Changes in social partner organisations

The pace of change among social partner organisations in the Netherlands has increased in recent years after a long period of stability. New statistics on union density show that union membership is in decline, particularly among young people. Several unions have moved their affiliation from one federation to another or have chosen to be unaffiliated, and new organisations have been created to represent self-employed people.

Trends in union membership

On 31 October 2013, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in the Netherlands published new figures on union density.

Between March 2012 and March 2013, union membership dropped by 52,000 to 1.8 million. The biggest decrease was in the 25–45 age group, a drop of 33,000 to 515,000. Membership among the under-25s dropped by 12% (8,000 people) to 61,000, and only among those aged 65 and over did membership increase, up from 287,000 in 2012 to 296,000 in 2013. Many employees in the Netherlands remain union members after retirement.

The statistics also examine membership among the unions that are part of the three main federations; the Dutch Trade Union Federation (FNV), the Christian Trade Union Federation (CNV) and the Union Federation for Higher and Intermediate Personnel (MHP). These federations are also represented in the bipartite Labour Foundation (STAR) and the tripartite Social and Economic Council (SER).

In these unions, membership dropped by 155,000 to around 1.5 million. The FNV remains by far the largest federation, with 1,142,000 members. However, the CNV and MHP both lost a considerable proportion of their memberships in 2012–2013; MHP’s membership dropped from 132,100 to 64,900, and CNV’s from 340,600 to 290,600. A major cause of this drop, especially with regard to MHP, is the fact that unions are leaving the federations.

The data show that union density has decreased steadily over the last few decades. Net union density (counting only active employees) has dropped to around 17% and there are wide variations between sectors and groups of employees; men, older employees, employees with permanent contracts and employees working in construction are overrepresented, as are workers in the public sector and larger firms. Noting the decline, the SER recently issued some universal advice on the social basis of the collective bargaining system (NL1310029I).

Unions moving away from federations

On 1 January 2013, the general trade union De Unie left the MHP, announcing that it wanted to focus more on direct interest representation of its members. It criticised the ‘governmental attitude’ of the MHP’s focus on national-level issues and the Dutch consultation process (the ‘polder model’). Later in 2013, De Unie decided to join the CNV.

On 1 January 2013, the General Dutch Pensioners Union (ANBO) left the FNV, making it clear that it did not fully agree with the FNV’s recent restructuring, but said it expected to cooperate with FNV on a number of issues. ANBO’s seat in the SER has since been filled by one of the other FNV-affiliated unions. The FNV’s transition process is likely to last another year (NL1306019I; NL1205029I; NL1112019I).

Developments with employer organisations

There are few figures on employer organisation density. According to a recent survey, the figure stands at 42%. However, the real figure is probably considerably higher, because the survey was carried out at company level and does not take group structures into account. If calculated on the basis of the number of employees per firm, employer density is estimated to be 85%.

Employer organisation density in the Netherlands has been more or less stable for a long time (NL0910049Q)and the main development in recent years has been the gradual merging of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) and the Dutch Federation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MKB).

However, in September 2013, the former chair of the MKB, Hans Biesheuvel, started a new employer organisation called ONL in response to discontent about slow decision-making under the Dutch ‘polder’ system, and insufficient attention being given to the merging of VNO-NCW and MKB. On 20 January 2014, ONL announced that it had 10,000 members.

Organisations for self-employed people

In the Netherlands, there are 800,000 self-employed workers, a sizeable section of the labour market (NL1110019I; NL1011029I). Increasingly, self-employed workers are establishing their own organisations and these are sometimes linked either to unions or to employer organisations.

On 23 January 2013, De Unie announced the creation of an organisation for self-employed people, called the Independent Operating Network (NZW). This is similar to an organisation that was created by the FNV in 2008 and to the MKB-linked organisation Network Netherlands (ZZP), which has 30,000 members. Another organisation for self-employed people is the Platform Independent Entrepreneurs (PZO) which has, since 2010, been represented in the SER after VNO-NCW and MKB reserved a seat for self-employed people.

Robbert van het Kaar, AIAS

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