Netherlands: Reawakening of the Dutch working class

On Saturday, October 2, Amsterdam saw what is possibly the biggest trade union demonstration in the history of the Netherlands. The workers were protesting against the government’s austerity package.

Biggest trade union demo in recent history


“For your own safety we recommend you do not go to the centre of town,” was the advice posted by the police on giant electronic boards in the Central Station of Amsterdam. This happened at midday on Saturday, October 2. Why was the police doing this? A terrorist threat? A riot? Criminal gangs occupying the town centre? No! The Museum Square in the heart of the city of the Dutch capital was filled with the biggest workers’ demonstration for decades, if not in the whole of the country’s history.

All the main avenues and little streets leading off the Square were filled with demonstrators from all over the country. The streets were so packed that there was no room to move forward or even backwards. “We are, we are angry,” was chanted to the “We will rock you” song of the rock band, Queen. “Action, action, now,” shouted other groups of workers.

The bulk of the demo was of course composed of workers, but there were also young students, old aged pensioners and unemployed. The gathering was a faithful representation of all the discontented layers of Dutch society.

The media put the number of demonstrators at 200,000. But more realistic calculations indicate that the figure was more like 250,000 or even 300,000 people mobilised by the trade unions against the austerity package of the right-wing cabinet led by the Prime Minister Balkenende. Even in 1981 during the massive antinuclear demonstrations – which were considered the biggest ever – the city had not seen so many people protesting.

How was such a thing possible in a country praised for its “peaceful” social relations, easy going social dialogue between the unions and the bosses carried out in backrooms, low levels of unemployment and a highly developed welfare system? Since the 1980s, the Netherlands have been the laboratory of what they would call the so-called “Poldermodel”, where employers, unions and the government agreed to a common policy of wage restraint and social peace. The “Dutch miracle” became the envy of many governments in Europe and even of many trade union and Socialist Party leaders who have tried to emulate it.

Now that model is breaking down under the pressure of the international crisis of capitalism. The “Poldermodel” succeeded for a time in hiding the growing social inequality and frustration. The sudden surge – almost out of the blue – of the right-wing racist maverick Pim Fortuyn two years ago heralded the end of social peace. His electoral success followed by his assassination pointed to big tensions building up within Dutch society. Contrary to what many left groups raised, who saw in Pim Fortuyn’s popularity a sharp move in the direction of Fascism and a rightward shift in social and political attitudes, it opened the way to a new era of instability and polarisation.

As a Dutch paper pointed out after Saturday’s gigantic demo: “Paradoxically the trade union movement is benefiting from the forest fire of discontent Fortuyn had created in 2002. Paradoxically, because the FNV union (which is leading the protest) had been stigmatised by Fortuyn as a ‘left Church’.” (De Volkskrant, October 4, 2004).

The demonstrators were protesting against measures being carried out by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende aimed at reducing early retirement entitlements, raising the retirement age and “reforming” the social security contributions system from next January.

Two weeks earlier the Rotterdam workers paid tribute to the reputation of the city as being a “red fortress” – a reputation they superficially seemed to have lost with the “Pim Fortuyn” revolt. With a general strike the dockers paralysed what is the biggest port in the world for 24 hours. Their workmates in the Terneuzen and Vlisingen ports even preceded them by stopping the night shift. In Rotterdam the building workers left their sites en masse to join the transport workers and other public service workers. Also in some of the factories the workers downed tools. As a result 60,000 workers turned up for the demonstration in Rotterdam. This was the prelude to another strike of public transport workers in Amsterdam a week later. Here 10,000 joined a protest demo. Meanwhile hundreds of factories and offices held lunchtime stoppages preparing for the big demo in Amsterdam.

Clearly worried by the reaction of the working class the bosses’ organisations are now calling for new negotiations and demanding that the unions and the government “jump over their shadows”, by which they mean set aside their traditional differences. They want to reach a deal between the bosses and unions nationally, because they fear that a lack of an agreement with the government would push the workers at factory or industry level to organise local strikes to “make up” for the losses they would suffer through Balkenende’s austerity package. They fear a general movement of strikes at local, industrial and regional level.

An organised left wing is starting to appear inside the unions, especially organised around the dockers of Rotterdam. Different unions are already calling for a 24-hour general strike on November 9th. They correctley claim it is impossible to “convince” the government of the workers’ demands. They understand that these need to be forced onto the government.

On the other hand, the union leaders have been clearly surprised by the reaction of the workers. They know that with a right-wing government on a collision course with the unions, there is very little room for manoeuvre for them. That’s why they want to go back to that good old days of the past when they had the “Poldermodel”. In pursuit of this utopian goal, they are proposing a referendum on the austerity package instead of calling a general strike or small local strikes over the next weeks and months.

The “left” in the unions also fear that without a national and collective response and a follow-up of the historic success of October 2, the anger of the workers could be diverted into local and factory struggles. The readiness for action amongst workers, young and old, has been confirmed also by all kind of polls and sociological surveys during the last few months.

Whatever the short term implications of this movement one thing is clear: the Dutch workers have woken up from a long winter sleep.

A more in-depth analysis of the situation in the Netherlands will be published soon on this web site.

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