While angry citizens all over Europe are taking to the streets in protest against austerity measures, people in the Netherlands remain relatively calm. This is because the new cabinet has not yet revealed its plans, so the unions are holding their fire for the time being. But anything could happen in the Netherlands.
Brussels saw its largest social protests in many years on Wednesday. An estimated 100,000 demonstrators travelled to the European capital to protest against cuts by European governments. Mass demonstrations were also held in numerous other member states against the cuts that are partly being introduced because of EU pressure.
Angry civil servants
In The Hague, only a few hundred angry civil servants turned out to hear FNV union leader Agnes Jongerius speak at a rally outside parliament.
“We believe the new government has the choice to say: we want to seek public support, to seek dialogue, to speak with the people in the Netherlands who do the real work. Or they could say: we have the power, we are going to force measures through. And I would not recommend the last option to the new government.”
Agnes Jongerius calls the far-reaching cuts expected in the public sector, the social security and healthcare extremely worrying. But she does not intend to declare war on the new government before she actually sees its plans.
Jaap Smit, chairman of the Netherlands’ second largest federation of unions the CNV, is also waiting to see what happens first.
“Firstly we are going to wait and see what the prospects are for the coming years. A coalition agreement has been drawn up, which has to be studied. So I cannot say anything about the content yet. Secondly, in the Netherlands we are reasonable people. We say: listen, we have to continue working together. But as I said, you will only hear a reaction when we know what is hanging above us.”
Labour sociologist Ton Wilthagen thinks Dutch unions have a difficult choice to make at the moment and are still deciding which strategy to take.
“There are two strategies. Either they will go for mass demonstrations, which were used in the cleaning industry recently. Or they will keep up the dialogue with employers for the time being. People within the union movement have different views on this. If you take a hard line, you run the risk of being left out of the negotiations. If you keep up the dialogue, you risk not being taken seriously.”
A long strike by cleaners for more pay last spring was a resounding success. It was an opportunity for the otherwise moderate Dutch unions to show their teeth. But when negotiations on raising pension age were not going the right way, the unions had difficulty getting people to attend protest rallies.
Cabinet’s new course
A lot will depend on which course the cabinet takes. If cuts are introduced in the civil service without prior negotiations, the unions may choose a hard line.
Political strikes are a taboo in the Netherlands, so the unions will not resist the right-wing minority VVD-Christian Democrat cabinet supported by the anti-Islam populist Freedom Party as a matter of course.
And any way, they hope populist MP Geert Wilders will keep his election promise to ensure some social security measures will remain unchanged. If he does, the unions will find they have a surprising ally. Some union members are also Wilders voters.
Another reason for holding back is traditional Dutch thrift, some economists say the unions do not want to waste funds on strikes, which are doomed to failure anyway. So anything could happen during this autumn of discontent.