Rising unemployment may produce new turns in nationwide salary talks

The Dutch economy, and not management, may help win some concessions out of organized labor this year. As the unemployment rate in the Netherlands pushes toward the 10 percent mark , and inflation -- long held steady at around 4 percent -- nears 7 percent, many government officials are hoping for a more "pragmatic" attitude on the part of organized labor in this year's nationwide salary negotiations.

"We have to be pragmatic," acknowleges Wim Spit, vice-president of FNV, the Confederation Netherlands Trade Union Movement, the largest union in Holland, with over 1 million members.

In an interview at FNV headquarters, located amid working-class residences and factories in Amsterdam, Mr. Spit discussed wage negotiations and labor's role in forming Dutch economic policy.

It is a large role.

"Labor is not just involved in wages and working conditions," he stated, "but in housing, education, and health care. Anything that affects the workers." A representative from the unions, for instance, is a member of the Dutch equivalent of the Parent Teacher Association, helping to form education policy.

Labor also "has to be involved in setting rents and seeing to it people have adequate housing," Mr. Spit added. "If there is no good housing, and people cannot afford to rent a good home, and if education and health care are not good , we [the labor unions] have not realized anything for the worker."

To help achieve these goals, the FNV has organized several divisions that deal with: working conditions and wages for jobholders, job training, and placement, housing and living conditions (including environmental issues), education issues from kindergarten through university, and social security.

But for now, Mr. Spit says, the FNV is concerned with two pressing issues: nationwide wage negotiations and the threatened closing of the only automobile manufacturing plant in the Netherlands.

* In Holland, the labor unions negotiate wages on a nationwide basis with the government and come up with a minimum wage for the whole country that applies to union and nonunion workers alike. Currently, that wage is the equivalent of $ 850 to $900 a month, depending on currency fluctuations. Negotiations on new wages are now under way.

* Citing high Dutch wages, heavy absenteeism rates up to 28 percent, and low productivity, Ford Motor Company announced plans in May to close the Amsterdam plant (located next door to the FNV headquarters), lay off some 1,300 production and sales employees, and make its vehichles at other underused European plants.The plant has sentimental as well as economic value, since it was opened in 1931 by Henry Ford, as the company founder's first factory outside North America.

After stiff protests from the prime minister and Amsterdam officials, who have seen several plants close in their city recently, and a two-day occupation of the plant by workers, Ford agreed to postpone the scheduled September closing and gave city officials and the union until June 30 to come up with a rescue plan.

Despite its outcome, the Ford issue points up a much larger question, Mr. Spit says. That is, what control do individual countries have over large multinationals? To Mr. Spit, the answer in "none," a situation he is working to remedy. The FNV vice-president, who is also vice-president of ENV, the European Trade union Confederation, has helped organize meetings with other labor unions to talks about Ford and other multinationals. One such meeting was held in Switzerland last month.

"We have international companies, but we don't have international laws," he complains. "This is why we are very interested in what the United Nations is doing to get an agreement for labor and multinationals around the world."

One thing multinationals could provide immediately, Mr. Spit asserts, is information. "Multinationals must be required to give information on their plans to the labor confederations involved in the company.

"Then we could become involv ed in the decisionmaking process."

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