Letter from the Netherlands

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(348)

After the longest strike since 1933, cleaners, most of them from migrant backgrounds, won, writes Willem Dekker.

Competition in the cleaning sector, fully privatised by the end of the 1990s, has been driving wages down and work pressure up. In the summer of 2009 cleaners, most of whom come from a migrant background, launched a campaign for higher wages, better working conditions and more respect from management. The campaign raised the stakes of industrial conflict. If cleaners could get a raise - why couldn't other workers? The campaign became a model for multicultural resistance against the cutbacks.

Let me take you back a month ago, somewhere in Amsterdam. The room was crowded; more than a hundred strikers from several Amsterdam office buildings sat together in one of their weekly meetings. It seemed chaotic, people going for coffee or a quick smoke, several different languages being spoken at the same time: English, Turkish, Arabic and of course Dutch. But it wasn't chaotic. There was excitement, tension and translation.

Abdelilah, a young migrant, had just told everybody that he had been fired for striking; the company letter went from hand to hand. Only recently arrived in the Netherlands, when asked to go on strike he hadn't hesitated: "In Morocco I used to do the same." Mohamed, one of the strike leaders, stood up. He reminded everybody 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: "We have built our army of strikers from 30 to more than a 100. 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." As a union organiser, that was the signal for me to pick up my phone and make the call.

So it happened, later that week, that 500 strikers from all over the Netherlands marched to Abdelilah's former workplace, the headquarters of the right wing newspaper De Telegraaf. They occupied the lobby after train cleaners from Groningen broke through security lines to hold the doors open.

Swarming through 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 the De Telegraaf spokesperson which said they should support the cleaners. The boss of the cleaning company was summoned to the office and a delegation of cleaners was appointed to negotiate. Two hours later Abdelilah had a new contract. The news of the victory spread among the strikers who 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.

It took six months of action 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 and won recognition and respect.

People from many different backgrounds and ethnicities came together in the strike and held each other close. They occupied Utrecht Central Station for six days and nights, singing, dancing, demonstrating, eating and sleeping there. They took over the roof of one of the cleaning companies' headquarters, linked arms during a sit-in at the airport, defying security and police forces, and presented drawings of their children to the queen. They overcame the employers' tactics of despair and their willingness to fight seemed endless.

The action by 1,500 active strikers won a victory that will benefit 150,000 cleaners. It also influenced other sectors. Straight after the cleaners' victory garbage collectors in Utrecht and Amsterdam went on indefinite strike, which ended after a week and a half with a pay rise of 1.5 percent for 200,000 municipality workers, breaking the government's wage freeze.

It proves that you only stand a chance if you fight - an important lesson for the coming struggle over the massive cuts.

Willem Dekker is an organiser for FNV Bondgenoten, Union of Cleaners.