Friday, November 7, 2014


Strike picket at the gate of the Volkswagen plant in Brussels, November 2006. Volkswagen was planning to close the whole plant.
A few days ago I heard for the first time a TV interviewer ask president Marc Leemans of the Belgium trade union confederation ACV if the trade union was not what old-fashioned? Of course the President did not agree. The trade union represents the interests of the workers and he knows what this means. As he himself explained, he is from a workers family with seven children. His mother did not have an easy life. Those times must not come back, he said. The interests of workers are therefore in good hands with him. However, this was was not an answer to the question.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, already some time the trade unions are accused of being old-fashioned. Not by everyone, of course, but still disturbingly often. In short, the criticism is that trade unions are against any change, that they are only interested to represent their members, mostly older workers with a permanent contract and that they have no interest in the problems of youth. Meanwhile, young people are unemployed or have a low paid job without a permanent contract, lower social benefits, have to work longer and probably will have a lower pension. A gap threatens to grow between the older workers and young people. The older generation thinks only of himself, that is the allegation. In stead of solidarity, there is a generational conflict growing.

Meeting of workers of Volkswagen in front of the plant in Brussels, november 2006
The trade unions do not agree with this. They see themselves as progressive, modern, solidary, useful and important for country and people. They still have the status of official national representatives of all workers in the nation. They are the social partners of employers and politics. Their social dialogue led to social peace and political stability, the basis on which the postwar welfare state was built. The welfare state as organized solidarity.

But there were changes, partly due to the success of the welfare state itself. As a result of the welfare state people live longer, this threatens to make pensions based on the pay-as-you-go system priceless. As a result of the on going globalization, traditional industries disappeared like mining, steel, shipbuilding, textile industry etc., precisely those industries on which the sociopolitical power and collectivist solidarity model of trade unionism was based. The demise of traditional smokestack industry was followed by new industries with a growing individualization. Higher and better educated workers, also the result of the welfare state, are less charmed of the collectivistic solidarity model. They want to have part time work, have personal responsibility, if possible they want to change jobs etc. In the meantime the labor market asks for more flexible working hours and contracts, outsourcing, self-employed (millions of self-employed enter the labor market ) followed by privatization, liberalization etc. Globalization brought much turmoil on the labor market.

One of the strikers at the Volkswagen plant in Brussels, november 2006
The trade unions are since then facing two big problems: loss of thousands of members and a rapidly changing labor market as a result of individualization, globalization, liberalization and privatization. You can then try to stop this but then chances are great that you are going to miss the economic link with the world market and before you know you are losing the revenues on which the welfare state is built. More distribution of wealth will probably ease the pain, but not more than that. Economies built only on distribution of wealth, at the end bring poverty. Cuba and North Korea are extreme examples of this phenomenon. Investments are needed, preferably in the private and public sectors. Investments that also create new jobs.

The public debate in the Netherlands in recent years resulted into reforms such as raising the retirement age (within a period of approximately 2 years the pension age will be raised until 67) , a tighter and shorter unemployment insurance more focused on piloting the unemployed into a new job than financial assistance, stricter supervision of social services, limited subsidies for job creation for the disabled and stricter monitoring of care. On top of this, Governments call for more responsibility for a job, own income, health care and so on.

Meeting of the strikers at the Volkswagen plant in Brussels, november 2006
Slowly but surely, the image of the worker in the Netherlands changes from victim into an individual that is responsable for its own life. The welfare state is still there to support the workers when things go wrong but not anymore to take care from the cradle to the grave. For many unions this is like swearing in church, but their traditional power base has been undermined.

No wonder the unions are busy with themselves, looking for an answer to the lost social and political influence. Mergers of trade unions from various sectors is the answer to the loss of members. For example already a few years, the Dutch trade union confederation FNV is reorganizing its structures to bring all unions together under one roof. This means more centralism to give more socio-political body to the social dialogue. But centralism is at odds with individualization. Workers want like consumers more customized services and less imposed collectivist schemes. The mergers are therefore only the beginning of a response to the crises.

Two workers at the trade union meeting of workers of Volkswagen, november 2006
To make matters worse the new century began with an economic disaster of a magnitude that has not been seen since the crisis in the twenties and thirties of the last century. The consequences are now widely reported, but the answer is not yet found. Economists are fighting among themselves about what to do but nobody really knows. Unions are trying to save from the burning socioeconomic house what can be saved with classical solutions for example more money from the Government for all kind of investments which means also making more debts.

The trade unions do not need to be ashamed that they have no ready answers and great difficulty with the reforms, but they may be more open to suggestions. It is not constructive if trade unions do not want to talk about proposals of employers to look for ways the millions of self-employed to integrate in the social security system. The trade unions should also start a dialogue about the possibility for retired workers to continue working after they have reached the age of pensioning. Trade unions that are putting their heels in the sand, give indeed the impression of being old-fashioned.

Man at the solidarity bus is writing a message that begins with "We are not alone"

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