Archive for the ‘Netherlands’ Category

Student protests in the Netherlands

January 23, 2011

Last Friday, January 21, the Netherlands saw student action on a massive scale. Fifteen thousand students and sympathisers, maybe more, came together for a protest rally on the Malieveld in The Hague, the city in which the Dutch government is located. The action was called by student unions.

The rally was preceded by a demonstration in which left wing groups and individuals participated. Rood, the youth branch of the Socialist Party (left wing social democrats) was there; the youth branch of the PvdA (Labour party) was there as well. And the Internationale Socialisten participated, as did anti-authoriarian groups  like the Kritische Studenten Utrecht and a radical initiative against austerity, Greece Is Everywhere (GIE), in which I have been involved and to which I remain close (1).

 The demonstration brought between 600 and thousand people on the street, accompanied by an large and quite intimidating police presence: cops on horseback, police vans, etcetera. We got to the Malieveld safely, however, where we joined the rally that was still growing, with al large stream of students from Central Station to the muddy field. There, we got speeches by politicians – even by the Secretary of Education responsible for the attacks that students were protesting against…

The attacks that triggered the protests mainly consist of a big raise in student fees for those who take much time to finish their studies. At the same time, funding for universities is under pressure. Students and sympathizers argue that higher education will become less accessible for students from poorer background: college will become an elite thing once again. Students with rich parents willing to pay can take ther time for study; students without rich parents are forced to go even deeper in debt. One of the slogans on a banner I saw was: “Rich parents for everyone”: ) That made the point quite nicely.

The attacks are part of an austerity program forced upon Dutch society by a right wing government, made up of Liberals (VVD) and Christian Democrats (CDA) with extreme right wing support from the side of the islamophobic racists of the PVV, led by Geert Wilders. Other sectors of society have already been protesting as well: the art and culture sector, for instance, in a protest that brought several tens of thousands on the streets on 20 November last year. There have been student protests as well: several demonstrations on 10 December 2010 sawsizeble crowds, about 5000 all together.

After the big rally of January 21, several hundreds of students and sympathizers marched in several groups, one to  the vicinity of the governmental center, one to the Ministry of Education. Riot police attacked at both actions, there were clashes, some people got badly beaten,or bitten by police dogs (of the four foot variety, of course; I will not insult other animals by comparing them to police); cops arrested 28 people, five of them will stand on rushed trial this week.

The actions combined were an expression of a growing mood of struggle in various sectors of society. The police violence is an expression of a more and more openly authoritarian trend drom the direction of the state. We will see if and how struggle will grow nevertheless, but I think students can be pwoud of what they did so far, and we all can feel encopuraged by their spirit and example.

Some pieces on the student struggle:

On Dear Kitty: “Dutch Students fight education cuts” (with a video of a student occupation on the Monday preceding last Friday’s rally);

On the website of Greece Is Everywhere: “De Strijd van Studenten is een Strijd van ons Allen – The Struggle of Students is  a Struggle of All of Us” (in Dutch and in English)

(1): I quit GIE, mainly for health reasons; I couldn’t handle organisational pressures, especially in combination with my writing activity. However, the comradeship between me and GIE will remain and has, if anything, only gotten stronger).

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After the Dutch elections

June 13, 2010

Dutch elections on June 9 have resulted in a shocking victory of right wing parties. The political Right, however, will not find it easy to form a government. Divisions and conflicts between them hinders the quick formation for a coalition government between them. Meanwhile, the Left – divided as well, and battered by defeat – is clinging to the kind of parliamentary illusions that helped to bring that defeat. At the same time, the number of non-voters – a sign of deep disaffection with all the parties – has grown. An aggressive, triumphant but fragmented Right; a weakened Left; budget cuts from whatever government will ben formed; an economic crisis that is dragging on; and a workers’ movement showing signs of reviving miltancy (see earlier article on this blog); it is an explosive mix, with great dangers as well as small but significant opportunities for workers who want to fight back.

The right wing liberal VVD became the biggest party, with 31 seats in a 150-seat Second Chamber of Parliament (lower house, basically, or house of representatives if one prefers). The extreme right PVV, led by islamophobic racist Geert Wilders, grew from 9 to 24 seats, much more thatn opinion polls in recent weeks indicated. Another right wing party, the christian democrat CDA, lost badly. Their voters deserted this party to the other big right wing parties. Bad leadership by prime minister J.P. Balkenende played a part in this. At least as important was the fact that the CDA was part of a rather weak government, together with the social democratic PvdA. VVD and PVV were in opposition, and succeeded in drawing disaffected voters – to the right.

