A wage demand full of cents, what can you do with that?

There is something wrong with the wage demand that FNV made last week. The union does not want a wage increase in percentages, as usual, but in cents. 100 euros per month for everyone. Then the penny dropped. The FNV is purely retro-political. Cents instead of percentages was a popular slogan in the radical union years. Fifty years ago.

Also read this essay: The Netherlands longs for solidarity, but how?

You can say: old wine in new bottles. You could also say: FNV feels the zeitgeist very well. Look around you. The picture is surprisingly similar to the situation in the world fifty years ago. The seventies.

Demonstrate against the housing crisis? In 1970 you had the first national squat against housing shortage.

Political polarization that stops the cabinet formation before it even starts? In the 1970s, polarization was practically the ‘official’ politics on both the left and the right.

A riot against the arrival of Afghan refugees? In 1972 Rotterdammers rioted against Turkish guest workers.

The alarming reports on the future of human and animal life from the international climate panel IPCC? In 1972 a group of scientists published The Limits to Growth (Growth Limits), in which they reported that the Earth is heading for exhaustion if measures are not taken.

Against this background of social discontent, in 1972/73 the industrial unions demanded an equalization of incomes through wage negotiations: cents instead of percentages, as they called it. In this way, the lower-paid would benefit relatively more. The unions (and, if the demands are met, also the employers) would thus contribute to a political goal: smaller income differences. There was a strike everywhere, for months. About 80,000 industrial workers took part. Some of the unions got their way.

And now FNV is talking about it again. Understandable. The union kills three birds with one stone.

The wage requirement makes lower paid work more attractive; butter with the fish. You would say: employers should be grateful to the union. How else do they gain staff? The shortages in some sectors can be traced to the fact that people are switching to other sectors. Work elsewhere is more fun and more rewarding. So market forces. Really something for entrepreneurs.

Second argument: the ‘centene requirement’ can help make the FNV itself more attractive in sectors such as the hospitality industry and retail trade that pay low wages. The association has relatively few members there. Its total membership has also been declining for years.

Third consideration: the union is cleverly responding to wider discontent about inequality. In her HJ School lecture this month, D66 leader Sigrid Kaag mentioned socio-economic inequality as one of the four problems where ‘courageous choices’ must be made. If a social-liberal party such as D66 addresses inequality as an abuse, FNV can of course not be left behind.

In The Financial Times columnist Mathijs Bouman described the cents-instead-of-percent demand as trade union populism. But it is just the opposite. The wage requirement for market forces and leveling fits perfectly into the Dutch trade union tradition. Where do the interests of the members and the general interest meet? The unions have perhaps even been too cooperative in the past thirty years. They held on to wage moderation for too long. They tend to be slow with high wage demands in a booming economy.

The trade union movement, even now, presents itself as the responsible party. This contrasts even more with the deadlock in politics.

Menno Tamminga writes on this site every Tuesday about corporate policy and economics.

A wage demand full of cents, what can you do with that?
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