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Labor Revitalization: Global Perspectives and New Initiatives

ISBN: 978-0-76230-882-8, eISBN: 978-1-84950-153-8

Publication date: 2 October 2003


Spring 2001: negotiations between unions and the Dutch Railroad Company (in Dutch: Nederlandse Spoorwegen, NS) were becoming increasingly difficult. At stake were management proposals to change the order of divisions of routes for engine drivers and conductors: in order to enhance efficiency they should be allocated to distinct sections instead of working throughout the whole country. The workers opposed these proposals, referring to them as “rounds around the church,” by which they indicated the loss of variation in their work. Strikes were called and the public transport system was severely hindered for several days in a period of four months. The clients, as well as their employers, complained about the reliability of the system. The conflict encroached deeply on social life not only because of the failure of public transportation. It also illuminated severe weaknesses of the Dutch system of labor relations, especially the position of unions. Behind the content of the conflict some crucial labor relations came under pressure. This was not only the case for the relations between management and unions who were not able to reach an agreement with enough support of both parties. Also at stake were relations within the unions. Rank and file members no longer felt represented by the union officials. The centralized policymaking in the union blocked discussion, disconnecting union policy from the daily problems of the members. Collective groups organized both union and non-union members and made their own policy. The organization rate of the greatest union in the company for instance dropped dramatically from 24,000 in the seventies to 8,000 members in the late nineties to 3,000 in May 2001.1 In the end, the union dismissed itself from negotiations and admitted its failure in its own core business. The work council came to represent workers on this point. Internally, union officials stopped discussion with their radical members. Union members had to choose between their union membership and their participation in the collective groups. The combination of the two activities led to the exclusion of the union. Traditional union organization reached rock bottom.In our opinion, this case exemplifies the situation of traditional unionism in our country, a position we will explain in this contribution. That does not mean we reject the idea of the revitalization of labor movement. On the contrary, we think that the labor movement has new chances, but that these chances are not necessarily to be found within the existing unions. We see in our country an upheaval of organizational forms without the unions, as illustrated by the collective groups in the railroad company we mentioned above. These groups seem to shed light on a new development of the union movement in the Netherlands.


Beukema, L. and Coenen, H. (2003), "REVITALIZATION OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT IN THE NETHERLANDS: WITH OR WITHOUT THE TRADITIONAL UNIONS?", Cornfield, D.B. and Mccammon, H.J. (Ed.) Labor Revitalization: Global Perspectives and New Initiatives (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 11), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 111-127.



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