On 10 November, 10,000 workers took part in a union demonstration in the Netherlands, for a fairer distribution of wealth, against tax breaks for multinational companies, for investment in the public sector, against 'flexi-work' and for decent pensions.
The Dutch economy has been growing again for the last few years, and workers demand their share of the pie. Since last year, there has been a huge increase of strikes, mainly on wages and work pressures.
The government is quite weak, and the union leadership is under increased pressure to do something.
This year, economic growth is expected to be 2.8%, last year it was 3.3% and profits are rocketing. But the majority of working class people have not profited from the economic upswing. Wage increases were hardly enough to cover inflation. Unemployment has fallen, but most newly created jobs are low paid “flex jobs”. The Netherlands have the highest percentages of flex jobs in Europe, 40% of all workers. Apart from that, many workers are forced to work as 'self-employed' without staff, without any sickness pay, pension or insurance for disability. The government has promised that next year everybody will have a share of the wealth. Nobody believes them, with VAT being increased, rent and energy bills rising and inflation going up.
There is a lot of anger about plans of the government to give away two billion euro, a year, to big companies, while the public sector is underfunded and public sector workers are suffering from extreme work pressure.
Tax breaks for multinationals
The government wanted to abolish the dividend tax for multinationals, but after Unilever decided to leave their headquarters, in Britain, Prime Minister Rutte was forced to repeal the plan. But now the government still wants to lower taxes on big companies in another way. This government is seen by many workers as a government of the multinationals.
Recently, there was also the scandal of two hospitals going bankrupt in one day, due to the failure of privatisation and fraud. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs and patients were, in some cases, just sent home without any care. A nurse commented: “They can save banks, but they don’t want to save hospitals”.
Last year, the Netherlands saw the biggest strike wave in 30 years, and this year there were also many strikes, of metal workers, academic hospital workers, primary school teachers, Ryanair pilots and others. Even the police took some action. Significantly, it was an action committee ('PO' in Actie), outside the unions that mainly mobilised the biggest strike of 70,000 primary school teachers, last year.
The unions were weakened in recent years, losing 200,000 members since 2012. The reason for this is the refusal of the leadership to fight back in the interest of its members. Young workers, in particular, are hardly organised, only less than 10 % is a member of a union. The chairperson of an employers' organisation has even said that he wants to help the official unions gain support because it is also in the interest of employers to have stable unions! Clearly, some capitalist is afraid of explosive developments that they (or the union leadership) cannot control, like the emergence of PO in Actie that forced the official unions to take strike action and demand a 19% wage increase.
The FNV (main trade union federation) launched an “offensive against the race to the bottom”, and was forced to support the demonstration that PO in Actie initiated last October. The FNV organised the demonstration of 10 November. Also, the FNV has set a wage demand of 5%, for next year, the highest in 30 years.
The FNV leadership is clearly under pressure to organise some kind of action, but, at the same time, what they propose is very limited. If they have their way, the unions will just take some small token actions and wait for the elections of 2021. Recently, negotiations between the unions, the employers and the government about a new pension system broke down. But the leadership wants to wait until the provincial elections in March to organise big actions.
But pressure is building up from below. Sectors of the FNV, on their own, are organising actions over pensions; in December there was a demonstration of 2,000 dockworkers and police, and other sectors are planning actions in February 2019. A growing number of workers want the government to fall and understands that it will take mass strike action to achieve that. Other layers may be somewhat fatalistic but that is mainly because the union leadership refuses to give a lead.
The government is, in fact, quite weak. All coalition parties are losing support in the polls. The support for D66 (a neo-liberal party, with a ‘progressive’ face) has nearly halved. They campaigned mainly on the issues of democracy and education, but it was D66 ministers who abolished the possibility to organise a referendum and made cutbacks on education. Its leader has recently resigned and the party might try to profile itself more to gain support again, which might lead to increasing tensions in the coalition. It is very likely that the government will lose its majority (of only one seat) in the elections for the Senate, which will take place next year. That would make it much harder to carry through their policies.
But workers do not have a clear Left alternative. The Dutch Socialist Party - formerly a Maoist party - was not able to profit from the enormous losses of the Labour Party (PvdA) in last year’s elections, and is still stagnant. The SP has moved further to the right, especially on the issue of immigration and refugees.
The Green Left party has gained support, but while it speaks out against racism, poverty and for more environmental protection, its social-economic programme is, in fact, neo-liberal. Recently the Labour Party did pick up some support in the polls, now that they are trying to have more of a left face. But most workers have not forgotten that it was the Labour Party that was responsible in the last government for the cutbacks.
In this situation, the populist right is gaining support. In particular, the relatively new party, Forum voor Democratie; it has just two seats in parliament, but, according to the polls, would gain 10 seats in new elections (out of 150 seats in total, in parliament). While it is posing as more ‘civilised’ than populist right, Geert Wilders’s, PVV, it has, in fact, more links with the extreme right, such as the altright movement in the US.
At the same time, a layer of young people are drawing left and anti-capitalist conclusions. At the end of September, students and university staff took action against the cutbacks on education. While the actions were quite small in numbers, it was a significant development because it was for the first time, in many years, that a national student movement started to develop, mainly outside the official student union, which is largely a vehicle for careerists. Young people face enormous study pressure, building up big study debts now that the grant is abolished, and an insecure future. To get somewhere to live is almost impossible; there is a huge housing crisis.
Recently, there were indicators that the economy is starting to slow down. The Dutch economy, with its small internal market and dependence on exports, is very sensitive to developments of the world economy. A slowdown in Germany or in Italy, an unfavourable Brexit, further development of a trade war between the US and China, these are all factors that could have a big impact on the Dutch economy.
A new recession is inevitable. More people, in particular, the youth, will start to question the capitalist system that cannot even provide for basic needs in periods of an economic upswing. There will be a search for an alternative, and in the Netherlands, more workers and young people will look for socialist ideas to provide that.