Cleaners' strike record

15th of June 2010

Correspondent Anton Duisterwinkel discusses a long strike by cleaning staff - highly unusual in The Netherlands.

Striking is seen as a last resort in The Netherlands. It is bad for economics and bad for the image of an industry. More importantly, it goes against the grain of Dutch society. At the heart of Dutch culture is the opposite of striking: ‘polderen’. The literal translation of 'polderen' is making a polder, to make land out of a lake or shallow part of a sea by embanking it and pumping out the water.

The Netherlands holds about 3,000 polders, half of all European polders. Many polders are below sea level. They require constant maintenance and constant pumping of water – hence the many windmills in this flat and windy country. The earliest polders were constructed around the year 1000.

All ranks equal

These early polders were not commissioned by landlords or governments – who had no interest in the swampy and poor lands and lakes. Rather farmers, nobleman, citizens and other civilians had to cooperate to keep their feet and houses dry, as the Dutch land became lower  and wetter.  All these ranks and classes became equals in order to protect their lives and livelihood. Moreover, since a polder needs continuous maintenance and attention, all classes need to cooperate continuously.

An English saying goes: "God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland". However one could also argue that Holland created the Dutch mentality, which is characterised on the one hand by ‘polderen’: continuous and seemingly endless bargaining until all involved parties are happy, without using means that could disrupt long term relations. And on other hand, Dutch people are quite direct (or as we like to call it: honest and open). This is needed in urgent situations (the dikes are falling apart) and also acceptable in an almost class-less society.

Negotiation settlements

Thus social conflicts – about wages and other work conditions – are typically battled out around a negotiation table. In rare cases, trade unions use action to make their point. Work continues, but the attention of the media is sought by dressing up, applying rules very strictly and thus slowing down public transport or other measures.

Rarely do unions resort to strikes and these strikes very rarely take more than one or two days. However in February 2010 strikes started in the cleaning sector. High profile locations such as Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam and Utrecht Central Station caught and kept the attention of the media and politics. Actions lasted for several months, the longest strike in The Netherlands since 1933(!).

The cleaners demanded significant wage rises, but also significant changes in work pressures. Contracts are becoming so tight that proper cleaning becomes impossible, to the dismay and disbelief of cleaning staff. It took several months of additional negotiation while the actions were continuing, to come to an agreement. "Finally, we obtained the respect we were asking for," said a representative of the Dutch unions.

However street sweepers are currently on strike in several big cities. It would appear that cleanliness is not yet valued sufficiently in all cases.


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