Short report from DHL workers demonstration in Brussels, 2004

A short report from a DHL workers demonstration in Brussels, with information about developments and struggles at DHL and at Brussels airport.

On the 21st of October 2004, the DHL management announced to shut the distribution centre at the airport in Bruxelles in 2008. This would cut about 1,700 jobs at the centre. DHL employs about 2,200 people in Bruxelles, about 7,000 jobs would be indirectly affected by the closure, some other studies say that in total 17,500 jobs are directly or indirectly linked to DHLs activities in Bruxelles. The work is supposed to be re-located to Leipzig/Germany or Vary/France, but so far DHL only owns a green field next to Leipzig airport. Until 2011 about 250 Million Euros are announced to be invested in the new central distribution centre, about 3,000 jobs are to be created. The DHL management had asked the government in belgium to allow an increase in night flights at the Bruxelles Airport, in order to extend the operation of the distribution centre. The government refused to do that, also being under pressure of some neighbour initiatives against the night flights. The workers reacted with a spontaneous strike on the 22nd of October, demanding job security from DHL. Also the pilots went on strike. The management re-routed the post to other centres. The union rep Vermeersch from the socialist union SETCa (which has the majority at DHL) announced in the newspaper ‚Le Soir’ that the unions are not responsible for the strike and that „airoplanes could land on Monday given that the workers are not forced to be on strike“. On an assembly on Monday, the 25th, the workers decided about a demonstration on the following friday. It is unclear if the strikes continued, or not. On Thursday everything seemed calm, no picket-line, banners or any other infos. People said that they are not on strike at the moment. DHL aeroplanes left from the runway.
The demo

Different unions of the transport union call for a demonstration at Bruxelles town centre, friday the 29th. The tram drivers are on strike, workers of other postal delivery companies take part in the march, all in all about 2,000 people. The demonstration is mixed: a lot of young workers, immigrants, women, only few political groups (trots, PTB, Attac). A leaflet, which is signed by ‚Workers of B-Cargo’ demands the refusal of work in case the management threatens with dismissals or other cuts. The demonstration starts, a lot of bangers and beer cans. Some young blokes have a short occupation of the motorway, no union stewards who would hold them back. The demo continues, we stop on a cross roads, below us the motorway, in front of us the US-ambassy and a building of some sort of administration for the transport sector. Behind a barricade of barbed wire waits a water canon and the riot cops, securing the administration building. A lot of workers immediately try to break the barricade, start to throw bangers and empty beer cans at the cops. Most of them wear their work clothes, bomber-jackets from TNT, warning-vests from DHL and other companies. Some use their union flags as masks. They all seem quite used to that kind of confrontation, may be from football. Some more hefty blows from both sides of the barbed wire, then a little bit of tear gas. The atmosphere is fine, we all seem to have a good time. A big garbage container is rammed against the barricade, a guy jumps on top of it and waves a DHL-flag in front of the faces of the water canon drivers. On the other side a small group blocks the motorway, discussion with the car drivers. If they have a good reason, they can pass. The cops arrive, with a water canon as well, the workers occupy the motorway on the other side of the bridge. In front of the administration the cops had a little go at the workers, we answer with some more bottles and one or two stones. There is no division over that amongst the protesters. We make friends with a guy working as a parcel delivery driver for DHL since six years, making 60,000 k in Antwerpens town centre every years and being fed up with it. He says that all DHL workers should go on strike now, because otherwise the management will finish them up one department after the other. Meanwhile the union delegation is back, the people gather around the loudspeakers. Only some short announcements, that the negotiation will carry on, that nothing is definite yet. What else can they say in this situation. The demonstration disperses on the way back to the buses and trains. Just when most of the people are out of sight the cops catch some young workers who they might have picked out during the skirmish. A short fight, it smells like revenge and wanting to teach a lesson.

Some history
* At Bruxelles airport there has been an occupation of workers of the bancrupt airline Sabena in winter 2001, with some fights with the cops.

* In April 2003 DHL workers in Germany (Hamburg, Dormund, Bremen) walked out for higher wages. In Hamburg 260 people worked for DHL.

* In May 2003 DHL workers in Belgium struck against the centralisation of parcel service of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. 400 people blocked the distribution centre in Ternat/Limburg.

* In December 2003 the DHL headquarter in the US announced to sack 2,900 people, due to the take-over of the airline Airbone by DHL aviation Astar. About 44,000 people are employed by DHL in the USA.

* On the 30th of January 2004 DHL announced the losure of the distribution centre in Paris-Garonor, which would have cost 280 jobs. The workers blocked the depot, other depots in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux are blocked as well. In France about 12,000 people work for DHL, this year about 1,200 jobs have been cut.