The PvdA social democrats lost, but not that much. Bigger losers were the somewhat more left wing Socialist Party, who lost 10 of its 25 seats. Eagerness to govern meant that they diluted their earlier radical posture. The difference with PvdA became less and less visible, voters – afraid of the VVD becoming the biggest party – were tactically drawn to the PvdA who became almost as big as the VVD. A third left wing party, the Green Left (GL), gained three seats, partly, no doubt, because they took a rather strongh anti-racist line aginst Wilders. On the whole, however, GL is drifting rightwards, accepting the need of  ‘flexible labour markets’, and not really opposing a probable raise in retirement years.

Formation of a government is going to be difficult. VVD, PVV and CDA – an open right wing coalition, a horror scenario – has a narrow parliamentary majority. But especially the CDA is not keen on PVV participation. They probably remember the party of Pim Fortuyn which participated in a government with CDA and VVD in 2002, after the murder of its leader. That government became a laughing stock, a permanet cabaret on tour, because of all the quarrels and little scandals, before collapsing withing eight months. CDA politicians want stability and harmony, not a repeat performance of this vaudeville.

Another problem is the First Chamber of Parliament, the upper house or senate, which constitutionally has to pass bills after the more important second chamber has passed them. That chamber is indirectly elected – but not at the same time as the second chamber. Senate elections will only come in 2011. Until that moment, the victorious PVV has no seats in the first chamber, and the VVD-CDA-PVV coalition lacks a majority there. Another factor opening the road to instability and uncertainty. Business circles are wary of PVV participation as well. They fear adverse reactions against Geert Wilders, who has a habit of insulting moslim people – including , for instance, the Turkish prime minister. That is bad for business, bosses’ boss Wientjes has sternly warned.

Other coalitions are not easy as well. VVD, PvdA, D66 and GL is a possibility. D66, by the way, is another neoliberal party, but more relaxed than the VVD on issues like immigration and Islam. What they have in common, all four of them, is the acceptance op neoliberal policies. However, on the issue of how big the coming budget cust should be, they are quite far apart. And on issues like immigration, VVD and especially GL are not close as well, although eagerness to govern may soften any principled attitude that GL still has. An unlikely coalition it certainly is. An impossible coalition it is not.

Is there anything to choose between them, from a left wing perspective? I don’t think so. First, both coalitions will go for very severe austerity policies. Capital, business forces, the financial markets will simply force  any government that might hesitate. Diofferent coalitions, almost same policies, in  this regard.

Yes, a right wing coalition whcih includes the PVV is a horrible prospect. It would legitimise Wilders’party – a party which expresses a form of fascism-in-the-making. One shudders if Geert Wilders or one of his clones becomes minister of Security or something like that. If, in such an event, riots break ouit in protest, I will not only understand and agree with the rioters. I might become one of them.

But a weak and divided coalition without the PVV is extremely dangerous as well. It will allow the PVV even more time and space to continue their right wing opposition. In case that government falls – as it might do quickly, considering the divisions within such a government – the PVV can look forward to an even biggen electoral victory, maybe encouraged by a beginning PVV street movement. One PVV member is already talking about creating a youth section of the PVV. We should be extremely careful.

There is reason for serious worry and concern. However, panic isn’t called for. Recent strikes show that there is a mood to fight among groups of workers. This mood can grow and translate itself in much bigger protests when the size and content of coming austerity policies of the next gevernments become clear. Dark times, indeed, but not hopeless times.

Reading more:

“The Netherlands shifts to the right”, NRC, 10 June (the NRC is one of the important Dutch mainstream newspapers, with an English-language section)

Peter Schwartz, “Right wing shift in Dutch elections”, World Socialist Website (WSWS), 12 June; WSWS is a  Trotsyist website that often contains ghood news summmaries with a bit of sensible analysis. In this case the comparison between Ducth and among others, Hungarian electons (also resulting in a shift to the right). The article warns of the danger of the extreme right. The last sentence, calling for the buiulding of a Trotskyite party and so on, can safely be ignored. The rest is worth taking reading.

Important strike action in the Netherlands in recent months

June 5, 2010

Class struggle, in the Netherlands? Yes, class struggle in the Netherlands, that is the subject for today – workers’ struggles in this country that is not especially known for its militant workers’ struggles. However, in recent months there have been a number of serious strikes, bringing serious results.

