Unions to unite in new federation

A continued war between unions and the Netherland’s largest union confederation, the Dutch Trade Union Federation (FNV), has led to the formation of a new organisation. The New Union Movement (DNV) will replace the FNV and the initial plans for its structure were presented on 1 May 2012. The new federation is hoping to restore the trust lost between its two biggest trade unions and former FNV President Agnes Jongerius by becoming more democratic and attracting new members.

Background

The setting up of a new trade union organisation, the New Union Movement (DNV) to replace the Dutch Trade Union Federation (FNV) was announced on 1 May 2012.

Plans to create a new body arose from an irreparable breach of trust between the FNV and its two biggest unions, Allied Unions (Bondgenoten), and the General Union of Public Servants – Catholic Union of Public Servants (Abvakabo), which together account for almost half the FNV’s total membership.

In June 2011, the FNV leadership reached a deal with employers on pensions that assigned full responsibility for the financial risks of company pension schemes to employees alone and that failed to take into account workers with physically or mentally demanding jobs. President of FNV Agnes Jongerius defended the compromise, but the federation’s two biggest unions fiercely opposed it. Despite having the most individual members, the two unions had only two votes and equal voting rights with the other 17 members of the federation council. Allied Unions called for a vote of no confidence in the president (NL1112019I).

A mission to help workers

The plans for the new federation have been drawn up by former State Secretary of Social Affairs Jetta Klijnsma, who has said it is her mission to support all those who work, have worked or hope to work.

Today’s labour market in the Netherlands is characterised by many contrasts – between young and old, aspiring and former employees, salaried and self-employed workers. The membership base of the country’s unions is shrinking and in 2011, only 20% of the entire national workforce was unionised. Sizeable groups of the working population no longer join unions and many young people (non-nationals, flexible workers, self-employed and women) have no ties with them. The FNV is seen as largely representing older white employees working on standard employment contracts.

Ms Klijnsma argues that due to rapid changes in the labour market, the conflicting interests of workers have widened in the 21st century. Unions must take greater account of this and respond accordingly. She says that unions organised by profession or the business sector will not fully address these issues. The trade union movement must also keep better pace with a changing labour market in which traditional fixed employment contracts are being replaced by flexible labour relations. Poorly represented groups such as youths and self-employed workers (ZZPs) must now also be given a stronger voice. Under the proposals for the new federation’s structure, both these groups will have their own platform within it.

New democratic rules

The proposals include a thorough reform of the FNV’s old structure. Its numerous management levels caused many conflicts, and a major problem has been that each of the 19 affiliated unions have one vote on the federation council regardless of the size of their membership.

Ms Klijnsma has said that the new organisation will need to be highly democratic, and that its leader’s mandate must be very clear so that the leader can speak with the same level of authority as does the Chair of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW), Bernard Wientjes. Ms Klijnsma wants to pre-empt any divide-and-rule tactics on the part of employers or government.

Ms Klijnsma will restrict the power enjoyed by the bigger unions by not allocating them more than 16% of seats in the DNV’s new decision-making body, a member ‘parliament’. It remains to be seen whether the two big unions will accept such a restriction. Other smaller unions such as ZBo, which represents self-employed workers in the construction sector, want representation at the highest level. ZBo is demanding at least one seat in the 100-strong parliament.

The solution reached is that a union will get one vote in parliament for each 15,000 members. However, in order to allow smaller unions to vote, the minimum threshold of 5,000 members has been scrapped. This means that to reach a majority decision on any issue, more unions will have to be involved.

Ms Klijnsma believes this will create a good balance. Parliament members will be able to appoint a chair directly, which means he/she will enjoy wider support. In the event of an impasse on any issue, the chair can call for a referendum.

The financial consequences of these changes – including the financing of a central foundation to strengthen the union movement – have yet to be discussed, but the treasurer of the 19 FNV unions that make up the current council is to prepare a proposal.

Ms Klijnsma was expected to present the final result of talks on 23 June, after which the DNV would be established.

Marianne Grünell, University of Amsterdam

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