Primary school teachers in the Netherlands recently took mass strike action. In 2017, there were three national strikes by teachers and 90% of the schools or more closed during each strike. On the 5th October, 70,000 primary school teachers went to protests. What is also important about this struggle is that it started with teachers organizing themselves from outside the unions.
For years, there have been huge problems in primary education. The workload for teachers is immense, who have the highest rate of burnouts of all workers. One in four teachers experiences burnout. Not only did class pupil numbers become larger but because of a policy change in 2014, children with behaviour or learning problems have to go to standard primary schools instead of special primary schools. This, in itself, would not have been a problem if there were more means available, but that is not the case.
There is already a shortage of primary school teachers and it is estimated that this will rise to 11,000 full time jobs in ten years, if nothing changes. Primary school teachers earn up to 19% less than secondary school teachers and this, together with the high workload, makes the profession unattractive for young people; the number of students in training to become teachers has fallen dramatically.
Frustration and anger has been building up amongst the primary school teachers, but their union leaderships did nothing. Then, at the beginning of 2017, three primary school teachers set up a facebook group called “po in actie” (“primary education in action”). Within a few months, more than 40,000 primary school teachers joined po in actie, which demanded the same wage for primary school teachers as secondary school teachers and for mass investment to decrease their workload. They threatened to organize a week long strike, last september, if the new government, which was yet to be formed, would not meet their demands.
Only then the union leadership moved into action, in fear that they would lose control of the situation. In June, a common front of po in actie, the teachers’ unions and the school boards organised an hour long ‘warning strike’ and a national demonstration which thousands of taeachers attended.
90% schools closed
The new government promised seven hundred million euros for primary education, but that was only half of what the teachers demanded. At the same time, the government planned to give away 1.4 billion, the exact amount as the teachers were demanding, to the multinational companies in the form of tax reductions. So the teachers continued there struggle. On the fifth of October, 90% of schools were again closed, and 60,000 primary school teachers gathered for a protest rally at The Hague. Over 10,000 took part in other protests across the country. On 12 December, there was a third national strike, which saw 93% of schools shut.
Just before the strike on 12th December, po in actie announced that it will transform itself into a union. In a few days, they signed up 1500 members and they expect to get tens of thousands of members.
While it is understandable that po in actie receives a lot of support and sympathy, setting up seperate unions for one sector is not the solution. The FNV, the main trade union federation, which has over a million members, remains the main instrument to defend our interests. However, its leadership is closer to the employers than to its members in terms of living standards and ideology, and therefore systematically holds back struggle. There is a need to build a left opposition inside the FNV to change it into a real fighting union that can win victories.
The pressure from teachers, however, is so great that the union leadership had to announce that they will continue the teachers’ actions in 2018, but it will be in the form of relay action instead of days of national strikes. Most teachers seem to want an intensification of the struggle. Some still want to take strike action for a week while others are more hesitant about that because of the effect it would have on the children and on the support from the parents, which at the moment is still widespread.
The problem is that the trade union leadership keeps the primary school teachers isolated. There are severe problems in other sectors of education and in the health, public transport and private sectors, yet the struggles ae not linked up or broadened by the union leaders. The FNV has started an ‘offensive’ against the government, but without clear demands, a clear action plan or mass mobilisations.
There is a lot of anger amongst working people that first we had to pay for the crisis of 2007 and now that the economy is growing again we do not benefit, at all. The primary school teachers have provided an inspiring example of workers going on the offensive. If unions organized a broad offensive it could get a big response. There is already growing discontent amongst the rank and file of the FNV about the startegy of the leadership; we need to build upon that and fight for a real offensive, that can bring the government to its knees.