"Let's freeze the price of basic goods, and make the war profiteers pay"
May Day Speech 2022
Raoul Hedebouw, president of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB)
Jessica, an airport worker, tells me that she slept in her car to save fuel. Hearing that workers sleep in their cars because they can no longer afford to pay for fuel to get to work: Who would have thought to hear such stories in one of the richest countries in the world? And yet, they are true. And Jessica is not alone. Today there are tens of thousands of Jessicas.
Nora is a single mom, she tells me that she doesn't heat the house anymore the week she doesn't have the kids. There are tens of thousands of Noras. Who would have thought to hear such stories in one of the richest countries in the world? And yet they are true.
Everywhere, from AGC Moustier in Namur to ArcelorMittal in Ghent and Audi in Brussels, workers come to me saying "Raoul, we've already had difficult times, but now we can't take it anymore, we can't hold out. We have to act fast or we'll go under".
Stop the speculation, let's block the prices
Some, like Joe Biden or Alexander De Croo will tell us that it is because of the war led by Russia. Anyway, it's never their fault, it's always someone else's: Russians, Chinese, Martians or refugees. However, prices were already rising before the war in Ukraine. At the moment, there are almost no supply problems. No, the main reason why prices are high is speculation, the thirst for profit, capitalism. Even Prime Minister De Croo is forced to admit that "the market has become irrational", that it has gone mad. If even liberals have to acknowledge this... But of course they limit themselves to the statement.
The reality is that there are economic giants who take advantage of the war to make a lot of money on our back. Every week when you go to the gasoline pump, you meet them at the other end of the hose. They are sucking money out of us like never before. Every time the pump is turned on, millions of euros flow into their coffers. These war profiteers are the oil and gas multinationals. Total made a record profit of 14 billion euros last year. The day before yesterday they announced a profit of 9 billion for the first quarter of 2022 alone. Their profits are exploding like never before. While we are dying.
We see the same thing for what we put in our shopping trolleys and on our plates, for our electricity or gas bills. In all these sectors, giants benefit from a quasi-monopoly situation, they control the majority of the market and set prices freely.
But all this could not work without having accomplices in the robbery. And these accomplices are the politicians of the traditional parties who have allowed the market to operate in this way for so many years. And still today, despite the fine words, they let it happen... Well no, that's not true, they had decided on something anyway. I don't know if you remember? On March 14, they decided to reduce the amount of excise tax by 17 cents per liter ... 17 cents. Four days later, the price increase had already eaten up everything! Who are they kidding?
No, what is needed is to intervene strategically and firmly to break with the market mechanisms that cannot solve the energy price crisis. This is why, on this first of May, we are launching with the PTB our proposal to block the prices of energy products and basic goods such as flour, semolina, pasta or potatoes. Freeze prices, to protect all workers. They are not the ones that have to pay for the crisis. Let the war profiteers pay!
And don't tell us it can't be done. For gasoline and diesel, we propose to reduce the excise duty to zero, which would bring the fuels to the maximum price of 1.4 euros per liter. In the case of gas, we propose to put an end to all the mechanisms of liberalization of the sector that have led to 80% of gas being sold on the stock markets, and to return to long-term state-to-state contracts with fixed prices to neutralize speculation. For electricity, we propose to abolish the European market price fixing system, which consists of calculating the price of electricity on the basis of the most expensive plant. This would help control energy prices, the most pressing issue at the moment.
But that's not all. Many young people, including those with jobs, have difficulty finding housing today. And that's not normal. Let's start by blocking rent and insurance increases. And then let's freeze the price of basic foodstuffs. Price controls and the imposing of maximum prices for commodities have existed in the past. This was the case in the past with bread in particular, we can reintroduce the mechanism. This can be done here and now.
War profiteers and multi-millionaires should pay for the crisis
This price freeze can be financed by making the war profiteers pay, by introducing a special contribution on the excess profits of the multinationals in energy, agribusiness, banks and insurance.
We have also been advocating for a millionaire's tax for 15 years. All this time, inequalities have only increased. British researchers have just calculated that the 1% of the richest people in Belgium alone hold a quarter of all the wealth in the country. 664 billion euros on their own.
So now I hear voices on May 1st calling to "go get the money where it is". Paul Magnette, Conner Rousseau, Kristof Calvo, Joachim Coens [presidents of socialist, Green and Christian democratic parties]: suddenly they all wake up. They feel the heat of the moment, our heat. So much the better. The PTB is doing what the parties of the traditional left have failed to do for the past 20 years, i.e. pulling the political discourse to the left.
But we're going to have to keep the pressure on, folks. Because for the moment, it is only a question of speeches. Last year, on May 1st, the socialists threatened to freeze dividends if the wage freeze persisted. And what did we see? As of May 2nd, the promise was forgotten, wages remained frozen for the workers and dividends flowed freely to the shareholders. We will not accept any more false promises.
May Day has been a day of struggle for the working class worldwide for 136 years. A day where the world of work puts forward its demands offensively and mobilizes for new conquests. We say today that we must freeze the prices of basic goods and make the war profiteers pay in order to protect the whole working class.
May 1st is a day of the working class. And I would like to say that this is not the day of the Movement of the Rich [referring to the neoliberal MR party], which with its president Georges-Louis Bouchez is trying to make itself popular when in fact it defends the big shareholders and opposes any progress made by the workers. This is not the day of the ‘False’ Belang [referring to the fascist Vlaams Belang], which presents itself as "Flemish and social", as "union of the common Flemish" but opposes any wealth tax, a party which divides the workers and wants to weaken their organizations, the unions.
