Belgian strike-culture

Moira Wiermans

Approximately half a year ago, I moved from Amsterdam to Brussels. My expectations were that it would involve limited bureaucratic procedures as a result of EU internal market freedoms, and that living in Brussels, living in Belgium would be similar to living in the Netherlands, only with different architecture and French as the main language. How wrong I was! EU mobility is still limited by differences in tax, pension, social security, and insurance systems. But more importantly, every day life is organized differently. Shortly after I arrived I felt like I moved to Cairo, not Brussels. As Belgium is one of the most developed countries in the world my expectations – including those of an efficient public transport system – were high.

One problem is that although there are timetables, nobody seems to care about it. When I go to work, I can either walk 15-20 minutes up hill or take the bus, which takes 10 minutes. However, I have to take into account that most likely one or two busses won’t show up. A few weeks ago, five busses in a row did not. When the sixth bus finally arrived, the driver did not at all feel urged to depart. The man took his eight minute break all drivers get at the end of the line, as usual. This ‘mañana attitude’ is widespread, which is not surprising if you consider that a Brussels life includes a lot of waiting: everywhere! I am beginning to suffer from it myself. No bus, late for work? No stress. There is nothing you can do about it anyway.

Surprisingly enough, this ‘go-with-the-flow’ way of life is collectively put aside whenever the unions organize a strike. Comming from the Netherlands I am not used to many strikes. If it occurs that unions go on strike, they organize it in such a way that the public will be harmed as little as possible. This being my reference, I was struck by both the scope and scale of Belgian strikes. The first strike I got to witness took place a few days before Christmas, during those days everyone needs planes and trains to go home and the one time a year the postal service can prove it’s worth. It was a general strike: no public transport, airports closed, no postal service, no garbage collections, and only a limited presence of police, firemen, and hospital staff. In case something really bad would happen, the army was still there to assist. Last Monday, this was repeated, followed by a non-general, spontaneous strike on Wednesday.

Already confused by such a massive willingness to strike, I couldn’t belive my eyes when I read in the newspaper that the willingness to strike in Belgium is declining, at least according to the government. The unions believe this is just some form of propaganda. They don’t believe a small majority (53%) of the people don’t support their strikes. In case the government is right, and the willingness to strike is indeed declining I am glad I didn’t move to Brussels years ago. Nevertheless, a strong strike-culture still exists. The first word I leard in my French language course was grève (strike). Who would have guessed. Clearly, going on strike is a Belgian norm.

Funny enough, I wrote this blog at the Eurostar train from Brussels to London, which was – as now should come as no surprise – a full hour delayed. C’est la vie en Bruxelles!

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