On 13 April 2010, Frie van Hulten, CEO of the CSU cleaning company, drove to work. On the radio he heard that cleaners had occupied his office. It was one of the key moments in the cleaners’ strike that made headlines for weeks and even months.
Van Hulten was not completely unsympathetic to their protests. He was aware of how the profession of cleaners had changed. In the past, a cleaner would work five hours per day at an energy company, clean the director’s office, deliver coffee, iron his shirts. Now, she cleans an entire wing in five hours at the same energy company.
He had also seen that there was room for improvement in the labour conditions of his workers. He had been shocked by the cleaners’ break room he had visited at Amsterdam Central Station. “My God, I thought, how can this be.” He said that he has changed management at four locations (on a total of five thousand locations).
Van Hulten is one of the persons who have been interviewed for the book Tegenmacht (Countervailing Power), written by Pien Heuts and illustrated with photos by Rob Nelisse, published on the occasion of the first anniversary of the start of the historic cleaners’ strike. The book contains interviews with cleaners, employers, clients and various other experts. It provides insight into the way in which employers and clients have experienced the strike (for example, it reveals that Dutch Railways had a permanent crisis team in place). It also provides an analysis of the precarisation of the labour market and the way in which the union movement responds to this phenomenon.
An important strategic choice was to focus the campaign not solely on employers, but primarily on clients. As long as clients play cleaning companies out against each other and try to get the cheapest deal possible, cleaning companies will keep looking for ways to reduce costs at the expense of cleaners. Only when clients put more emphasis on quality can this downward spiral be broken.
Many interviewees agree with this analysis and some appear releaved that the cleaners have put this issue on the agenda. The main exception is Jos Nijhuis, the boss of Schiphol Airport. He is still annoyed that his airport was targeted by the campaign. “General complaints and demands that were the object of the campaign were projected onto Schiphol.” He thought the union evoked an ‘ill-informed and over-simplified’ image of his company.
Nijhuis thinks it is not right for him as a client to be held responsible for the labour conditions of cleaners at Schiphol Airport. Nevertheless, jointly with Dutch Railways he took the initiative to develop a responsible client code.
Nijhuis is not the only one to comment on the role of the trade union movement. Herman Wijffels, who has been in charge of the Rabobank and the Socio-Economic Council: “I’ve really enjoyed this protest. Not in the least because the old union strategy was put aside. Cleaners with leadership qualities stood up. They took responsibility for their own situation. This exemplifies a new era with a new way of organising. The union has a serving role: it should serve the employee who wants to achieve something or improve his position.”
Independently, sociologists Marcel van Dam and Merijn Oudenampsen criticize the target groups the union works for. Van Dam thinks the union movement should focus more on people with precarious jobs. According to Oudenampsen, the union focuses too much on its aging members and too little on workers who struggle as ‘outsiders’ in an increasingly flexible labour market. The union might well be a bit more assertive. He thinks the cleaners’ campaign has set an example.
Anja Jongbloed, executive board member of FNV Bondgenoten, also considers the cleaners’ protests an important step towards union renewal. “These are very strong people, from various cultures, who are demanding their place in society. […] They serve as an example. We’ve seen this in 2010 with the strikes of the binmen, the workers at the distribution centres of [supermarket chain] Albert Heijn and the TNT mailmen.”
Meanwhile, the cleaners continue their struggle, explains Ahmed Bairi, a cleaner at Amsterdam Central Station: “We’ve got those twenty cents per hour; that’s a start. There will always have to be a strike to improve our position. Bosses give nothing at their own initiative. A problem in cleaning is that many people are afraid. […] Now we’ve shown them that we’re strong.”
Tegenmacht costs 17,95 euros. Order the book here