Two strike campaigns  are especially important. First, their was a long and succesful campaign of cleaning workers for a wage rise and better treatment. The campaign culminated in an nine-week-long strike – the longest strike the country has experienced since 1933. Cleaners stopped cleaning in train stations, at Schiphol airport and in several offices. In this way, they put pressure on the companies that buy cleaning services from cleaning companies. The cleaning sector works as follows: Schiphol, for instance, wants cleaning done. Several cleaning firms offer their services. Schiphol takes the cheapest offer. Wages and conditions suffer from this competition. When workers and trade union functionaries demanded a rise, cleaning services said: we can’t afford a rise, the companies buying our services force us to cut things to the bone. That is why it made sense for the campaigners to pressurize not just the cleaning companies, but the big companies and institutions contracting out cleaning services to those cleaning companies. Besides pressurizing the companies, the campaign raaised the profile of the lowly-paid cleaning workers with public action which helped rally broad sympathy to the struggling cleaners.

The strike was held in quite a militant fashion. Therer were demonstrative actions, there was a sit-in of cleaning workers and sympathizers in Utyrecht central station that lasted five days. The cleaning sector has a low trade union membership; one noticeable aspect of the strike is the use of trade union organisers, first listening to cleaners, encouraging their initiative and taking the struggle from there. The union machine needed a bit of militancy to get a foothold, in the form of new members.

The strategy worked: the union gained a lot of new members. Whether a stronger, stable union will encourage quite this form of militant action in the future is open to doubt. A strong, well-organised union tends to be a bureaucratic union as well, and that is not an accidental coincidence. That is one reason why cleaning workers will need to defend their struggle as their own struggle.

More important, for now at least: the militant insistancy of the core of cleaning workers on strike won the day. In the end, a wage rise close to the demand was won, and more concessions. The Commune has a good article on the campaign,  written by one of the trade union organisers, and containing an interview with one of the trade union organisers.

This strike ended in April. In the weeks after that,, another wage campaign grew to a climax. Municipal, provincial and other local authority personnel struggled for anew labour contract. Local authority refused any pay rise; the trade union demanded lifting of this ceiling, which would have meant lower buying power, because prices did not stop rising.

The campaign started with symbolic action, Near the end of April, municipal workers started strikes, especially the dustbin workers. First, the strikes were limited in duration. In May, however, workers in Utrecht and Amsterdam decided that they would continue strike action until there was a new contract. Rubbish took over the streets. Still, there was public sympathy for the strikes. After the second week of May, local authorities had enough: a wage rise was granted. The strikers were victorious, not completely – the rise was not especially big – but victorious nevertheless.

The repercussions of all this are serious, and positive. No doubt related to this: the civil servants’ union, ABVA KABO, has seen a leadership struggle in recent weeks, with a new leadership more to the left, more in sympathy with militant actions. How this translates in practice, remains to be seen, and even a trade union bureaucracy somwhat more to the left is still a trade union bureaucracy, whose profession is negotiation and containing struggles. I think the article in International Viewpoint on this development, useful as it is, exaggerates the positive news. Still, the shift is a symptom.

The main things are the strikes themselves. We have now seen two succesful and rather high-profile strike campaigns, following cosely behind eacht other.   This may well encourage other groups of workers demanding more and fighting for it. That would be a most welcome development, in these times when political parties are planning and annopuncing ferocious budget cuts. A workers’ movement flexing its muscles, a political establishment preparing for social war, elections coming next week  – tense times may be ahead in the usually oh-so-quite Netherlands. Revolutionary-minded people have reasons to be on the alert – but the succesful strikes give reasons to be in a good mood as well.

Netherlands: students and cleaning workers taking action

March 25, 2010

The Netherlands is experiencing significant social struggles. This is happening in a time when political campaigning is  beginning, after the fall of the government, and with elections looming. These are to be held on June 9.

Several groups are fighting for their rights. Today there wile be a student demonstration in The Hague (linked article is in Dutch). This is a next  step, after several student occupations of university buildings in February. Students are protesting against austerity measures in higher education. There is the threat of a 20 percent cut in the budget for higher education. There is the plan to raise college fees, and to dismantle the system of student grants. Higher education will become more expensive, quality and accessibility will suffer, if plans like these are implemented. That is why students are taking actions, and rightly so.

Meanwhile, an inspiring campaign of cleaning workers fighting for better wages and respect, is continuing. Hundreds of cleaners have been striking,  at railway stations and at Schiphol Airport (link found via Labourstart.org; there is much more information to be found, but mostly in Dutch). There has been a sit-in in the station hall of Utrecht Central Station which lasted five days and nights. Negotiations have failed. The actions will continue.

