Labour relations in public transport under pressure from market forces

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European and domestic legislation is leading to greater pressure for competition in Dutch public transport. The resulting measures have led during the 1990s to practically permanent disputes between trade unions and works councils on the one hand, and employers and the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management on the other. October and November 1997 saw further industrial action in this area.

Traditionally, public transport in the Netherlands has been the Government's concern. Due in part to pressure from European legislation, the introduction of competition into public transport began in the early 1990s. For both regional and railway transport, this new policy has resulted in conflicts between trade unions and works councils on the one hand, and employers and the Government on the other.

Regional transport

Urban and regional transport has always been dominated by the Netherlands Regional Transport Company (Verenigd Streekvervoer Nederland, VSN. In response to political pressure, this company has proposed splitting itself into two parts. According to the Government's plans, public transport will be put out to tender for each region for limited periods of three to five years. If, after such a period, the concession is granted to another company, the basic rule is that the new concessionaire will take over the personnel involved, whereby the existing employment conditions will remain valid until the collective agreement has expired. An exception can be made if a new concessionaire provides less transport than its predecessor. In that case, the concessionaire is not obliged to take over all personnel, but is not free to make its own selection of staff. These rules have been drawn up by a committee of employers and trade unions - theLaan Commission.

When the use of public tender was recently initiated in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands, the unions noticed after six weeks that the conditions of tender did not include any watertight guarantees for the personnel. Therefore, the 1,200 regional bus drivers in the north-eastern provinces of Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe went on strike on 24 November 1997. The strikers demanded that the Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management uphold the promise that the number of jobs at the northern bus companies, GADO and VEONN, would not be endangered when they lost their monopoly on regional transport. However, the Minister did not consider it necessary to include guarantees in the conditions of tender, as there were already enough legal guarantees in place. The Minister refers to Articles 7:662-666 of the Dutch Civil Code, which are derived from the EU Directives on the transfer of undertakings.

Although the provincial authorities initially found no cause for issuing such guarantees, after the strike the Queen's Commissioner in Groningen was prepared to include the conditions of the concession in the rules drawn up by the Laan Commission. For this reason, and in anticipation of the outcome of interim injunction proceedings brought about by the unions, the unions suspended a proposed follow-up strike for the time being. The unions have indicated, however, that a negative ruling by the court could result in national strikes in public transport.

The unions' fear over a negative ruling appeared unnecessary. On 11 December, The Hague court ruled that the Minister should uphold the promises made in 1995 and ordered a ban on putting out tenders without the rules of the Laan Commission being implemented. For this reason, the Minister of Public Transport announced on 12 December that putting out tenders for regional transport will be postponed until 1 January 1999.

In urban transport in Groningen, agreement has been reached on the further steps to be taken within the framework of privatisation. Vancom Nederland, a subsidiary of the American Vancom, will acquire full ownership of the Groningen Transport Company (Groninger Vervoerbedrijf or GVB) as of 1 January 1998. This will make GVB the first fully privatised municipal transport company in the Netherlands. The municipal authorities and Vancom have agreed that an employment guarantee will be included in the public tender of urban transport in 2004. The company acquiring the concession will be obliged to take over the current personnel according to the terms of employment applicable at that time.

Dutch Railways

The change process has also led to labour disputes on the Dutch Railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen or NS). On 14 October 1997, the works council of NS Infra Services successfully blocked plans to transfer the company to the building companies Strukton, Volker Stevin and NBM-Amstelland at the Enterprise Section of the Amsterdam Court of Appeal. The ruling was in favour of the works council because the past commitments to employees concerning the right to free transport were about to expire. The enterprise section ruled that NS had to make a reasonable case that deviating from the commitment was necessary or inevitable. Although this point of dispute was of relatively minor importance within the decision-making process on the transfer of the company, the enterprise section ruled that the transfer of the company under these conditions was not allowed to proceed.

On 23 October 1997, the works council of NS Reizigers demanded withdrawal of the proposal to end use of the Almelo-Mariënberg railway line. The NS made this proposal after the Minister had denied a request to bear part of the costs of the line. The works council's case was declared inadmissible because the political decision-making process on this issue had not yet been completed. The works council will have to be consulted on the possible closing of the connection in due course. On 10 December, the concession was awarded to the regional transport company Oostned.

In July 1997, the works council of NS Reizigers blocked a proposed partnership between the company and a regional transport company in Northwest Holland (NL9709132N). The works council, supported by the unions, feared that NS Reizigers would use this partnership to reduce the number of jobs at the railway company.

The right to strike and public transport

When preparing for strikes in public transport, the unions and the employees must take into account a judgment made by the Supreme Court on 21 March 1997 in response to industrial action taken in regional transport in 1995 (HR 21 March 1997, JAR 1997, no. 70). These actions were aimed at combating the VSN's intention to introduce greater flexibility in the deployment of staff. After interim injunction proceedings brought by VSN, the actions were forbidden during peak hours. This ruling was later upheld by the Court of Appeal. Vervoersbond FNV, the transport workers' union affiliated to the FNV confederation, failed in its attempt to overturn that ruling on appeal. A key point in the judgment of the Supreme Court is that the third-party or general interests protected by Article 31 of the European Social Charter can impose limitations on the right to strike as formulated in Article 6, Paragraph 4, of the Charter.

Commentary

Both the EU and the Dutch cabinet are seeking an increase in competition in public transport and goods transport. Under pressure from the prescribed public call for tenders, regional transport and the railways are preparing for competition with transport companies abroad. These developments put a great deal of pressure on labour relations within this sector. The transport companies involved point out the need to reduce (labour) costs. The unions, which have always had a relatively strong position in transport, oppose these reorganisations and are trying to stipulate as many guarantees as possible for the current workforce.

However, employers and employees are not the only parties involved and labour relations are just one of the considerations that play a role in the decision-making process. Various political parties want to keep a grip on public transport, and legal rulings cited earlier make it clear that the introduction of market forces is a tiresome undertaking. However, the trend towards greater market orientation seems to be a permanent problem in the area of labour relations. (Robbert van het Kaar, HSI)

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