Strikes in healthcare and docks while rail agreement is rejected
In May-June 2001, conflicts over new pay agreements broke out in the Dutch healthcare and docks sectors. Meanwhile, an agreement on controversial new rosters at Dutch Railways (NS) was rejected by the membership of the largest rail union, FNV Bondgenoten.
In mid-May 2001, during bargaining over a new collective agreement, employees in the healthcare sector mobilised against what they perceived as an inadequate pay offer from employers (NL0104129F). The employers countered the unions' demand for 12.8% wage increase over a two-year period with a maximum offer of 9%. This triggered a series of "relay strikes" in the north of the country, resulting in the cancellation of hundreds of operations because operating theatres were closed. Work stoppages of this nature have continued up until the time of writing (early June). The Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport attempted to heal the breach in negotiations, but her proposal that the parties meet each other half-way was rejected.
Also in mid-May, another strike centring around pay demands broke out at Rotterdam docks' largest container transhipment concern, Europe Combined Terminals (ECT). The stumbling block in this case was the unions' unusual demand for automatic wage compensation for price increases, raising management fears of an open-ended pay agreement. Management proposed a wage increase of 5.26% for the period until June 2002, while the unions' demands could lead to a 6.5%-7% increase. After a union ultimatum expired, strikes broke out in the Maasvlakte and Waal-Eem harbour areas. A day's break in container operations and failure to unload ships costs ECT around NLG 1.5 million to NLG 2 million in lost turnover. The company took the unions to court to stop the action, but lost the summary proceedings. When the unions threatened to undertake further industrial action, management agreed to the demands for automatic price compensation, and the fixed wage increase was lowered to 3% over a two-year period. The agreement in principle has yet to be put to the unions' membership for approval.
Following a series of strikes over proposed new duty rosters at Dutch Railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, NS) (NL0102125F) and failed attempts at arbitration and mediation (NL0104128N), a new agreement on the issue was signed on 23 April 2001 (NL0104130N) by management and the main trade unions - those affiliated to the Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV) and the Christian Trade Union Federation (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV). The deal provided for the controversial new rosters, involving fixed routes for many staff, to come into force on 10 June 2001, but allowed the works council (ondernemingsraad) to draw up an alternative plan.
However, in May, the NS agreement was rejected at a meeting by the members of the largest rail union, the FNV-affiliated Allied Unions (FNV Bondgenoten). Although, at 10%, attendance at the meeting was extremely low – particularly in view of the seriousness of the conflict – the union nonetheless withdrew its support for the agreement. While the resulting loss of face for the unions may be substantial, that for the company has arguably been greater and commentators believe that it seems impossible that the current management will emerged unscathed from the current crisis. As well as controversy over recent decisions on taking over and hiving off particular routes, the company is faced with the embarrassing fact that there is insufficient equipment and personnel to introduce the new duty rosters on 10 June, with a shortage of more than 100 trains and 100 engine drivers. Management now proposes deploying staff from outside the Randstad conurbation, thus rendering the controversial fixed-route rosters at the heart of the company's plans defunct.