continue until Thursday. The entire situation has seemed to put people here in a more pronounced state of cynicism and disgust than normal, given both the circumstances of the incident which sparked the strike and the behaviour of the transit workers.
Early on Saturday morning, a city bus was involved in a traffic accident with a drunk driver. When a supervisor from Brussels’ public transport agency STIB came to investigate the accident and accused the car driver of being drunk, he became offended and called some friends to defend him. Those friends attacked the STIB supervisorand killed him.
In response, the STIB immediately shut down the network. This was done well before the facts of the incident were clear and before the employee had died (he didn’t die until later in the day at the hospital). Initial reports on the STIB’s web site said the trains weren’t running because of a “lightning strike”. Later it was a stabbing, until eventually it just said a “serious incident with dramatic consequences”.
The STIB employees said they wouldn’t go back to work until they had a meeting with the Belgian government about improving their safety on Monday night (this being Easter weekend, Monday was a public holiday). But last night, without providing much explanation, the STIB workers union said whatever had been offered them was not enough, and they would continue to stay home.
The death of the transport worker is obviously very sad. He reportedly was a 53 year old man with two children. Such an incident would naturally conjure up huge sympathy from the public for these workers who must do their job in a very dangerous city, where attacks like this are common.
That suspicion is almost as grotesque as the attack itself, and yet it is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed over and over the last few days. The transport workers union frequently calls such immediate strikes, and most of them seem to coincidentally fall on Mondays or Fridays or on the days before a public holiday. Last year an immediate strike was called after a metro driver said he was punched in the face by a passenger. It later emerged from the surveillance video that it was in fact the metro driver who threw the first punch.
Such immediate strikes by public sector workers are illegal in Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK and the US, where six days notice must be given. But in Belgium these strikes are often called immediately, even before the specifics of an incident are clear.
Danger for all
Brussels can be a dangerous city. Stories of random acts of aggression are common dinner table conversation here. I know many people here who have been physically attacked, and I’ve seen it happen twice on the street. What is perhaps most sad about this incident is how depressingly typical it is. The fact that there was a death is unusual – apparently the aggressors did not intend to kill him, but punched him in the face in a way that somehow led to his death. Brussels metro workers have long complained that they are frequently the victims of physical attacks by passengers.
So, when a STIB worker is attacked, the employees see it not as a problem of a lack of security for all Brussels residents but instead a specific problem for them and them alone. They don’t seem to have given a second thought to the fact that their strike would inconvenience the rest of the city, hobbling commerce and trade for an entire week. That's not their problem. But what are they asking for exactly? Do they want armed guards on every bus? Considering this incident happened in a public space rather than inside a transport vehicle, their aims are unclear.
What happened to the STIB worker is incredibly tragic. But what is also sad is the way the entire city is now being punished for it. Because in Brussels, we’re not all in this together. We are a collection of separated tribes, indifferent to the suffering of those not in our group.