During the initial years of the Dutch labour mouvement is was customary, that after several decades the "great men" documented their experiences in a voluminous auto-biography. The most impressive work in this genre is the trilogy of W.H. Vliegen. But Domela Nieuwenhuis, Troelstra, Schaper and Wibaut have also published classic memoirs. The driving force, besides the inevitable vanity, is the desire to pass on the learned lessons to the next generation. This deserves some reflections. The document De geschiedenis der zelfstandige vakbeweging in Nederland, two thick volumes of 504 and 402 pages, written by Jan Oudegeest, also falls within this category of works.
The task of trade unions is the promotion of group interests, and that must be done without any ideological or moral dogma. Nevertheless, Oudegeest rose to fame in the Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen (NVV), which was connected to the social-democracy. Indeed his reminiscences still propagate the spirit of the class struggle. But whereas politicians often favour pathos and drama, Oudegeest has both feet firmly on the ground. A trade-union leader wants to realize results in the short term. That is his reason of existence, for which the members pay him.
The scheme of the books is simple. The text begins with an extensive description, starting with the earliest trade-union actions around 1866 (union of typographers) and ending with the professional NVV organization in 1925. In the remaining pages he thematicly presents some of the main points in the policy of the unions and especially of the federation. The labour laws, the social security, co-management, and the war economy are all discussed1. He also gives a detailed account of ten essential strikes at the beginning of the twentieth century. These offer important lessons for the organization, tactics and strategy, which have maintained their relevance. Your reviewer has even cited from the text during a union congress - which did not please everybody!
A brief sketch of the contents is perhaps the best method to give an impression of the present value of the work. Oudegeest was already active, when around 1893 the Dutch trade-union actions began to show their power, with the establishment of the Nationaal Arbeids Secretariaat (NAS), a federation of unions. During a period of ten years he learned how union activities should not be done. He accuses Van Erkel, the then chairman of the NAS and an anarchist, of mental weakness and a lack of moral courage! Union leaders must be strong. The deciding referenda, at the time customary in the NAS, were a source of irritation for Oudgeest ("the most backward instrument"). He, being a former administrator of a railway company, is somewhat condescending towards the proletarian workers. Due to the difference in standing he finds it difficult to see the personality of his comrades in arms.
Until 1900 the union activities remained amateurish. There were few paid union administrators. Oudegeest advocates a high contribution and financially strong unions. Then he was already the chairman of the Nederlandse Vereniging (NV), a union of railway-men. The year 1903 became a turning point. Oudegeest dedicates no less than 100 pages to this experience. Originally the dockworkers together with the railway-men won a strike2. The conflict became politicized, and the government under Kuyper introduced several "coercive laws" against strikes. Thus among others the strike of civil servants was forbidden.
The anarchist and social-democratic unions again aimed at a confrontation, but the public opinion changed. And after approximately a week the committee had to surrender and end the strike. The railway direction requited the action with thousands of dismissals. Oudegeest had to rebuild the NV. A horrible experience.
Oudegeest became disgusted at amateurism. In 1906 the federation NVV was founded. Those that remained within the NAS were mainly anarchist, with a dislike for tightly regulated organizations. Oudegeest left his position at the NV to join the new NVV, and became its secretary. He must have felt relief. The NVV was managed professionally as a modern organization. From this moment onwards the expansion began. Here the first volume ends.
In former times the NAS had relied on collection actions during strikes. In the NVV the unions formed their own strike funds. This insured the members of an income. The goal was to be independent. Therefore workers, who were not organized, were no longer supported. The NVV carried out several central tasks, such as the accumulation of knowledge, the publication of a magazine, and the lobby for social security laws. And buildings were bought, when renting a hall was made impossible. An expensive hobby. It turned out, that the accomplishment of successes were the main source of growth, which paradoxically mainly occurs during times of prosperity. According to Oudegeest the canvassing for members is ineffective in difficult times.
Oudegeest states, that the industrial concentration automatically leads to a concentration within unions. The enterprise is the binding factor, not the profession. On the other hand he believes, that loose workers do not fit in the union, because they are mentally not ripe for organization! They are too much inclined to start wild strikes. The increase of scale was beneficial for the expansion of the NVV. Incidentally, the catholic and protestant federations passed through a similar phase of growth. The NAS was not able to adapt, maintained an identity of revolution and anarchism, and declined. Even in 1909 its chairman Kolthek rejected collective agreements! The modern unions began to hire many officials; Oudegeest recommends one for each 1000 members. In this period the NVV also became increasingly busy with influencing the new social security laws.
Oudegeest stresses, that the trade union movement prefers constructive negotiations. A fundamental reason of existence is the prevention of strikes. He felt at home within the NVV, because he trusts its courage and targeted actions. Following the then usual language he calls this the class struggle3. But apart from that he favours a strict separation between the union movement and politics. Workers fight for their own interests. In fact, they have an instinctive aversion against strikes. The strikes must commonly be proposed and defended by the union officials. It is essential to gain the support of the people, because they suffer as consumers. Incidentally, protracted strikes are actually unaffordable.
In political regard, the NVV doubts that socializations are useful, according to Oudegeest because the Netherlands hardly possesses any raw materials. He does not want to propagate her. In his view socialism will be realized by means of the universal suffrage, the social laws, the municipality and the state enterprises. Thus socialism emerges organicly from capitalism. It is a view, that has proved to be viable. But at the time (around 1925) this kind of plan-socialism was by no means common property.
Interesting is also the argument of Oudegeest in favour of reduced working-hours. He is a part of the current, that bans liberty to the leisure times. Besides, the consumption can only increase, when extra time is made available!4 Oudegeest demands a free sunday (which gives him the support of the christian workers), and daily eight working-hours. Another striking phenomenon is, that among the workers the propaganda for the old-age benefit was more popular than the propaganda for universal suffrage. Erst das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral!. In this period the collective agreements were established. They are essential for peace in the big industries.
At the macro-economic level the NVV wants to combat the unemployment by means of state investments. This is called welfare politics. Incidentally, it is generally acknowledged that the laissez-faire capitalism is obsolete. A central arrangement is introduced for the unemployment benefit, since it turned out that the communities were not able to afford it. The NVV advocates the regulated free trade, with the options of protection, subsidies and control of immigration. The goal is the "inclusion" of the community, but not the "exclusion" of outsiders. According to Oudegeest the NVV wants to participate in discussions about social themes, such as the rent policy and armament.
The chapters about several important strikes are not really encouraging. They were often lost. An additional obstacle is the refusal of the christian unions to participate in these strikes, and incidentally they could not afford them. This is a difficult matter. Each strike is different. Moreover, they still make a lasting impression, irrespective of the outcome. This subject requires expertise, and perhaps therefore Oudegeest has withheld it until the final chapters. It is food for thought.
In 1919 Oudgeest moves to the International federation of trade unions (IFTU). He becomes her secretary. The Dutch were the natural choice, being nationals of a neutral state. This is the end of the second volume. It provides the reader with a better socio-political understanding. One can not help admiring the pragmatism of Oudegeest. This work offers much also to the modern reader. At the same time some vigilance is required. Oudegeest likes to criticize others, and then becomes rather arrogant. However, thanks to his belief in a strong leadership he became a beacon for many, during those chaotic decades. But in modern times that same combination of criticism and conviction can easily lead to excesses and abuse of power.