More strikes than ever in the last 50 years

When historians look back on the current period of political and economic history, they will notice several defining disruptive features such as war in Ukraine and the Middle East, the fiscal hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation, and increases in central bank interest rates. But there is another feature of the current period where broken records may be flying under the radar: strikes.

Numbers of strikes rising
The number of times that workers take industrial action has risen precipitously in recent years. In 2019, there were just 26 strikes in the country, according to Statistics Netherlands. That number dropped to just 9 in 2020, likely thanks to the spread of Covid, rising again to 22 in 2021 and 33 in 2022. But new data on strikes in 2023 goes further still. In 2023, there were a record 52 strikes, double the number from four years earlier.

Curiously, although the number of strikes has increased significantly each year since 2021, the quantity of workers on strike paints a very different picture. 2019’s 26 strikes saw 318,000 workers taking industrial action. But in 2022, only 16,000 strikers made up that year’s 33 strikes. The following year, in 2023, despite the number of strikes rising to 52, the quantity of workers involved was still only 17,000, suggesting the average strike that year was much smaller than in previous years, even though there were more strikes overall.

The effect of strikes

As well as being quite small and concentrated, last year’s strikes also lasted a long time, with a total of 142 working days missed. They covered a wide range of sectors. Many strikes took place in industry, but there was also action taken in other sectors including healthcare, trade and waste collection services.

It is unclear whether there is a direct connection between strikes and wages. As the economy has grown and especially as inflation has taken hold in recent years, earnings have grown by almost a third: there has been a 32.8% increase in gross hourly wages since 2010. This benefit is especially pronounced for female workers. Women have seen their wages increase by 40% during that period, with men’s wages only rising by 30% since 2010, largely thanks to female workers being better educated on average than their male counterparts.

Strikers will no doubt celebrate achieving higher wages in many cases thanks to their industrial action. Gross hourly pay increased by more than it has done in a single year since 1978, with a 7 per cent increase.

However, much of that increase can be put down to an increase in the minimum wage, rather than directly to the outcome of negotiations with unions because of strikes. The increase of the minimum wage for the lowest-paid employees, which went up by 10% at the start of 2023 and a further 3.5% in July, had a domino effect, increasing pay higher up the scale of seniority, too.

What next?
Things may be calming down. Mathijs Roodenburg, a policy advisor with employers’ association AWVN, believes hostility is draining between striking workers and their bosses, making compromises more likely, allowing strikes to come to an end sooner, or even for strikes to drop off the agenda altogether. ‘It is becoming calmer at the negotiating table,’ Roodenburg observes. ‘Parties find solutions together more often. There is more understanding.’ Piet Fortuin, chairman of the CNV trade union, agrees with Roodenburg’s assessment. ‘Most collective labour agreements have already taken the inflation bump,’ he says. ‘Negotiations run more smoothly there now.’

Looking to the future, since the peak of the inflationary and interest rates crisis seems to have passed, it looks like the peak of strike activity has also passed by. That means unions are likely to return to normalcy, calling strikes less often, which will be a relief for employers, as well as the various groups of customers who rely on the goods and services provided by those workers.

Written by Jason Reed