Netherlands: Dockworkers force union to take strike action against government cuts

After angry dockworkers threatened to strike, even without the unions, the biggest union in the Netherlands is now supporting strike action on the 7th and 11th of June. This strike will be aimed at the government plans to cut pension rights. It is an important breakthrough in the situation in the Netherlands, where the government’s draconian cuts met no resistance from the leaders of the workers’ movement, until recently.

Enormous anger has been built up in Dutch society. The rightwing government has attacked almost everything: unemployment and disability benefits, affordable health care, education, public transport, rent subsidies, refugees and now pensions. Unemployment is rising with 14 000 people a month joining the ranks of the jobless. The cost of living has risen dramatically since the introduction of the euro.

The government and the bosses seem to think that they can get away with anything, because the rightwing trade union leadership is not prepared to fight. Last autumn the union leaders agreed to a deal with the government: wages were frozen, for almost nothing in return. Back then there was already a big minority of union members who were against this deal. Now the mood is: enough is enough!

The dockworkers took a very important initiative. They belong to the most combative layers of the Dutch working class, and took massive strike action last year against ‘Port Package’[the EU-inspired deregulation of the industry]. Now they have organised themselves in an action committee called ‘Enough is Enough’. This organises experienced trade unionists as well as workers who are not active in the union. They aim at organising workers on the shop floor as well as fighting inside the unions, taking on the right-wing leadership. They have already received hundreds of emails from workers in other sectors, supporting the committee.

On the 7th of June there will be a partial strike in Rotterdam, and on the 11th of June in Amsterdam, not just of dockworkers but of other workers as well. This takes place in the week that a referendum is being held amongst union members whether to accept the government pension plans.

The fact that sections of workers are fighting back will be an inspiration for all workers, who are very angry but, because of the role of the trade union bureaucracy, feel powerless against the government. This might push the vote for the referendum to a majority ‘no’.

The union leaders have little room to manoeuvre: the government has already announced that the pension plans are non-negotiable. This factor, together with the growing pressure from below which is beginning to take an organized form, might cause them to call for serious strike action in the autumn, when the government budget is announced.

Even if the union leadership refuses to organise anything, further strike initiatives from sh:‘Enough is enough’ cannot be ruled out.

This committee could also grow into an organised opposition inside the unions and will be a pole of attraction for workers looking for a fight back. As a result of the huge anger that exists, the situation can develop very rapidly.

The role of the trade union leadership acted as a brake on the workers’ struggles for years; now the same factor could make explosions possible. At the end of the eighties, the nurses union refused to listen to their members to demand a higher pay rise. One angry nurse put an advert in the paper, and almost out of nowhere a whole new union was founded, with tens of thousands of members. In 1991, the union reluctantly called for a 2 hour general strike against government cuts. The strike exploded, and 250 000 workers went onto the streets and dockers in Rotterdam struck for 48 hours, despite a court order forbidding it.

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May 2004