Let's free our wages
There is the problem of prices and the money that has to come out of our wallet. But there is also the problem of what goes into our wallet. I am referring of course to the wages of the working class. Employers are opposed to any increase in wages. Mr. Timmermans, the boss of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB) doesn't give a damn. He doesn't have any end-of-month worries. Besides, it's not only him who doesn't care, all his big boss colleagues in big companies in Belgium received a wage increase of 14% on average last year. Can you imagine that? The same guys who cry foul because workers want more than 0.4%, pocket 14% themselves. When it comes to screwing, the sky's the limit, as they say.
"We will no longer be competitive with other countries if we raise wages", say the right-wing parties, from the neoliberal Open VLD to the Flemish nationalist N-VA. This is the same argument we have been hearing for 200 years. Frankly, if the pioneers of the labor movement had accepted this argument when they wanted to get the children out of the mines, our children would still be working there. Let's get money from elsewhere than wages. From profits for example.
Last year, the large companies listed on the stock exchange made a profit of 21 billion. 21 billion in a single year. 21 followed by 9 zeros. Can you imagine that? They should stop saying that there is no room to increase our wages. It is the working class that creates all this wealth, not the shareholders. How can the socialists and Greens still accept this wage freeze at 0.4%?
And what about the Vlaams Belang [the Flemish fascist party]. Let's talk about them. They are "Flemish and social", they say. But how did they vote on the rightist MR-N-VA government's bill in 2017 to strengthen the wage freeze? They voted in favour. This is once again the true face of the extreme right, behind its demagogy and its politics of division, it is simply at the service of big business.
The unions are right to put their foot down. The nearly 90,000 signatures they collected in a few weeks in a common front throughout the country for the revision of the 1996 wage law shows the extent of support for this demand. With my late comrade Marc Goblet, we have submitted a bill to the parliament to put an end to this wage freeze. It's time to move, it's time to vote on this proposal. The trade unions are calling for a large national demonstration on June 20 in the streets of Brussels for the revision of this law. We will do everything to help them in this struggle.
Bread and peace
I have already spoken about war profiteers. Capitalism and war are intimately linked. Whether in 2022 or before, the hunt for profit and economic interests - oil, gas,...- have always been the driving force behind wars. As Jean Jaurès, the French socialist leader assassinated just before World War I,, said very well, "capitalism carries war like a cloud carries a storm". This obviously applies to the Russian oligarchs who support Putin in his war against Ukraine. But this also applies to other types of imperialism. What do you think, that Joe Biden and Co. are coming to sell us their shale gas for charity, for the good uf us? The United States of America is not an NGO. They are going to make a lot of money selling us their hyper-polluting shale gas. The explosion of military spending is all for the benefit of the arms merchants, again mostly from the US, like Lockheed Martin. And while some people are enjoying the war, others are paying the price. In Ukraine, of course, but also elsewhere in the world where the explosion of energy prices and food prices are causing crises and will probably lead to famines in the future, as in Sudan and Somalia.
Bread and peace. This is a historic slogan of the labor movement. Like the women of St. Petersburg who demonstrated under this slogan on March 8, 1917. They caused the fall of the autocracy of the Russian Tsars and contributed to the movement that ended the slaughter of the First World War. It was also a slogan of the Popular Front in the 1930s when it was fighting against the consequences of the crisis and the rise of fascism. Even today the working class has an essential role to play in the struggle for peace. Today we are still fighting for bread and peace in the face of the misery and war that capitalism is dragging us into.
Comrades, the contradictions of the system are becoming more and more striking. Whether it is the climate, the war or social inequalities, workers and youth alike are looking for an alternative to this society of profit at any price. We carry with our party an important responsibility to give hope in the coming struggles.
In front of us there are two blocs. The bloc of traditional parties that defend the status quo and liberal dogmas. But also the nationalist bloc of hate, with the parties of the right and the extreme right in the north of the country.
We see the same thing everywhere in Europe, and even recently in France. The nationalist bloc presents itself as an alternative, but it is not. Their role is to reinforce the system and divide the working class to better rule it. They want to divide it between North and South, between people of different origins, between workers with and without jobs. These parties - like the Vlaams Belang here or the RN in France - oppose the taxation of large fortunes and vote for wage freezes, but they try to make us believe that it is because of the Walloons, the unemployed or the immigrants that we have too little. They propagate division because they know that unity is the strength of the working class.
The tradition of May Day, of the International, of the left, is that the workers of all countries unite, without making any difference, whatever their origin, their color or their religion. In Molenbeek [a popular quarter in Brussels] as elsewhere. Because in this country, workers of all origins produce the wealth, build the metro, clean the streets, take care of people, teach. It is a central value of our socialism 2.0 that we defend, and whoever deviates from it does not work for the emancipation of labour.
We are the force of hope. We show that it is possible to have a left alternative that rises in the North as in the South of the country. We also saw it in France with the authentic left that came to upset the match between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. When the left has a clear and uncompromising message, it can recover. It can fire up the youth and mobilize broad layers of the working class. This is also what we do here in Belgium, in Flanders, in Wallonia and in Brussels.
Confronting us, we have the world of finance and big business. But with us, we have potentially millions of people. Let's make that hope come true.
Happy May Day to all!