New union created for young employees

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An independent trade union aimed at young workers and freelancers was set up in the Netherlands in October 2005. The new Alternative Trade Union (AVV) is critical of employers and the existing trade unions, claiming they take into account only the interests of older workers and neglect the interests of the young. Specific issues highlighted by AVV include early retirement, pensions and dismissal protection. AVV also criticises what it sees as the undemocratic internal organisation of traditional unions. It hopes to gain a seat in collective bargaining and on consultative bodies.

A new trade union, known as the Alternative Trade Union (Alternatief Voor Vakbond, AVV), was established on 1 October 2005. Innovatively, the union’s target group is young people - employees, civil servants and freelancers - a group that AVV's founders believe are not taken seriously by the existing unions. The founders accuse the social partners on both sides of focusing on the interests of older employees and losing sight of the interests of younger employees in both the public and private sectors, as well as the interests of freelancers. One clear stimulus for establishing the union is the issue of the current retirement and pensions reform on the basis of an autumn 2004 tripartite agreement (NL0409102N). The government has allowed the social partners leeway to compensate for the resulting cuts to early retirement provisions through collective agreements (NL0507101F). According to AVV, the 2004 agreement was disadvantageous for young people in all respects, with the changes to early retirement seen as the last straw. This was the point at which the founders set about establishing the new union, which supports a general aim of achieving an honest and fair division of advantages and disadvantages among the different generations and the employed and unemployed.

Issues

The issues that AVV would like to see addressed include age-related questions that cause divisions between younger and older employees. AVV believes that employees below the age of 55 are now paying for employees of 55 years and older who wish to retire early. Reforming pensions and improving the position of freelancers are the union’s two most important action points. The point of departure is to undo the compensatory measures in early retirement schemes put in place by the collective bargaining parties. AVV does not want a situation in which younger generations will have to pay more for 'lopsided arrangements' put in place by the traditional trade unions. The new union sees no solidarity from the traditional unions towards the younger generations. AVV is calling for the pension system to be changed, with differing contribution rates set for each generation. As far as early retirement is concerned, AVV claims that if older employees were to continue to work for just one year longer, younger employees would be able to pay lower contributions for at least 20 years. In addition to the early retirement regulations, the General Old Age Pensions Act (Algemene Ouderdomswet, AOW) is due for overhaul, according to AVV. In order to keep the present AOW in place, young people will be required to pay ever-increasing contributions. An open and honest discussion should be initiated about this issue, especially in light of the ageing population, in AVV's view. The new union is also not impressed with the government's 'life-cycle leave' arrangement - enabling workers greater scope to save and manage periods of time off over their careers (NL0304103F) - which is primarily intended for the younger generations in the workforce, either. AVV fears that this will mainly be used to build up early retirement provisions.

The 'last-in, first-out' seniority-based principle in cases of reorganisation and dismissal (NL0406101N) is also resented by AVV, which sees it as pure age discrimination. The union would also like to see dismissal protection relaxed with respect to people who enjoy an annual income of more than EUR 45,000 - it argues that people in this more highly qualified group, usually employed in good jobs at a managerial or executive level, are in a position to fend for themselves, ensuring their own employability. AVV believes that relaxing dismissal protection for the higher paid would make it unnecessary to threaten the job security of the less well-paid members of the workforce. An abolition of mortgage interest relief in the tax system is also proposed.

The position of freelancers and 'fledgling entrepreneurs' must be regulated better, states AVV. This relates to a group of 800,000 people, who are seen as being systematically sidelined in changes affecting social security. Freelancers double for medical expenses and childcare facilities - ie as the employer and the employee. The arrangement is therefore flawed, AVV claims. Furthermore, scrapping the Occupational Disability Insurance (Self-employed Persons) Act (Wet Arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekering Zelfstandigen, WAZ) has never been tabled for discussion. Moreover, the 'mountain of paperwork' fledgling entrepreneurs find themselves confronted with must be reduced, AVV states, arguing that one-off information provision to the tax authorities should be sufficient.

AVV wants to see a flexible labour market in which people who do their best are rewarded. It says that it is 'not afraid of Europe'; on the contrary, the union wants to strengthen the position of the Netherlands in a socially oriented Europe, and believes in the benefits of specialisation. As such, the union foresees the emergence of a strong European labour market and asserts that the older unions generally respond to new international trends in a short-sighted manner.

Representation and representativeness

In addition to substantive criticism on policies, AVV also comments on the internal arrangements of the traditional unions, which it sees as undemocratic. According to AVV, it makes little sense to become a member of one of the traditional unions because it would take too long for sufficient numbers of young people to join in order meaningfully to influence the decision-making process. Further, AVV states that union members are typically white males aged 45 and older. Indeed, more than half of the members of the Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakverenigingen, FNV) are 45 years of age or older. With a membership of 1.2 million, FNV is the largest trade union federation. Only 60,000 members, or 5%, are below the age of 25. Around 45% of the members are older than 25 and younger than 45. Just over 25% of the overall working population are union members.

AVV intends to arrange its internal affairs differently. It will allow all workers - both union members and non-members - to vote on approving the collective agreement that covers them. Votes would be cast via the internet. Membership of AVV costs EUR 10 a year, because the union considers a strike fund unnecessary, on the grounds that freelancers and young employees employed on the basis of a temporary contract cannot afford to strike. Moreover, many people already have their own legal assistance insurance. The union hopes to represent the interests of its members by taking a seat at the collective bargaining table, lobbying for freelancers, and launching public and consumer campaigns. The union wants to secure a place in the existing consultation structure, including a seat in the Social and Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, SER) for example, which is the most important advisory body for government in the socio-economic arena. However, the Minister of Social Affairs, Aart Jan de Geus, has already said that he will not respond to this request. He rejects separate representation of partial interests, and has previously rejected separate representation for older people and women.

The largest existing federations, FNV and the Christian Trade Union Federation (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV), have responded cautiously to the formation of the new union. After all, they have active youth networks and departments within their organisations. The centrally organised CNV youth wing, with 1,300 members, has arguably achieved tangible results for young people in cooperation with FNV. The organisation won a court case against the state regarding the minimum wage for 13 and 14 year olds, and has succeeded in keeping short-term unemployment benefit in place, which is especially important to (young) employees who have less than four years’ work experience. The CNV youth wing acts separately from the central CNV organisation, which is seen as an advantage. The independent FNV youth wing was closed in 1995. After the autumn 2004 tripartite agreement, FNV set up a network for and run by young people so as not to lose the level of involvement that had evolved in the protests before the agreement and to involve them within the organisation. The youth network hopes to evolve into a broad-based social movement, connected to major themes such as globalisation and youth culture. The network has not shied away from adopting a standpoint on the government’s policies on asylum-seekers and rent levels, but union policy on issues affecting young people is the priority. Life-cycle leave arrangements and childcare, for example, are see as being in the interests of young people. The youth network would like to end an image of FNV as a group of middle-aged men who go on strike.

Commentary

The Alternative Trade Union (AVV) makes some valid points in terms of pensions and other issues preoccupying young people in general and young professionals in particular. Aside from the one-sided perspective and internal working methods supported by the union, which may be open to question, it tackles some thorny issues that affect the trade union movement as a whole. The interests of the different generation, young and old, should serve as, or become, a combined, reference for policy. However, age can never serve as the only point of reference and, by the same token, pension schemes should not determine the unions' entire programme. AVV will certainly raise its voice in the short term and find support, but it would be better in terms of establishing balance if the points of view supported by AVV were to form part of the 'old' unions. (Marianne Grünell, HSI)

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