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More on Dutch cleaners

A more in depth article on the recent cleaners’ dispute in Holland, written by Peter Storm.

The strike was an important and impressive one. The deal, presented by trade union and left wing groups as a victory, leaves quite a bit to be desired.

The strike started on January 2, after negotiations between the union and the bosses broke down. The strike was suspended within a week, ‘to give the bosses time to think’, but soon resumed, and continued until this week. All in all, the strike lasted 105 days, which makes it the longest sector-wide strike in the Netherlands since 1933. The number of strikers was about 2000 in the beginning, but rose to around 3000. The number of workers in the cleaning business, however, is 150.000.

The strike was combined with a whole number of actions. There have been ten ‘Marches of Respect’, by 1.500 to 3.000 strikers and sympathizers, in one city after another. There have been impressive sit-ins by strikers at the University in Utrecht, in Amsterdam, and a smaller one at an university building in Nijmegen. In these sit-ins, students and others participated, links between them and the striking cleaners were built, and the dismissal of a few cleaners was successfully opposed. Public opinion moved to the side of the strikers, a group of low-paid workers whose demands were broadly seen as reasonable and whose slogan of ‘respect’ resonated widely. A famous talk show host and even a right wing business columnist expressed sympathy with the cleaners.

The union demanded, among other things: a serious wage rise, better regulations for travelling from home to work, measures against the excessive work (a consequence of less and less cleaners doing the same work), and paid sick leave from day one (up to now, cleaners who get sick have to pay the first two days themselves, which is worse than in other branches of employment). On a number of issues, the deal that was reached granted the unions’ demands, at least partly. The payment of sick leave, however, became a sticking point: a bosses’ representative talked darkly of ‘grey absenteeism’, implying that people calling in sick just do it for fraudulent reasons. In the deal that was reached, there will be an ‘experiment’ for some workers with payment from day one, combined with ‘better’ policy regarding absenteeism and sick leave. For most cleaners, however, nothing will change for now. The fact that this was a main demand and was not granted makes the deal even less satisfactory than it already is.

Left wing groups and the trade union itself – and many strikers, probably – see the deal as a major victory. They point to the much higher wage rise granted than in other sectors. One should, however, keep in mind that the cleaning wages ware comparably low; the fact that the rise is relatively high, only brings it somewhat closer to wages in other sectors. Besides, this is a 4.85 percent wage rise in TWO years, which is enough to keep pace with inflation but certainly not much more. That the agreement reached is relatively good says something about all those other agreements which are considerably worse, with wage ‘rises’ below inflation. Still, while this was not the ‘major victory’ some leftists see in it, it was not a defeat either. If the bosses had their way, the agreement would have been much worse. The main gain, however, was the experience of the strike itself, of its collective militancy, of the links of solidarity built among strikers, and between them and other groups in (potential) struggle.

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