Steadily declining membership and lively internal conflicts create a picture of the Dutch trade unions that belongs more to the past than the future. Is organized labour representation falling victim to too much ideology and not enough coherence within union federations? According to Maarten Duijvendak, professor of economic, social and regional history at the University of Groningen, the need for unions is as high as ever. In the long term, he definitely sees a raison d’etre for unions, particularly those that concentrate on the interests and reputation of concrete professions.
According to Duijvendak, the Dutch Trade Union Federation FNV can be proud of the successful actions it organized last year on behalf of cleaning staff concerning their working conditions. ‘That’s a difficult field for a union, with employees who often combine various part-time jobs and most employers being international consortia. Even so, the FNV succeeded in organizing visible actions, gained a financial result in the negotiations, and emphasized the importance of acknowledgement and respect for the work cleaning staff do.’ In Duijvendak’s opinion, the unions can play an important role in promoting professional pride and craftsmanship.
Duijvendak sees another example of best practice in the General Union of Educational Personnel (Algemene Onderwijsbond, AOb). ‘That union is very successful because it emphatically promotes professionalism and reflection on the position of teaching staff and not just for collective labour agreements (CAO). It presents itself as an organization of colleagues and that is very successful.’ In addition to supporting individual employees, this union is visibly involved in the quality of the work and is also socially involved. This example reminds Duijvendak of the early twentieth century, when it was the unions that represented colleagues which grew the fastest. That tried and trusted recipe is still working well. ‘The AOb demonstrates in many ways its right to exist as a union for educational personnel, and that has the desired effect.’
Duijvendak: ‘Unions have to keep explaining that an organization that negotiates on behalf of the employees usually achieves more than when every employee has to negotiate alone. That is only possible if the unions actually achieve results for their members and communicate them. Union federations are often not coherent enough for such clear messages.’ Duijvendak sees the most future for smaller, more specialized unions organized and acting as organizations of colleagues.
According to Duijvendak, there are indications that generally speaking, people are happier in societies with strongly organized unions. Research on happiness perception regularly reveals higher scores in countries where there are limited income differences, for example in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where the trades unions play a clear role as collective representatives of employees and as a voice in the public debate. However, we must be careful – the political differences between countries are large and so many variables play a role in the perception of happiness that it is hard to prove causality. ‘In countries in Eastern Europe, for example, unions are extremely busy reorganizing themselves. Against the background of a communist past, with a strong state that organized everything, this works completely differently than in Western Europe or in the United States, where income differences are sometimes valued more positively by the inhabitants.’
Despite this, Duijvendak points to what is called the Krugman effect, which describes how income differences increase as the level of organization of unions decreases. ‘A decline in membership numbers by a few percentage points can already have a significant effect. In societies that do not appreciate income differences, larger differences can then translate into a decline in happiness perception.’
Further shrinkage in the size of the unions in the Netherlands could have important consequences. Duijvendak thinks that if the unions forget their core business, they need to worry about haemorrhaging members in the same way that believers left the church in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘But a vibrant future for unions is also possible. The challenge – possibly in smaller unions – is to concentrate on the professionalism and quality of the work of groups of employees, and at the same time continue to play a national role in contacts with political leaders about topics that transcend the work of a trade union. All in all, it’s a good thing that there are unions. They certainly have a future.’
Maarten Duijvendak is professor of economic, social and regional history at the University of Groningen and director of the Netherlands Agricultural Historical Institute. He publishes on social and economic relationships in Dutch society, in particular those in the North of the Netherlands.
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