Friday, November 28, 2014

Belgium On Strike

Most days I feel as though I am thoroughly acclimated to my new Belgian home but just when I sink into that comfort zone something happens that makes me pause and wonder about the way things are done in this country. This happened this past week with the first in our area of what will be a series of strikes organized by the Belgian labor unions. The strikes have been ongoing for several weeks in various pars of Belgium arrived in Mons on Monday. In Belgium, as is the case with much of Europe, it is legal to stage large scale protests and not only is it legal, it is the democratic right of citizens to be able to freely participate in these protests. And unlike my very limited experience with protests in America, Belgian protests are extremely organized, well planned out and publicized. And as I saw, they do have a sweeping effect in bringing life as we know it to a temporary standstill.

So what are the Belgians striking against? From what I can surmise with my shaking understanding of French and the limited amount of detailed English press coverage of the events, Belgians are protesting their new government's proposed austerity measures. In general terms, the new center-right government is planning to increase the pension age from 65 to 67, freeze wages and implement cuts to public services. They argue that such austerity measures are necessary in order to keep the budget deficit in line with European Union requirements and that businesses need more tax breaks if they are to compete in a global market place. An increased retirement age, stagnant wages and social service cuts may not that sound alarming to many Americans (where such conditions and debates are commonplace) but for Belgians, who pay some of the highest taxes in Europe, just the mere threat of such actions is enough for them to take to the streets. Labor unions carry a lot of influence in the Belgian political system with 53% of all public service sector and private sector employees being labor union members. They argue that any austerity measures would hurt Belgium's already fragile welfare state.

The labor unions announced their intentions to strike weeks ago and laid out a detailed schedule of which days the strikes would take place in different regions across Belgium with the culmination of the strikes occurring on the 15th of December with a countrywide strike. The recent strike in Brussels drew over 100,000 people and turned violent with paving stones being thrown, cars being overturned and lit on fire and 60 people being injured. Hearing this, it made me wonder what we might be in store for in Mons.

In the days leading up to the strike we began to hear that all public transportation would be suspended on the day of the strike so if we relied on the bus or train we should make alternative arrangements. The American school on base canceled classes for the day while Sidney's Belgian school sent home a notice saying that while they would be open services and staffing would be extremely limited. His teacher cautioned me that she might not be able to make it in to school. As the day of the strike drew closer people began to talk about road closures and blockades and the advice was that if we didn't need to be out we should stay home. Belgian schools off of the base would be closed, hospitals would be staffed for emergencies only, stores and businesses would be closed and public services (i.e. trash pickup) would be suspended. PSAs were issued reminding us that Belgians have the right to protest, that we were not to confront them and if we did, we would be the ones who would be held liable for our actions. Parents of Sidney's classmates all stated that they were keeping their children home that day. Because I had my own French class to attend that day I made the decision that we would both go to school but would leave early to allow for the potential delays.

The day of the strike Facebook lit up in the early morning hours with notices about which roads were already blocked by protesters. (This was a learning curve for me since I learned that in Belgium, protesters have the right to stand in the street and peacefully stop all traffic. Police would often be present but as bystanders on guard only in case violence broke out).  By 06.30 it sounded as though all of my routes to the base were already blocked to vehicle traffic. An hour later I made the decision that we would just stay home for the day since it sounded all but impossible to get anywhere as even the ramps to the interstate had been blocked.

Reports of road blocks continued to be posted on Facebook and social media being what it is, it wasn't long before someone posed the question of whether it was even legal to block the roads. This initiated a flurry of responses, mostly educated and informative responses but also the snide, indignant and down right rude comments. People were upset that their schedules were negatively impacted, people couldn't get to work, school or back home without having to take a myriad of detours. They wanted to know why women and children were being stopped and why they should be inconvenienced when they weren't even Belgians.

My take on all of this, and a thought that I was happy to see echoed on numerous Facebook comments, we are guests in Belgium and need to learn to live with the way they do things. It isn't our place to judge, join them in protest or complain about the inconveniences their protests temporarily place on our lives. Protesting is a right that is supported by the Belgian government and it is the way that Belgians can bring attention to the issues and concerns that impact their lives the most. When you think about it, it is all very democratic. And the advanced notices about protest dates, locations and impacted businesses? In my mind that is just an added bonus that makes it easier for me to plan my day.

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