Last week’s strikes in Brussels were live-streamed on Norwegian news websites. My parents were able to see what I have already seen many times in my four years in Brussels. The stretched resources of the Brussels police used on water cannons to control drunk, violent men, followed by more tax money spent to clear their mess and insurance claims for their vandalism.
And it continues this week. Now the hashtag #genoeggestaakt (‘striked enough’) is trending on Twitter. The frequency of Belgian strikes is certainly high, but it’s their format which is the biggest issue.
One of my biggest cultural shocks moving to Belgium has been to see this striking culture. “Everyone knows” the Belgians (and French) strike a lot. But the more I see of these strikes the less funny the stereotype gets.
This is because I respect and believe in strikes as a hard-earned, powerful and last-resort tool. It pains me to repeatedly see the abuse and disrespect with which it is executed in Belgium. And it angers me because it means striking is not a tool available to people like me working in Belgium.
Men throwing beer cans after you as you pass. Men setting off fire crackers inside train stations. Men grabbing you as the police are busy breaking up a fight. These things have all happened to me during strikes in Brussels.
The recipe for a Belgian strike seems to be: Men, physical force and alcohol. How can I strike in Belgium?
I’ve tried to understand why. I came across a French historian defending the French striking culture (which the Belgian can be compared to) saying: “This conflict is part of a process of compromise, perhaps the first stage in the negotiations process” and “Often without this initial conflict, no negotiations would take place”.
Is violent strike a prerequisite for conversation in Belgium? It certainly seems so when even striking prison guards physically break into a minister’s office, as happened a few weeks ago. Do you have to resort to violence to get what you want/deserve in Belgium?
Who does this method serve? It certainly does not serve people like me. I am not going to join drunken hordes of men – I do not condone such behavior (and I would be unsafe).
But then how do I make demands for better working conditions? How do I start a dialogue if those I need to speak with require such conflict first. What tools do I have if not violent strike?
The striking culture I grew up with in Norway is one where strikes are a last resort, where workers of all genders and ages are represented in the public space, and where anyone with a beer can would be shunned.
I understand it’s a different culture. But as someone working in Belgium, living with a Belgian and one day perhaps having Belgian children, can I not ask: How is today’s Belgian striking culture serving Belgian workers?