Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Brussels, the broken city

Public transport has been shut down in Brussels for four days now, a state of affairs we learned this morning will likely 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.

But whatever sympathy might have otherwise existed has now been lost as many people suspect the transport workers are using the death of their colleague as an excuse to take an extended Easter holiday.

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.

But transport workers aren’t the only ones who face the constant risk of physical attacks in this city – it’s a threat that we all face here. But since there is little unity between the various balkanized groups in this city (Native Bruxellois vs. Eurocrat expats vs. North Africans vs. the Flemish) there is little recognition of this being a problem we all face. Instead, attention is focused here only on how things affect your little group.

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.


Brad Zimmerman said...

Your point about their aims/goals where you ask, "Do they want armed guards on every bus?" is spot on.

I think what they may want is: for no violence or verbal assault to occur against any STIB member, ever, period.

Ultimately I feel that these sorts of requests have been legitimized by the responses to the so-called war on terror and, in general, health and safety requirements. The feeling appears to be that there should be no accidents and no violence and that they are both 100 percent preventable. Then when, of course, an accident or some violence happens, it's an excuse to stop working or get hysterical - because the "system failed" or someone was incompetent (often a PM, President, or an entire political party who has next to no real influence or control over the actual implementation/mechanics of H&S/safety stuff (although they bring it on themselves by claiming that if they are (re)elected they will personally fix all problems)).

Amusingly enough this sort of behavior is often self-defeating in the long-term because the people in power take this sort of thing seriously and start asking how to prevent people from getting hurt with no exceptions. The response is often fairly simple: remove people from harm's way. So, automate the processes. Lo and behold, people are now safe from getting hurt on the job because the job is done by a machine.

This is not to say that workplace accidents are good or that "some" accidents or violence are ok. They're not and anything that is reasonably preventable should be prevented - often it is a win for everyone as the sorts of things that cause accidents are often the result of unoptimized and/or inefficient processes and/or equipment. But accidents will happen and the future is extremely difficult to either forsee and/or entirely plan for, much less random acts of violence.

In this particular case, could the violence have not been avoided by either calling the police instead of an STIB investigator (as it was a DRUNK driver) or calling the police AND an STIB investigator? If violence tends to occur on busses and trains, perhaps the police could spend more time on trains/busses - not all the time, all trains/busses, but something ala air marshals on US flights? And, we could take some responsibility as well - just as passengers on planes now have a zero or near zero tolerance for fellow passengers attempting violence, perhaps if we see violence occuring on busses or trains or wherever that we all immediately take control of the situation by apprehending those attempting to perpetrate the violence?

Just some thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Depressingly spot-on. As a long-term (ex-pat) Brussels resident, it breaks my heart to confess that I skip the city now at every possible opportunity. It's the only way to stop the sadness, frustration, anger and resentment turning inwards and jeopardising my mental health.

Michel Gelly said...

Very nice article. Your point about the divisions in the city is very true, unfortunately.

Giles said...

I agree about lack of empathy from transport workers and need to limit wildcat strikes, but I dont think its fair to label Brussels a dangerous city. The crime rate is still very low for a city of its size given income and unemployment levels. The major problem is more fundamental: dysfunctional governance of the city, which means it's full of politicians but none are actually in charge. Major problems fall between cracks because noone has a strong enough mandate, strategic vision or resources to really take them on. But that's the price of keeping the country together. In other circumstances Belgium could have gone truly Balkan and we should be grateful that it's nowhere near

Leigh said...

At least these workers are taking action to defend their rights. If more workers across Europe would do the same, we wouldn't have to put up with the EU/ECB austerity doctrine that benefits only financial interests while ordinary people suffer. The right to withdraw one's labour is fundamental and there is a reason why such strikes are illegal in the US and UK: Thatcher's and Reagan's anti-union offensives. Not coincidentally in these two places, working conditions are some of the worst in the OECD. The only conclusion to draw is that where labour is strong, life is better.

Francis said...

@Leigh agreed! I'm sick of all these damn trains in London. If more workers stuck up for their rights to long holidays and closed shop hiring policies we wouldn't have to put up with all this fucking transportation.

Frank said...

Pretty astute report. There is absolutely no feeling of "being in it together", no sense of belonging. Brussels is a city of groups where no one really feels responsible or enfranchised. It won't change, that is the very essence of the city. I wish it well but I'm happy to be moving on.

Anonymous said...

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larree said...

If a strike did not inconvenience anyone, it would not be very effective as a means for workers to negotiate better working conditions, would it? And surely their demands would benefit not only the "small group" of STIB employees, but also the millions of passengers who have been deprived of public transport for a few days, but who will ultimately share the benefit of improved security and less risk of assault and theft.

J├╝rgen said...

Very good description of the situation in Brussels.

Yet, things like this happen in other bigger European cities as well - busses shot at, throwing stones at, passengers rather than bus drivers being attacked and killed. And the crime figures are higher in other cities than in Brussels.

Yet, these events, as sad as they are, are taken as fact of life. The appropriate bodies do their job, and that's it. No one goes on strike for that. No one goes on strike if one of theirs attacks a passenger - and everybody else would have considered it ridiculuous - the STIB people do not.

At the same time, while important investment have been made into public transport equipment, the daily state of affairs in trams, busses and metros is deplorable. Nobody cares if the sales machines don't work, and certainly not STIB. No one bothers when the screens indicating location and next stop are out of function. The stamping machine does not work? No one bothers, certainly not a STIB driver. Nor anyone chasing passengers for tickets, or security gards. In other cities, no driver proud of his profession would even accept such a defunct vehicle.

I think there is a general menthality or attitude problem in this city. It is called "m'enfoutisme" in French, I'd translate by "don't care shit-ism" in English. People in Brussels never seem to take responsibility for his/her acts, and certainly not of anything reaching further than their own belly. At the same time, their capital city is going to pieces more and more. Just go to any French city in the North (and those are certainly not the richest around) or North to the Netherlands, return to Brussels, and compare - you'll notice an immediate difference. The city is in shambles, no one cares, not the politicians, but their electorate doesn't either. And, I'm afraid, they'll go on with it until nothing works anymore. Hopeless case, if you ask me.

Tim said...

Well, my friend, you certainly seem to prove your own point on Balkanized tribes in Brussels and lack of empathy.

You don't have to work at STIB to imagine that they work in a challenging environment. Probably some of those on strike have taken advantage of the situation to stay at home with the kids or enjoy the good weather. But to generalize?
I still think that most were genuinely shocked by this tragic death, and wanted to send a signal. They're back to work now, good luck to them.

It is true that there are a lot of different micro-cosms in Brussels, living in parallel. And some people who choose to stick to a single tribe. But no-one can force you to go live in the Flemish Ghetto and limit your outings to Roskam and Monk, or to spend your days in a lobbying firm and your nights at Place Lux.

I know plenty of people who make an effort to straddle different communities (e.g. by learning French or Dutch, choosing a local football team over yoga among other Erasmus-veterans).

As for this post: it reeks of 'do as i say, not as i do'.