The Dutch federation of labour unions FNV is an organization in trouble, on which I already have written a few articles (see f.i. here and here) in the past. Just like the other large Christian labour union CNV, the FNV suffers from diminishing numbers of members and an aging member population.
In spite of their efforts, the FNV and CNV can’t seem to find the right tone of voice to lure more youngsters into a membership. Many youngsters have been raised into more individualistic people than their parents and they feel less need to be unified in a labour union than their parents did. They think: “I don’t want to be member of a labour union; I’m old and wise enough to represent myself during salary negotiations”. To be frank, during the prosperous nineties and early zeroes, these youngsters have probably been right.
On top of that, the FNV and CNV turned from street-fighters who represented the ‘underpaid and suppressed workers’ in The Netherlands, into influential and very political special interest-organizations. These organizations have been closely attached to large political parties: especially PvdA (labour) and the CDA (Christian-democrat) party seemed a natural habitat for ex-union leaders-going-politician. The labour unions FNV and CNV also cooperated closely with the employer’s organizations VNO/NCW and MKB Nederland.
Negotiating on collective labour agreements (CAO’s) with the employers and the government was in, while calling out strikes was out of fashion! This phenomenon has been famous as the so-called ‘Polder-model’: the Dutch society-model of close cooperation between the government, the employer’s organizations and the labour unions, aimed at bringing stability and prosperity to the Dutch labour market.
You could legitimately state that this highly praised Polder-model has been good for the Dutch prosperity over the last twenty years. However, it has definitely been killing for the labour unions, as these seemed to have lost their visibility among the youngsters, who in return refused to become a member. Consequentely, the initially balanced member-base of the unions grew older and older, virtually without the entrance of fresh blood that the unions needed so much.
During the last two years, the final nail in the coffin of the FNV has been the big leadership crisis within this union. The decision of former FNV-leader Astrid Jongerius to develop and endorse the new pension plan on behalf of the union federation, massively backfired at her and outraged some of the individual labour unions within the federation. What followed was a humiliating battle for the leadership within the FNV.
Soon after this battle started, Jongerius was sacrificed by the leaders of individual unions within the FNV, like FNV Bondgenoten (broad union for personnel working in manufacturing and distribution jobs) and ABVA-KABO (civil servants). The leaders of these unions considered that the flag above their own doors was more important than the unity within the federation.
This development turned the FNV into a doomed federation: in spite of the new overall leader Ton Heerts, who had been hired to glue the splinters of the federation together again, there is still little unity within the FNV. In the high-profile CAO-negotiations (i.e. collective labour agreement) with the government and the large employer’s organizations, Heerts mandate is therefore virtually non-existent, which turns him into a lame duck.
Nevertheless, there has also been a good side to the problems within the FNV. Since the abdication of Astrid Jongerius, the labour unions under the FNV flag – and especially FNV Bondgenoten – desperately try to turn into `Rebels with a cause` again: labour unions that don’t gain respect and influence by ‘hugging the powers that be’, but by doing real union work. Their style became more aggressive and their union work more distinct again.
Lately, especially FNV Bondgenoten has been very active. The following news messages are witnesses of this refound self-confidence, which is desperately needed in a labour market where high unemployment, mass lay-offs and virtually almighty employers are the ‘flavours of the week’.
On January 28, almost two months ago, I wrote upon the labour circumstances of fixed and temporary workers in the distribution centers of the Albert Heijn supermarket chain. At the time, FNV Bondgenoten threatened to organize strikes in these distribution centers, in order to improve the labour circumstances of the fixed and flexible workers there. I wrote the following lines in comment:
- Just as in other kinds of labour that demand no special education, a race to the bottom started in the distribution centers a few years ago:
- Workers with fixed contracts have been replaced with temp workers;
- Dutch workers with their ‘sturdy’ salary demands have been slowly replaced with Polish, Rumanian and Bulgarian workers, who were willing to do the same job for much less money;
- This development forced Dutch workers also to settle for less money, as they could only receive a temporary contract at a much lower hourly rate;
The current working environment in The Netherlands is not per sé a good one for healthy and fair job circumstances. This is the reason that I would not be surprised when the complaints, collected by the FNV, are largely valid after all. The difficult economic situation can force employers to state against their workers: “You have a job, so be happy about that. If you don’t like it, ten others will!”.
