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Trade Unions

A fifth of employees (18%) are union members in the Netherlands, and the proportion has been gradually falling in recent years. There are two main confederations, the FNV – the larger of the two – and the CNV, initially divided on ideological/confessional lines, although now with good relations. The other main union grouping has recently split and with the FNV also undertaking a radical restructuring, unions are facing significant organisational changes. note2

Figures published by the Netherlands statistical office (CBS) indicate that there were 1,762,000 trade unionists in the Netherlands in 2014.1 However, 299,600 (17.0% of the total) are older than 65, and the total not working is probably higher. Separate CBS statistics based on a regular survey of employees (EBB) found that 18% of employees were union members in 2011. This figure is slightly higher than the ICTWSS database of union membership, which put union density at 19.0% in 2011.3



The largest trade union confederation in the Netherlands is the FNV, which on the CBS figures had 1,131,600 members in October 2014.4 The other main union confederation, the CNV, is considerably smaller with 287,100 members at the same time. Both the FNV and the CNV organise manual and non-manual workers.



The FNV and CNV trace their roots back to organisations with a clear religious or political orientation. The FNV emerged from the merger of the socialist and the catholic union federations; the CNV still describes itself as a Christian union and comes from a tradition of Protestant trade unionism.



The third major union grouping is the vcp (formerly MHP), which was set up in 1974 to represent senior staff facing increasing pressure at the workplace. On the CBS figures the vcp had 54,100members in October 2014, primarily coming from staff and managerial grades. However, this is only half the number it had a two years earlier as Unie, at the time the largest union within the MHP confederation with some 70,000 members (Unie website5 ), left MHP in January 2013, stating that union structures in the Netherlands made it difficult to win support for union concerns. In October 2013, Unie and CNV made a joint statement saying that they were considering joining forces in a new confederation.6 However, discussions are still continuing and a new confederation is unlikely to be set up in the near future.



For the present, Unie, together with smaller unions, such as the RMU and the LBV, is one of a number of organisations not affiliated to the three main confederations. The CBS figures show that total membership of these smaller unions was 289,100 in October 2014, around 100,000 more than two years earlier.



In 2011, the FNV had 19 affiliated unions. However, following a major discussion about its future in 2011 and 2012 (see below), it has decided to re-establish itself as “de nieuwe vakbeweging” (the new union movement), although not all the former FNV unions are joining the new body. The largest of those not making the shift is the pensioners’ union ANBO, which had 181,800 members in 2011, and left FNV in January 2013.



In October 2014 five FNV unions, including the three largest FNV Bondgenoten, which represents employees in industry and services in the private sector and had 470,500 members in 2011, the public services union ABVAKABO FNV with 355,500 members, and the construction union FNV Bouw with 118,100 all held merger congresses.7 These five unions, which together account for around 80% of FNV’s total membership, are merging into a single new union from 1 January 2015. The remaining 12 unions, the largest of which is the teachers’ union AOb, with 85,000 members,8 will remain independent, but will continue to be affiliates of FNV as in the past.



The CNV has seven affiliates of which the three largest are the CNV Vakmensen with 135,000 members (operating primarily in manufacturing, and construction), CNV Publieke Zaak (public sector) with 75,000 members and Onderwijsbond CNV, the education union, with almost 54,000 members (figures from CNV websites9 ).



The third union grouping, vcp, has more than 50 individual union organisations linked to it, although most are affiliated indirectly through the union federation CMHF. CMHF affiliates include a number of unions representing managers and more senior staff in central and local government and state institutions. The direct affiliates of vcp include the police union ACP, the pilots’ union, VNV, and VHKP, a union representing senior staff at the airline company KLM.



Relations between the FNV and CNV are good. However, the actions of Unie in the area of collective bargaining have in the past resulted in disputes with the other two confederations. They have accused Unie of signing unsatisfactory agreements in areas where it has only low membership, so blocking their own attempts at improvements (see section on collective bargaining).



In the two main confederations, the relationship between the centre and the individual unions has in the past been complex. In 2011 the three largest FNV affiliates, Bondgenoten, Abvakabo and Bouw clashed with the leadership of the confederation over the issue of occupational pensions. The decision to set up a new confederation, “de nieuwe vakbeweging” (see above) and transfer the individual membership from the unions to a new FNV, in part resulted from that conflict.



The unions supporting the merger believe it will bring unions closer to the membership and help them make better use of their resources. However, it remains to be seen how the merger will work in practice.



Neither the FNV nor the CNV has formal ties with any political parties although the FNV is closer to the Dutch labour party PvdA and the CNV to the Christian democrats. The vcp emphasises that it is a body without religious or political connections.



The proportion of employees organised in unions has fallen steadily in recent years – down from 26% in 1995 to 18% in 2011 using the CBS statistics from the EBB survey.10 In part this has been because of a growth in the overall number of employees. However, since 2003 union membership seems also to have declined, although changes in the methods of collecting the figures make them difficult to interpret precisely. One reason for the creation of the new structure for the FNV is the hope that it will lead to an increase in membership.



The CBS statistics show that men are more likely to be in unions than women – 23% of men are union members but only 17% of women. Union density is highest in public administration – at 34%, while in hotels and catering it is only 7%. (All figures for 2011 from the EBB survey, but excluding those working fewer than 12 hours a week ; on this basis overall union density is 20%.)

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.