Dutch cleaners campaigned for six months for higher wages and went on strike for another nine weeks. It was the longest strike since 1933 and they won, ‘bread and roses’.
By Willem Dekker, organizer of the cleaners’ union
The cleaning sector was fully privatized at the end of the nineties. Since then competition has been driving wages down and work pressure up. In the summer of 2009 cleaners, of whom most come from a migrant background, launched a campaign for higher wages, better working conditions and more respect from management. In times of austerity and a government drive for a wage freeze for public workers, this campaign raised the stakes of industrial conflict. If the cleaners could get a raise – why couldn’t other workers? The campaign turned into a model for multicultural resistance against the cut-backs.
Let me take you back a month ago, somewhere in Amsterdam: It was crowded in the room, more than a hundred strikers from several Amsterdam office buildings sat together in their weekly meeting; it seemed chaotic, people going for coffee or a quick smoke, several different languages were being spoken at the same time, English, Turkish, Arabic and of course Dutch. But it wasn’t chaotic, it was excitement, tension and translation.
Abdelilah, a young migrant on strike, had just told everybody that he had been fired for being on strike, the company letter went from hand to hand.
Only recently arrived in the Netherlands, when asked to go on strike, he didn’t hesitate, “in Morocco I used to do the same”. Mohamed a strike leader from government agency UWV, stood up. He reminded everybody about this fact and about the resolution that had been passed by all cleaners on strike in the Netherlands. An injury to one, is an injury to all. “We made this agreement, now we must live up to it, we must all go to his workplace, and demand his reinstatement. It could be you next time”. He said as he looked his fellow strikers in the eye. Turkish women applauded while Mohamed raised his hands. “In the past weeks we have grown our army of strikers from thirty to more than a hundred, we can make every building in this area of Amsterdam go on strike, so we for sure can save Abdelilah’s job. We must contact our brothers and sisters in other cities about this as soon as possible.” As a union organizer, that was the signal to take my phone and make the call.
So it happened, later that week five hundred strikers from all over the Netherlands, marched to the headquarters of right wing newspaper De Telegraaf, Abdelilah’s former workplace. As they had done a dozen times before during the strike, they occupied the lobby after train cleaners from Groningen broke through security lines to hold the doors open.
Swarming the building, they demanded freedom of speech and organisation for cleaners, something a newspaper should value. The cleaners presented a front page for the next day to De Telegraaf spokesperson which said they should support the cleaners. The boss of the cleaning company was summoned to the office, as a delegation of cleaners was appointed to do the negotiation. Two hours later, Abdelilah had a new contract. The news of the victory spread amongst the strikers while they were already busy occupying another lobby. Hundreds of cleaners had just proven how precarity can be overcome. A valuable lesson for everyone, not least for the employer.
In the end it took the cleaners six months of actions and nine weeks of strike to win a new national labour contract, the longest strike in the Netherlands since 1933. They won a 3.5 percent wage increase, job education, Dutch lessons and benefits for union members. But above all, they fought for recognition and respect. “What do we want? Respect! When do we want it? Now” was and is their chant. Everybody in the Netherlands now acknowledges the cleaners; they gained massive public support and positive media coverage. They showed The Netherlands that when nobody takes responsibility people become numbers on a budget, creating dynamics that constantly put pressure on their already low working conditions; that is the cost of outsourcing.
In their strike many different backgrounds and ethnicities came together and held each other close. They occupied Utrecht Central Station for six days and nights, singing, dancing, demonstrating, eating and sleeping there. Taking the roof of one of the cleaning companies’ headquarters, linking arms during a sit in at the airport defying security and police forces, presenting the drawings of their children to the queen. They overcame the employers’ tactics of despair; their willingness to fight seemed endless.
For now the cleaners won a strike for a total workforce of the 150,000 cleaners with only 1,500 active strikers, which shows how much more can be gained with further struggle and unionization. What’s most important however, is the influence of the strike on other sectors. Straight after the victory of the cleaners the garbage collectors of Utrecht and Amsterdam went on an indefinite strike, which ended after one and a half week in a pay rise of 1.5 percent for 200,000 municipality workers, breaking the wage freeze of the government. It proves that you only stand a chance if you fight, an important lesson for the coming struggle over the massive cuts.
Pictures of the campaign:
Valery Alzaga speaks with Willem Dekker, a Dutch labour organizer with Bondgenoten after winning a 9 week long strike in the Netherlands.
Can you share with us the highlights of this year’s Dutch cleaners’ campaign “Schoon Genoeg!?
The public campaign lasted roughly six months and ended with nine weeks of strike.
The campaign was based in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and the country’s railway system. There were also groups in the south and north of the country. But the organizing effort focused mainly on the first mentioned areas.
On the whole we mobilized 1500 people nationwide to strike, many of them new members. These strikers were almost every day on the road by bus to an action or meeting focusing on the most important clients and buildings in the metropolitan areas.
We won a 3,5% wage increase, benefits for union members, a bonus for strikers, better access to Dutch courses and job education and some other smaller gains (like not stopping your pay when you call in sick, before speaking to the company doctor, a day off when your brother-in-law dies).
The Parliament of Cleaners (the most important leaders of our union) came together last December to discuss the employers’ fight back strategy and decided to fight harder, during the strike they also discussed to amply the escalation, and to prepare the Utrecht Railway station occupation) and this week, they just gathered to discuss their future and how to keep improving their conditions and the industry as a whole.
We gained many new leaders, the last parliament was attended by 80 people this year, we have more than doubled this figure, and that is not the total figure of our leadership, as not everyone could make it to the parliament.
Some of our best actions:
We occupied for six nights and days Utrecht Central Station, receiving support from the Socialist Party which provided us with inflatable beds, people came to play music, people from the Dutch parliament, railway workers, even police men giving us two thumbs up. We ended the occupation with a family day, where the workers brought there children, there was a musical performance, face painting, an inflatable castle to jump on…etc.
Forcing our way through the closed doors of banks and corporate headquarters we increased the pressure. At the ABN AMRO bank (one of the most important Dutch banks) the doors where shut down, we tried to get in, then the security messed up and hundreds of workers forced their way inside. At Schiphol they broke through police lines. In several places strikers who had been fired due to their strike support got their jobs back after, we did occupations in Rotterdam University Erasmus, the Telegraaf newspaper building, etc.
We put strikers on the roof of the CSU headquarters for half a day, we used construction tools to lift them up there, on the ground there were hundreds of cleaners keeping the office workers out. A very nice day, also, with music, big flags and banner drops on the roof, lots of media attention.
Strikers let their children make drawings, which we attempted to give to the queen, everybody dressed up nicely.
In the newspapers and television the coverage was almost daily and very positive. In polls on the radio we got huge support. Celebrities also spoke out on our behalf, like the ministers and artists.