Dutch cleaners’ strike – an example for the labour movement

In the Netherlands there is a very militant cleaners’ strike that has been going on for more than a month. This is not the first time; in 2010 they were out on strike for nine weeks, the longest strike in the Netherlands since the 1930s. There are lessons in this for the whole labour movement.

A few years ago almost nobody would have thought that the Dutch cleaners were going to be one of the most militant sections of the Dutch working class. Then came their militant strike in 2010, after which the Dutch media reported that “class struggle was back”. Now they are striking again, fighting for dignity and better working conditions.

The 2010 strike

The first cleaners’ strike was in 2010. Nobody expected the cleaners to strike, because it was an unorganised section of the working class. There was a time when companies just hired their own cleaners as workers of their companies. With the booming of the services sector in the Netherlands, this changed. There was a rise of large cleaning companies that offered their services to big clients such as Philips, Ahold, the Dutch Railways, Schiphol Airport and government buildings. These cleaning companies compete in terms of working conditions. Wages are very low and there is high work pressure, because the cleaning companies are competing by offering shorter cleaning times and fewer cleaners for a cleaning assignment. On top of that, there is no sick pay.

Under these conditions the trade union FNV Bondgenoten tried an experiment by sending “organisers” (the English word ‘organisers’ is also used in Dutch) to different work locations to recruit and check on the conditions and mood of the cleaners. The organisers found a situation ripe for industrial action, and they united all the cleaners in the different work locations. That is how the nine weeks strike for ‘respect’ and a pay rise came about, with a lot of sympathy from the public. As there has been a long trade union tradition of compromise and talking with the bosses’ organisations, this was a very significant strike. The 2010 cleaners’ strike was the longest strike in the Netherlands since the 1930s! The strike united all the cleaners of different ethnic backgrounds, male and female. Their consciousness grew by leaps and bounds and the trade union recruited more than 1000 new cleaners through the strike.

The current strike

After the first strike, which appeared as a small revolution, a festival where the ‘invisibles’ showed their strength, with the cleaners winning their meagre wage demands, the bosses tried to reverse the gains of 2010 by putting up the pressure again. The times allocated for a cleaning assignment were shortened in the competition between the different cleaning companies. For the cleaners it looked like all their gains and the respect they had won were being lost again. With their high level of class consciousness they were ready for another strike. Their demands are very clear: a small wage raise of 50 cents together with statutory sick pay. These are certainly not “greedy” demands!

The strike has now been going on for over a month. It has been accompanied by “Marches of Anger” and “Marches of Respect” in different cities and towns throughout the Netherlands.

Significance for the Dutch labour movement

The Dutch trade union movement is in a crisis. There is an old tradition of talking with the bosses’ unions and the government, and getting gains through compromise. This is called the “polder model”, and was once praised internationally as an exemplary model.

However, since the beginning of the present crisis this model has broken down. That was clear in the new pensions agreement between the unions and the employers. The age of retirement is going to rise from 65 to 66 in 2020 and to 67 in 2025. The only things the unions were able to achieve were to delay the years when the age of retirement commences, and win some special procedures for the heaviest jobs. When the two biggest unions in the FNV trade union federation, FNV Bondgenoten and ABVAKABO, opposed this agreement, the federation still voted for it, by using the vote of the smaller unions in the federation to bureaucratically push the agreement through.

After this debacle, the leaderships of the different unions decided to reform the federation into De Nieuwe Vakbeweging (DNV – The New Trade Nnion Federation). While there is still a large part of the old bureaucracy in the new federation, it will focus more on youth, casual workers and workers in sectors where there is almost no union organisation. While it is true that this reform is being used by the trade union leaders to cleanse the image of the federation, it is nonetheless a step forward, for it leaves more room for “organising”. This method has been used for a few years by the union FNV Bondgenoten to organise the more difficult work places. After the success of the first cleaners’ strike, organisers were sent to the meat industry and distribution centres for the supermarkets.

This should be seen as a positive development. Although there are those who criticise it as a means whereby the union bureaucracy is trying to strengthen its own position outwards by having more militant members, they do not see the dialectical relationship whereby having more militant members also puts pressure on the leadership to shift to the left. These organising drives should be spread to all sectors and branches where there is very low or no unionisation. The cleaners are a good example. They consist of many immigrants and many women, parts of the population that traditionally have low levels of unionisation. They now have become one of the most militant sections of the Dutch working class and have become an example for the rest of the workers’ movement.

On top of this, there should be a drive to recruit young workers to the unions. Because of the low levels of unionisation among the youth, some parties and the media attempt to promote an artificial “conflict between generations” as a means of turning young people against the trade unions. This is a warning and should be taken seriously, as this new divide and rule strategy was also used in France in 2010 (without success) and in the recent general strike in Belgium (with some success).

Solidarity is needed

The cleaners’ strike is very international in its nature, as the cleaners come from all parts of the world. The cleaning strike has united cleaners from Turkey, Morocco, African and Asian countries, Suriname, the Antilles together with their native Dutch colleagues. It has done away with prejudices against people with another colour or with a headscarf. Thus, this strike has done more to fight prejudice and discrimination than all the anti-discrimination bureaus put together.

However, while the cleaners are very determined, they need your solidarity. On Labourstart there is a campaign where you can send protest letters to the clients of the big cleaning companies.

Support the Dutch cleaners’ strike!

Source: Vonk (Netherlands)