Opinion: Rewarding solidarity

By Marijtje Jongsma associate professor and VAWO spokesperson
Published in Trouw (Dutch news paper)

In Britain, it pays to be a member of a trade union. In a recent collective agreement on education, it was agreed that trade union members would receive their salary increases three months earlier than the so-called free riders.

In the Netherlands, non-trade union members also take part in the agreements that trade unions make with employers. Salary increases and terms of employment, all collective agreements in the Netherlands are generally binding, i.e. applicable to everyone. Without a general collective bargaining agreement, it is doubtful whether individual employees will be able to arrange a salary increase and better terms of employment with their employer each year.

The fine principle of a collective bargaining agreement that applies to all employees has, however, proved to be detrimental to solidarity: in recent decades, the number of members of trade unions has fallen dramatically. Partly because of the generally binding declaration, many people see no need to join a trade union. Yet there is an insidious risk here: with fewer members, the trade unions' negotiating position at the collective bargaining tables also decreases, while it is precisely the trade unions that can make excellent and independent agreements with the employers about the terms and conditions of employment.

Conditions of employment

Employees hardly think about the state of affairs surrounding their collective agreement. In my work environment, I notice that it is often even assumed that the employment conditions are determined unilaterally by the employer. Apparently, employees do not realize that without the contribution of the trade unions, the terms and conditions of employment would look very different. Almost everyone has forgotten, for example, that trade unions have ensured that child labour no longer exists in the Netherlands, that the number of working hours is capped, that you are paid in the event of pregnancy and illness, that there is holiday pay and that you are not alone in the event of a conflict with the employer. These are not agreements that are made quickly, but which took sometimes years of negotiating.

Take, for example, the collective bargaining agreement on the maximum number of temporary appointments at universities. After VAWO was able to demonstrate to the employers on the basis of figures that there was a structural problem, this subject ended up on the negotiating table. Fortunately, agreements have now been made, but as far as the trade unions are concerned, there is still plenty of room for improvement. And there are many other issues that trade unions are working on, such as equal opportunities, diversity, improvement of existing regulations, social security, and so on.


It becomes very difficult for trade unions to make tough demands when only a handful of people are members. If there are no equal parties, the polder model of which we are so proud in the Netherlands can hardly be called a polder model anymore. Unfortunately, despite all the member recruitment campaigns, too few people have an eye for the bigger picture. Unless there is an immediate disadvantage. Then people's willingness to take action is suddenly much greater.

That's how the non-trade union members in England got in a fuss about this measure. “Because,” they say, “as a principled opponent of trade unions, it is not fair that we should be punished.” But you could also turn it around. Of course, we should not create two worlds in the Netherlands, but what is certain is that with this agreement, the trade unions in England are showing people how important it is that collective agreements are made and that solidarity is indispensable for this. At a time when people are mainly looking at what's in it for me, this is desperately needed.