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.