Cleaners recently ran a successful campaign inspired by the organising approach of American unions such as the SEIU. Will this approach work in traditional sectors? Union officials Niek Stam (ports) and Egbert Schellenberg (petrol and chemistry), both working at the Rotterdam office of FNV Bondgenoten, have their doubts.
Schellenberg: “Of course, we have people with permanent jobs and a fairly high union density. Then it’s much more helpful to have an employer come up with a plan that is received really badly. When did I really win new members in my sector? When one of those moron employers at Shell stood in the company restaurant saying: we’ll go ahead cutting the pensions. We now have a seventy percent density there. That’s different in cleaning, the taxis. The conditions of employment are lousy there, they can’t be cut, in fact you have to build them up. In such sectors I can see that organising is working”.
What does appeal to them is the confrontational approach of organising. Stam: “Clash constantly. That’s how you attract attention. That’s how you as a union show your people that you’re willing to fight”.
Some unions say that it is important to organise not just traditional sectors, but also to invest resources in growth sectors where the union does not yet have a strong position. Schellenberg: “Yes, of course you’ll have to invest if you want to grow. Only you have to be very cafeful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. If you throw away your position in the traditional sectors, you also loose your strength when there are new attacks on old age pensions or labour market protection, for example. In the end, these are the sectors that will have to keep us on our feet. If you withdraw your people from these sectors because you need the money for the growth sectors, then you’re gonna have to ask yourself what you’re doing. By the way, I think enough money is being squandered in the trade union movement that could be used for that purpose without having to take it from the traditional sectors”.
Incidentally, both Stam and Schellenberg still win new members. Stam: “In the ports, twenty-four hundred men will go into early retirement between 2002 and 2010. On a total of almost seven thousand. By now, nine hundred new guys have been hired. We have organised eight hundred of them. And those twenty-four hundred who leave will all remain union members. For we have created our own Dockers’ Veterans Club. You mustn’t put them in the UGO [unemployed and elderly] department, or they’ll just leave. For those people want to remain in touch with their profession and their colleagues”.
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