Saturday, 11 April 2015

Organisations call on Ahold to improve labour standards

Since 2005, farm workers in the US have been calling on major purchasers of tomatoes, such as fast food and retail chains, to use their buyer power to fight the exploitation of farm workers. Burger King, McDonald’s and Walmart have already joined the Fair Food Programme. However, Ahold has so far failed to make a serious commitment to decent labour conditions.

Last week, national trade union FNV, FairWork, the Rural Sociology Group (WUR) and other organisations called on Ahold to join the Fair Food Programme. At Ahold’s Annual General Meeting on 15 April, the issue will be raised for the fifth time in a row.

Meanwhile, Ahold is being criticised for its use of extremely low-paid young workers in the Netherlands: “Do you work at Albert Heijn at 6.95? CEO Dick Boer makes that much in 14 seconds”. A youth movement supported by FNV and various community organisations has launched a campaign against the Dutch system of youth wages which is the worst in Europe. It has calculated that Ahold and McDonald’s pocket 79 million euro per year by paying youth wages to workers who are 18 years and older.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Moroccan trade unions and the Arab Spring

In an article in the Washington Post, political scientist Matt Buehler analyses the role of trade unions during the Arab Spring. Attention tends to focus on countries that have experienced regime change or major violence, but in countries like Morocco, Jordan and the Persian Gulf important developments took place as well, Buehler argues.

In Morocco, economic liberalisations started being implemented in the 1990s. Entrepreneurs benefited, but employees paid the price in the form of rising costs of living.

By the late 2000s, trade unions with different backgrounds (from left-wing to Islamic) joined forces to demand higher wages and pensions as compensation for the risen prices. The regime took a tough stance, but meanwhile the number of protests – strikes, marches and sit-ins – rose.

The protest movements that erupted in Tunesia and Egypt reached Morocco in 2011. The Moroccan regime was concerned about youth protests but perhaps even more about the role of trade unions. In order to contain the protests, a ‘social dialogue’ was started. Organisations including the unions participated in the dialogue but at the same time kept up the pressure by frequently threatening to rejoin the street protests.

Eventually, the protests and negotiations were succesful in that they led to substantial wage and pension increases.

Article, chart

Friday, 20 March 2015

‘Trade unions sometimes need to break the law’

Last week, the governing body of British trade union Unite proposed to amend its rule book. No longer will it state that the union must always operate within the law. In an opinion article in the Guardian, general secretary Len McCluskey explains why this amendment is necessary. Don’t worry, he assures, we’re no anarchists and we’re not suddenly planning a bank robbery. But we have to ask ourselves whether it’s still possible to always operate within the law.

As an example, he points out that under Thatcher, it was illegal for staff of British intelligence service GCHQ to be a union member. Does that make workers who retained their membership criminals?
He argues that this is not an isolated example. Employers can easily get an injunction against a contemplated strike, even a fully balloted and mandated one. And Conservatives are even planning to make it legal to use agency workers as strike breakers.

McCluskey: “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

‘German unions grow, gain political clout’

According to a research institute ‘close to the employers’, German unions have become more influential. A new study to be published on Wednesday speaks of a ‘comeback of the unions’, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports.

One aspect of this comeback is union membership. Nine years ago 18 percent of workers were union members; by 2012 this had risen to 20.6 percent. Six out of eight DGB-affiliated unions have seen their membership grow: IG Metall, Verdi, IG Bergbau-Chemie-Energie (IG BCE), Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW), Gewerkschaft der Polizei (GdP) and Nahrung-Genuss-Gaststätten (NGG).

According to the study, the unions have gained political clout as a result of the financial crisis. One outcome is the introduction of the minimum wage.

Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung, via Kurt Vandaele

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Are workers with flexible contracts willing to go on strike

A recent study by Giedo Jansen a.o. used a survey among over 1,000 Dutch citizens to explore the relationship between labour contracts and willingness to strike. The study found that workers with flexible contracts are only slightly less inclined to go on strike than workers with permanent contracts (of course, as the authors note, willingness to go on strike is not the same as actually going on strike).

In their discussion of the findings, Jansen a.o. mention the crucial role union organisers may play in mobilizing non-standard workers. They point to a paper by Melanie Simms and Deborah Dean, who analysed successful mobilisations of teachers and performing artists with atypical contracts in the UK.

One of the respondents in their study emphasised the role of actors’ union Equity: “Equity made that very clear - we had to stick together as a team. That Equity couldn’t do anything, it was up to us.”

Dean and Simms discuss the role of organisers:
Part of this role involved redirecting employer arguments that reduncancies were inevitable due to external factors (reductions in funding, decline in box office receipts) to an argument that managerial choices were central.
In conclusion, they note that workers with insecure contracts may face specific barriers but that the means to overcome these barriers - through mobilisation and collectivisation - are not so different from what works in other situations.

Giedo Jansen, Agnes Akkerman and Kurt Vandaele (2014). Undermining mobilisation? The effect of job flexibility and job instability on the willingness to strike. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 1–19.
Melanie Simms and Deborah Dean, Mobilising contingent workers: An analysis of two successful cases. Accepted for publication in Economic and Industrial Democracy.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The political effect of general strikes

On Monday 15 December, a national strike will be held in Belgium, against the government’s austerity plans and for social justice. The action is consistent with a European trend: as the number of ‘normal’ strikes declines, the number of general strikes is growing. Since 1980, 130 general strikes (including 13 credible strike threats) have taken place in Europe, including as many as 36 in the period 2010–2012.

And those general strikes appear to be successful, researchers Kerstin Hamann, Alison Johnston and John Kelly (via Kurt Vandaele) conclude. Not only can general strikes force governments to change their policies; in addition, government parties that are confronted with a general strike tend to get fewer votes in the next election. After a general strike, voters punish not only left parties; centre and right governments suffer the same fate.

With this type of correlations it’s difficult to demonstrate causality, although the authors have of course corrected for a number of relevant variables. In any case, government parties that are confronted with a general strike should be worried about the next election.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Dutch unions approve merger on 1 January

Today, the Congress of FNV Bondgenoten voted overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal to merge with other FNV-affiliated unions. The merger, which will take effect on 1 January 2015, involves the following organisations: Abvakabo FNV (public sector), FNV Bondgenoten (private sector), FNV Bouw (construction), FNV Sport and the former FNV Federation.

The merger was supported by over 90% of the union’s elected industry representatives (the proposal narrowly failed to get the required two-thirds majority at a previous congress in October). Members of the other unions involved in the merger had already approved the plan. FNV Kiem, representing artists and workers in the printing industry, will decide on 20 December on joining the new union, while a number of smaller unions have decided to remain affiliated to the FNV without participating in the merger. Currently, all FNV-affiliated unions have 1.1m members

Chairman Ton Heerts said the merger will strengthen the FNV in its fight against employers who exploit workers and against the austerity policies of the government.