nicolas to every child". The generosity of the working class is expressed throughout the country. And it's heartwarming.

In France, after the Second World War, the Communists of the PCF set up the Secours populaire. Material aid, housing for families. It is inspired by this model that we organized our campaign: A Winter of Solidarity.

More than three thousand kind-hearted volunteers participated in nearly 600 PTB-PVDA solidarity projects across the country. We are the party of solidarity and of people taking action.

Young people, too, are paying a heavy price for this corona crisis. Our youth movements RedFox and Comac have mobilized 600 volunteers to help students in difficulty at school. They collected nearly a thousand laptops for the students who needed them. How, indeed, can one follow distance learning courses without a computer at one's disposal?

You also need a reliable internet connection. There's nothing worse than bad wifi. You need wifi for lessons, but also to be in contact with your friends, to play a part of Among Us or to watch a concert on YouTube. Well, you know what would be a good measure in these corona times? Free broadband internet for everyone.

Wifi accessible to everyone. It is entirely feasible and payable. And that would help a lot of young people.

That 2021 be the year of young people, caregivers, workers and the small self-employed. 

Peter Mertens

The Working Class

If there is one thing we saw with the corona crisis, it is that they are the ones who make the society run. Who kept our heads above water in the first wave? Shareholders, traders, asset managers? No, they are nurses, caretakers, garbage collectors, housekeepers, dockworkers, parcel deliverers, salespeople, truck drivers, farm workers, teachers, firefighters and many others. It is thanks to the working class that we have been able to get through this pandemic, not thanks to the smooth talker class.

In the health care sector, one in five people have roots in immigration. It's the same in cleaning and the food industry. The working class is particularly diverse. So, in the face of a virus that hits the world, shouting "our people first" doesn't really make sense. Letting us divide makes us easy prey. It is together that we are strong. In 2021, we will not leave the slightest space for racism and fascism.

Not here, not in the United States. 

If we want to defeat Trumpism, we must not rely on elite people like Joe Biden. We must have the courage to name the problems we face: racism, inequality and capitalism. You cannot fight the far right by defending the status quo. We must not return to the old norm of inequality and exclusion. We need a new "normality" where everyone counts and the working class is in charge.

The corona crisis has put the working class at the forefront. We have applauded them, but now it is time to raise salaries structurally. Raising wages is not the problem, but the solution to the crisis.

Getting out of the crisis will depend on the purchasing power of the majority of people. Workers are entitled to it. In five years, 40 billion euros have gone from their pockets to those of the shareholders. Yet it is the workers, not the shareholders, who produce the wealth. It is time to raise wages seriously, from 5 to 6 %, as the trade unions in the Netherlands and Germany are also demanding.

The minimum wage must also be increased. It is not normal for a household helper to earn only 11.5 euros per hour. We have, moreover, tabled a bill in Parliament to increase the minimum wage to 14 euro per hour. Because, yes, everyone is entitled to a decent wage.

Prevention and socialism

During this pandemic, many people gave their best. Our hospitals are staffed by well-trained doctors and amazing nurses. "On the other hand, our preventive health care is much weaker," says renowned virologist Erika Vlieghe. "It is no coincidence that countries like Cuba, Vietnam and Thailand are doing better in this crisis," she adds.

All these countries have a highly developed system of preventive care close to the population.

For my book 'They've forgotten us', I was able to discuss with K. K. Shailaja, the very popular communist health minister of the Indian state of Kerala. Kerala has a population of 35 million, but extremely few covid victims. Its secret? Its community health centres. Every neighborhood has one, open to everyone. These centres employ a total of 26,000 prevention workers, mainly women. They know the whole neighbourhood, and as soon as a case of corona occurs, they intervene to prevent the epidemic from spreading.

The contrast with our country is stunning. We are unable to control the coronavirus outbreak. We are not even able to vaccinate everyone quickly.

We need to review our health care system from top to bottom. That is the lesson of this pandemic. Operate more locally and less top-down. In a more integrated and less fragmented way. With more testing and contact tracing, and less confinement. Better preventive health policy can save lives.

Take Cuba, a pioneer in this field. In the middle of a lockdown, the Cuban medical brigades came to set up a field hospital in Italy. A small southern country flies to the rescue of a rich northern country. "We are not heroes," the Cubans say, "we share what we have." If you ask me, Cuban doctors deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Some countries export arms, Cuba exports solidarity.

2020 has been a Janus-headed, two-faced year. A year of coronavirus, social containment, loneliness and a lot of frustration. But 2020 has also been a year of solidarity, with stars that are only discovered when it is dark.

This year, let's put the virus far behind us. May 2021 be a year of hope, wonder and life. A year of friendship, empathy and resistance. Because, we know, nothing will change by itself.

I raise my glass to you, because you are not alone.

Together we are strong, long live socialism.

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