On 11-12 May 2020, a 80% of bus and 50% of tram drivers of the Brussels public transportation services went on a wildcat strike after the union had agreed to resuming normal timetables behind their backs.
The strike was the first time that workers invoked the “Droit de Retrait” (right to retreat), which has been part of the Belgian labor law since 1996. It entitles workers to leave their workplace when they are in serious and immediate danger. Tram and bus drivers argue that they are exposed to such an immediate danger on the job in the face of the suspension of the lockdown.
It should be noted that Belgium is currently the country with the highest death rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe. This rate is eight times higher than, for example, in Germany. In general, drivers in public transport are exposed to a high risk of infection. In New York, 98 public transport service workers have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The workers in Brussels are not the only ones striking against the rapid resumption of work. Similar protests are currently taking place in numerous places around the world.
The following is a statement by a tram driver who took part in the strike. The statement was published by the Brussels group Union Communiste Libertaire, the introduction was written by Solidarisch gegen Corona, and we translated it to English.
I am a tram driver for the Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (STIB). Since the unions have signed an agreement with our bosses, a movement of wildcat strikes started yesterday, May 11th, 2020. The agreement has accepted the return to normality. This means that we should return to schedules as they were before the health crisis, which is still going on. However, the majority of the tram and bus drivers oppose resuming work under these conditions, for several reasons.
The first point is the issue of hygiene. The increased traffic makes it problematic to properly clean the vehicles. Because the route sections are also quite long, iff the trams run more often they must be cleaned more often. Unlike in recent weeks, the cars can no longer be cleaned several times a day. Plus, our break rooms are not suitable at all for social distancing.
There is next the question of social distancing. The workers are afraid that it will be a safety hazard for the passengers and the staff if the trains and buses are full again next week. Although it is now obligatory to wear a mask, the reopening of all the shops means that there are already a lot of people out and about again, which accelerates the spread of the virus. We staff are well protected in the trams. Nevertheless, we are forced to wear a mask. While it is not bad, it is very annoying and tiring to wear it all day long. It’s not possible to casually eat or drink anything. The police have already checked up on us to confirm that we really are wearing the masks all the time.
The first workers who arrived at the depot yesterday decided not to drive their trams and buses. While this decision was respected very much by the bus drivers it differed depending on the tram depot. The subways drove more or less as usual.
We did not receive any information from our superiors about the current situation. When we came back to the depots this morning, May 12th, 2020, and found that nothing much had changed we decided to continue the strike. We were handed a sheet of paper on which the individual measures such as the wearing of masks, etc. were listed. Because our demands could not be discussed with superiors, we decided to discuss them in a meeting.
Things are going quite well and calmly. The depot managers are not putting any obstacles in our way. We can’t say that they agree with us, but they are not applying any strong pressure on us either. After tomorrow there could be problems though, because we are legally considered absent from work without permission for more than two days which can lead to dismissal.
The bosses’ view is that it is not possible to legally strike because the unions signed the agreement to resume work. The only option we had was to appeal to the “Droit de Retrait,” which entitles you to stop working if you are exposed to danger and continue until safety is restored.
On the ground, the union delegates are not participating in the movement as workers not in their capacity as delegates. It seems to me that they feel a bit abandoned, a feeling shared by the other workers. I do not feel the union involved me in the question of resuming work. We’re all on our own.
After two months of lockdown, we are in a relatively complicated situation on the psychological, social and, in some cases, the economic level as well. We workers are all in the same boat: some have been fired, others are on reduced hours, working in the home office or have to work under very difficult conditions, like in the health sector.
While we at the STIB are not necessarily worse off than other workers, there is currently quite a lot of psychological pressure on us. We have been working throughout this period, but with the lockdown lifted, we are now being moved from one situation to the next rather abruptly. We feel that we are not really being acknowledged. We feel tired and exhausted.
Whether we continue our strike depends on the session this afternoon, May 12th, when it will become clear whether our demands are being heard or not. Not only do we face the danger of being sacked, many of us can’t afford to be off duty for several days. I can understand the frustration of people who have to go to work or want to take their children somewhere. Some passengers also feel like they’re being used. But you have to look at the situation from a more global political and economic perspective. And especially in such a health crisis, safety rules must be respected by both drivers and passengers. At the moment, this is not the case.