Significant steps

18th of May 2011
Significant steps

Dutch scientific journalist Anton Duisterwinkel describes the long term changes resulting from the widespread cleaners' strike a year ago.

A book, a special cleaners' day, more (self) respect and a wage increase. Those are the major consequences, a year after the start of one of the longest strikes in Dutch history, the cleaners' strike of 2010. That strike will be remembered for the unexpected courage and eloquence of the cleaners, as well as for the new action from under-workers where trade unions have few members.

The book, Antipower,  is written by journalist Pien Heuts. She describes the details and the background  of the strike through the eyes of all major stakeholders and a number of well respected analysts. Heuts clarifies that the cleaners' strike in fact was an uprise by workers in the lowest classes of society, exploited by employers who sell their products as cheaply as possible by upping the workload for their workers.

Indeed, the cleaners' strike was followed by successful strikes by rubbish collectors, warehousemen and postmen. Typical trades where little or no education is needed, contracts are short term and flexible and where trade unions have few members. Here actions are started by strong, independent people and taken over by the trade unions. Short actions at different sites, aimed not only at the employers and the cleaning contractors, but also at their customers.

Direct effects

The most direct effects for the cleaners are a wage increase of 20 euro cents per hour and, more importantly, more self respect and self belief. Which will be needed, because the employment situation is by no means ideal yet.

The book was presented to the minister of social affairs, Henk Kamp, exactly a year after the start of the strike.  The presentation was part of the ‘Dag van de Schoonmaak’, the day of cleaning. This occasion took place near the location of the start of the strike, Utrecht Central Station, the main hub in the Dutch railway system. About 750 cleaners visited the party, which should become a yearly tradition, aimed also at workers in catering, security, landscaping, supermarkets and other price-sensitive sectors.

Slowly changing

One of the attractions was ‘a rubbish museum’ that told the stories of so many cleaners. For instance a needle that pricked a cleaner, but could also have injured a child. The party goers, including the minister, were also surprised by a speech made by a cleaning lady working at the ministry of social affairs. She described, in full colour, what she had encountered in the different toilets in that building.

Ron Meyer of the trade union FNV, which organised the day, explained: "Up to now, the government - as the largest client of the cleaning industry - still sets a bad example by going for the lowest price." But even at that level, things are changing. Recently, some changes in the laws for tendering have been announced that should favour for instance smaller cleaning companies and better employment conditions. Small but significant steps towards more socially acceptable solutions.


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