Actions like these deserve solidarity. They show that there is an alternative beyond the dismal electoral choices on offer. These choices basically come down to different ways, speeds and amounts of austerity. No inspiring solution is to be found there, even if some may still grudgingly accept the need for a tactical vote against the  right wing. The road of struggle leads somewhere, the road of electioneering leads to more disappointment and despair.

Dutch government collapsed: a most welcome event

February 23, 2010

The Dutch government has collapsed, amongst acrimonious debates between members of the government coalition, and after a parliamentary debate  in which mmbers of both left wing and right wing opposition parties attacked the goverment forcefully.

The government tore itself apart in a conflict about the Dutch military mission in the Afghan province Uruzgan. The Netherlands has a military force of 1,906 troops in Uruzgan, it is the ‘leading country’, in NATO parlance, of the NATO mission in that province.

The coalition goverment consisted of three parties. CDA, Christian Democrats, led by prime Minister Balkenende, is one of the main right wing parties. CU, Christian Union, are another Chritstian party, much smaller, also basically right wing. The PvdA, Party of Labour, is a social democratic party. CDA and CU wanted to extend theUruzgan mission, in a somewhat smaller form. PvdA wanted to stop the mission in 2010.

Now, in 2007, the government promised that the Dutch troops would end the mission in 2010, after which they would be withdrawn. The PvdA position was: we should stick to that promise. CDA said; now, with a new US president, a new strategy, a new situation, we should be open for an extention of the Dutch military role in Uruzgan. They put pressure on the PvdA. 

That party, not at all a principled opponent of the NATO mission, sent contradictory signals. They stuck to the agreed end date of the mission. At the same time they took an attidude of we-can-talk-things-over. This opened space for the CDA, expecially Maxime Verhagen, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to keep on the pressure and work for extension of the mission.

in February, NATO sent a formal request in that direction. PvdA Vice-Prmier Bos said, basically: no way, I did’nt even know this letter was coming. CDA insisted that PvdA shuld at least be prepared to discuss it. Verhagen also said: Bos must have known that this NATO letter would come, and its outlines could’nt have been a surprise for him. Confusion all around.

It is highly unlikely that Bos indeed knew nothing. NATO only sends a formal request when  the government is more or less certain to agree, after consultation between government and NATO. Either Verhagen has not communicated the PvdA rejection very clarly. Or  else, Bos is only acting surprised, without really being surprised. Or both.

During the parliamentary debate, last Thursday, CDA and PvdA did’t even make a serious effort to hide their differences. On last Friday, the government met in an endless session lasting deep into the night. CDA demanded that PvdA drop its ‘NO’ against the NATO request. PvdA stuck to its position, insisting that they only said what was evident to everyone: there was no Parliamentary majority for an extented mission in Uruzgan, and besides, the mission was supposed to end in 2010, as was agreed in 2007. The break became final, the government fell apart.

This means that an extension of the mission in Uruzgan now is highly unlikely. Those 1.906 soldiers will probably come home in 2010. NATO is upset, it fears contagion of the Afghan withdrawal syndrome. This may hep the rather prominent coverage of the Dutch governmental crisis in international media. I have seen extensive articles on Aljazeera, on the BBC, in Le Monde (translated, found via MR Zine). As an opponent of the whole military intervention and NATO occupation in Afghanistan, I can only be pleased by this development. The more trouble for the NATO occupiers to find soldiers to send there, the better.

This does not mean that we should be especially supportive of the PVDA fo saying no to the mission. The party has supported the current mission. The  party is not against operations like these, it is  no anti-war party. Their rejection of  the extention of the mission was partly for electoral reasons; Ducth military operatons in Aghanistan have cost the lives of 21 Dutch sldiers, the mission is not popular. Also, the Dutch military is a bit overstretched by this mission, it neads a break, to fight another day. That may also have played a part in PvdA opinion.

The collapse of the government is, on the whole, postive. This was a governmnt preparing drastic  austerity measures, this was a government busy changing the retiremant age from 65 to 67. It was a colition between Right and  an teenyweeny bit Left – but the policies were right wing, only softened somewhat to ake the population swallow it. No tears should be shed for them.

However, the coming period will not be easy for workers and the left. Opinion polls show weakness  of the  left wing Socialist Party (SP). Opinion polls also show the strength of the radical  Right; the PVV, a party with fascist leanings, led by islaophobe demagogue Geert Wilders. And the workers’ movement in the Netherlands is not exactly in good shape. The fall of the government was most enjoyable, but the prospcts are not good.