Since last week, the threats for organized strikes became reality. While the other labour union CNV entered into a collective labour agreement with Albert Heijn (AH), the FNV Bondgenoten union chose for the attack. According to the AH organization itself, the union did this on purpose. Het Financieele Dagblad (www.fd.nl) wrote about this last Friday:
The supermarket chain Albert Heijn is strongly under the impression that it has been used as a ‘target for action’ by FNV Bondgenoten. By doing so, the union seemingly hopes to influence the political discussion concerning the easing of the labour market and laws for dismissal, according to AH.
Yesterday (i.e. Thursday, 14 March 2013 - EL), AH entered into a collective labour agreement with the CNV Dienstenbond (i.e. ‘services union’) for its 5300 distribution workers. FNV Bondgenoten refuses to sign the contract and expands its actions in the distribution centers, which started earlier this week.
The CAO-conflict started right at the moment that employers, labour unions and the cabinet try to make agreements on reforms for the labour market. To the discomfort of the labour unions, the cabinet is aiming at easing of dismissal laws and a reduction of the duration and payments of Dutch unemployment benefit (i.e. ‘WW’).
‘Our goal is to agree upon a good CAO for our distribution workers’, according to an AH spokesman, ‘but this has been made much harder now, due to FNV Bondgenoten’. We already thought that other goals were in play. We think that national political themes, like flexibilization of the labour market and easing of dismissal laws should be discussed in the heart of Dutch politics, namely The Hague.
AH is convinced that it offers a good CAO to its distribution workers. Next to 3.5% wage increase in two years, the company offers certainty of work for its fixed employees. In order to take away worries about the coming dismissal laws, the company wrote down in the CAO that employees can’t be fired without an independent check.
Of course, Albert Heijn is right that FNV Bondgenoten has been using the super market chain as a high-profile target to gain attention in The Hague. However, the super market chain should not play the role of injured innocence. The organization wants to save every possible cent on their distribution centers and probably played hard-ball with the labour unions.
A wage increase of 3.5% in two years, means in practice that the people receive a lesser wage increase percentage than the official Dutch inflation rate. Instead of receiving more money, they receive (a little) less over two years. It is also true that employees with fixed contracts are a dying race within such distribution centers: almost all new employees will be people with flex-contracts and without any form of job-certainty whatsoever. This is something that the new AH CAO definitely won’t change.
To be frank, for me it is not so bad that FNV Bondgenoten plays hardball too, with their actions at the Albert Heijn distribution centers. For a too long time period, the unions have been invisible negotiators with (sometimes) a hidden agenda. The members of the unions have not always been sure, whether the union leaders were negotiating with the cabinet and the employer’s organizations on their behalf, or that they were working on their political careers. A more visible labour union might change this for the better.
Companies abusing illnesses
The following news message from Het Algemeen Dagblad (www.ad.nl) might be in the same category of ‘creating a higher profile’ for FNV Bondgenoten.
Employers are trying on a large scale to ditch ‘sick’ personnel at a bargain price. Somebody who returns to work after a short sick-leave, remains sometimes ‘ill’ on paper, without knowing this. After two years, the employer can ask for a dismissal in such a situation, without having the need to pay a high compensaton to its former worker. This is stated by FNV Bondgenoten after an investigation.
The labour union investigated 3300 reports, which came in at the Meldpunt Verzuimbegeleiding (i.e. briefing point for absence guidance). Employees that returned to work after having a flu, had been kept ill for 1% by their employer, without knowing this. After a year, they received 10% to 30% less salary, due to being a ‘sick’ person. ‘After such an event, the road leads mostly to the courthouse, were the topic of choice is often resolution of the labour contract’, according to FNV-executive Geo Lotterman.
FNV Bondgenoten is shocked by the thousands of stories. The unions thinks that the ‘free market’ has been overdone in the professional absence guidance. The union requires that medical officers in companies can work independently and that the government maintains sturdy checks among companies, whether this policy is upheld.
When these stories are true, it would be a pedestrian way of working by the companies that act in this way. This makes this story very hard to believe from one side.
On the other hand, the AD featured one ‘victim’ of this modus operandi, while the FNV claims to have 3300 more at hand. These circumstances make that this phenomenon deserves an investigation by the government.
These are very desperate times for companies and in desperate times people do desperate things. Therefore, I hope that this FNV report leads to a thorough investigation by the labour inspection.
Summarized, FNV Bondgenoten seems well on its way to reclaim the high profile that the labour union had in the past. I am happy about that: the labour unions have been too invisible during the last 20 years and these desperate times require strong unions.
However, I hope that the union does not want to get this high profile by spreading ghost-stories and by deploying unjustified actions against companies. This would backfire at them like a boomerang.