Netherlands: First round victory against community centre cuts

A community struggle, spearheaded by members of Offensief (Dutch CWI), successfully prevented council plans to close the Ganzenhoef community centre in South East Amsterdam.

It was clear to many workers that huge cuts proposed by the Dutch coalition government of Christian Democrats, rightwing Liberals and ‘leftwing’ Liberals would mean a dismantling of the welfare state.

The economic recession worsens the effects of the cuts, and it is even proposed by politicians that another billion euros of cuts is needed on top of the original 17 billion Euros, to meet the criteria of the EU stability pact.

In Amsterdam Southeast we see now what the cuts will mean for local working people.

This part of Amsterdam (known locally as ’Bijlmer’) has had its share of bad publicity. It is nationally infamous for its crime rates, its more than 1,000 drugs addicts (out of a population of 85,000), and its high unemployment. Several hundred long-term unemployed people have in recent years been employed in subsidised jobs on very low incomes. In some areas of south east Amsterdam, 98% of housing is made up of social housing schemes.

It is an area that shows the other side of the 1990s economic boom: the growing poverty, the development of the ‘working poor’ and the scares of racism. It is also a multicultural part of the city, with about half the population black. They are mainly from the former Dutch colonies of Surinam and the Caribbean, and, more recently, others have come from poverty-stricken West Africa.

In these circumstances, a worsening of living conditions can tip the balance for the lives of hundreds of families. Just weeks ago, the local council (lead by a coalition of Social Democrats, right wing liberals and the ‘Green Left’) announced a package of cuts against local social and cultural centres, worth 1.3 million euros. This includes the Ganzenhoef community centre, which functions as the cement of the local community and as a meeting point for people from different cultures.

When it became clear that the social life for local people would be stopped if the cuts where implemented, members of Offensief, who live nearby the Ganzenhoef community centre, offered their help in a campaign to stop the council’s plans.

Offensief members were, until recently, active in the local Socialist Party (SP) branch, until some were undemocratically removed from their elected positions by the right wing. The SP is a broad, left party, which Offensief members participate in, and where Offensief is considered by many as “the radical left wing”. But the SP did not build resistance against the cuts in Amsterdam Southeast. So, after Offensief members’ attempts to organise a local community struggle through the SP were blocked, we decided to organise protest actions ourselves.

As soon as we offered our help to the employees and volunteer workers at the Ganzenhoef community centre, we were met with a warm welcome. The centre staff and organisers appreciated our help.

We produced a leaflet that was supported and copied by the people from the centre. We put forward the idea that pressure should be built up from below to influence the local council. We argued that if we are strong enough it is not the council that decides the future of the Ganzenhoef community centre, but a local militant campaign.

We brought local residents into the campaign by distributing 2,000 leaflets in the nearby tower blocks, and by fly-posting at the neighbouring shopping centre, the subway station and, of course, in the Ganzenhoef community centre.

We urged the centre workers to mobilise their co-workers and the users of the building (ranging from small children to the elderly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease). In this way, we hoped to establish a link between the people working at the Ganzenhoef centre, its many users, and all the local residents.

Councillors back off…for now

We collaborated with people from the centre in running a public meeting to inform the residents about what was at stake. The meeting took place on Monday 1 December, and attracted over 30 people. It decided to form an anti-cuts committee under the name ’Hands off Ganzenhoef’.

During the meeting we confronted the local Green Left official from the Council over the cuts. As a real ’politician’ he used many words to say nothing, which provoked harsh reactions from residents and employees who felt that their grievances were not being taken seriously.

The day after the public meeting there was a meeting of local councillors, where the cuts were discussed. A delegation from Hands off Ganzenhoef was present in the public space at the council buildings, together with many people from other community centres in Amsterdam that are under threat.

In the face of this resistance, the councillors decided to postpone the cuts. This is a small but important victory. The council did not feel confident enough to push the cuts through. But the cuts will definitely come back on the agenda within a few months, at which time the residents of Ganzenhoef, and the Hands off Ganzenhoef campaign will be there to try to stop them.

Offensief has built a special website for the ’Hands off Ganzenhoef’ committee, which is partly in English:

Patrick Zoomermeijer, Offensief (CWI – Netherlands), and Ganzenhoef, Amsterdam Southeast resident

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December 2003