“The times are gone when your father would take you by the arm to the construction site and say: this is your boss, this is the union, join,” says Maurice Fernandes of Dutch construction union FNV Bouw. And he knows what he’s talking about: in 2007, he signed up almost 600 people, in 2008 ‘only’ 480 and by mid-April he has already reached 150 new members. He visits schools and construction sites in the North-West Region.
You must always adapt your story to the people you are dealing with, Fernandes says. When visiting schools, he tells students that a union membership pays and makes the calculation on a whiteboard. If a student who is a union member sends a copy of his diploma or his articles of apprenticeship, he will receive 60 euro. In sum, they can receive up to 300 euro this way. The money is made available by employers, because they have an interest in students finishing their education.
Further, members can have their tax forms filled out for free and will get 45% of their union membership refunded by the tax authority. With their membership card they get discounts from all sorts of companies and they get cheaper health insurance. “Per year, you can easily earn 250 euro, I explain to them. And then there is also a special membership offer at a reduced rate. Without a doubt, I’ll sign them all up.”
He also signs up new members when visiting construction sites, but these visits are mainly important from a membership retention point of view. “It’s important to stay in touch with them. We have to find a good way to do that. When I approach people at construction sites they often say: at long last, we see someone from the union.” Union activists should also contribute to the union’s workplace presence, but these are often 60-year-old men who do not know how to have a conversation with the workers. “They leave a few pens and leaflets and they’re off again, although I must say that there are also exceptions.”
The best way is to work in pairs. “At each construction site, you’ll find someone who has a negative attitude. So you talk to this person and meanwhile, your colleague can sign up the other workers.”
When visiting construction sites, Fernandes often discusses a topical subject. This could be the economic crisis, or plans to rise the retirement age to 67.
An issue that people currently are very interested in is the countercyclical training plan. “Normally, in a recession, flex workers are the first to go, followed by young workers. Whereas you’ll need them later, for a large group of workers is about to retire. Under the countercyclical training programme, someone without a diploma who’s been a bricklayer for 10 years can follow theory lessons, in order to get that diploma after all. Also, older workers can become instructors at schools. In this way, young workers can keep their jobs. Schools continue training youth, the circulation continues.”
Many immigrants work in the construction sector. Recently, Fernandes visited a construction site of the Rabobank in Utrecht were 40 Poles and 60 Germans were working. “Then you need a linguistic talent. Some Poles speak German, but my holiday-German is not good enough to explain the benefits of union membership. I brought along some Polish and German speaking colleagues, and we signed up 14 members.”
It is important to emphasise that union membership will have no negative consequences. “In Poland, you may lose your job if you stand up for your rights, for example in case of underpayment.” Some of the Poles who work in the Netherlands have previously joined German union IG Bau while working in Germany. “We’ll help them too. And it works the other way around as well.”
It is important to adapt to the place you are visiting, Fernandes says. “I once went to a housing corporation with a colleague, and everybody looked down on us. The next time, we returned in a pinstripe suit and tie, and now they all came to us. I signed up the HRM Manager in the restaurant.”
Photo: FNV Bouw