“What is the relevance of trade unions these days?”

Published on: 12 November 2021

Topical issues in the field of economy, (responsible) investment, pension and income: every week, one of APG's experts provides a clear answer to this week's question. This edition: the number of trade union members in the Netherlands has never been this low since 1996. Peter Gortzak, Head of Policy APG and former Vice President of the national trade union center FNV, about the question of whether or not the trade union is still relevant. “The figures are falling, according to the survey conducted by the CBS (Dutch Central Statistical Office). But if you look at the number of members, the trade union is the largest association in the Netherlands. An association committed to combat exploitation and standing up for the underlying party in our labor relations.”


The number of trade union members in the Netherlands has never been this low since 1996. The share of pensioners increases, while the group younger than 25 years of age is becoming smaller and smaller. And only a quarter of the members is 45 years or younger, while that group encompasses more than half of the working population in the Netherlands. These are recent figures published by the Dutch Central Statistical Office (CBS) which leaves room for only one conclusion: the trade unions are aging rapidly. The outflow is no longer compensated by young increment and the lasting members are getting older every year. The number of members decreased with approximately 6 percent compared to 2019. FNV is top of the list: in two years’ time this trade union has nearly 10 percent less members.

These are figures Peter Gortzak learns about with great sorrow, but to which he also likes to add a comment. “The decreasing number of members is portrayed quite negatively in the media. That's a pity as it does not reflect today's zeitgeist. And, of course, based on the decreasing numbers it is possible to trivialize the value of the labor movement, but it still is the largest association in the Netherlands.”

Gortzak describes that spirit of the times as follows: “Just look at the churches and broadcasters, the sports and music clubs, people are less likely to become a member of anything these days. In addition, the contribution for young people with a flexible job is quite high. It's also difficult for them to recognize what the trade union can do on their behalf.” Higher educated and better paid employees think they are able to do it better themselves and therefore don't need the trade union. ”And all of those factors together, partly explain the decline in numbers.”

There is, however, something the unions can do about these falling figures, Gortzak says. Trade unions could do more to convey the need of their existence. A more innovative and broader message seems to be necessary to persuade young people. That story is also more often told by FNV: themes such as climate change, the housing market, combating the growth of flexible contracts and problems with supplements and benefits receive more attention. As far as Gortzak is concerned, the labor movement should show their true value more often. “Tell people why you are fighting for the construction worker who is a self-employed person. Show the considerations made during negotiations. And not during a members’ meeting, as your members are already attending those events. Show your story and your face to people who are not a member yet.”


FNV and other trade unions are now relying mainly on traditional members. The member base, as shown by the CBS figures, consists for three-quarters of people older than 45 years of age. Most of them are working in sectors such as education, government, transport, construction and industry. They often became a member of the union based on the idea of holding a strong position towards their own employer. The core task of the union appears to be most important to them: a good Collective Labor Agreement and a good pension. Gortzak points out that not everything should be indicated in a macro figure: in some sectors he actually sees a high level of organization, meaning the number of memberships within a certain sector. “Don't just look at the outcome of the survey, as that is macro-thinking. Also look at the number of members per employer, per sector. Unfortunately, new sectors are emerging increasingly often in which hardly any union members are present.  But there are also sectors in which the membership of trade unions is flourishing. Just look at the Dutch Association of Journalists, or the police, with no less than an 85 percent level of organization, and the fire department in which the labor movement is well represented.”

The falling figures say nothing about the importance of the trade unions. Their added value continues to remain intact, according to Gortzak. “Let's say there is no trade union representing worker's interests. You wouldn't dare to imagine that every employer has to negotiate with every employee separately about the contents of the employment agreement. It is in the interest of the Netherlands, of the employer and the employee that these negotiations take place collectively, in the form of Collective Labor Agreements.

It's not the job of the trade unions to win converts

Another example. “No advice in the Social-Economic Council is taking effect without the contribution of the trade union. And what about the many lawsuits initiated by the trade unions against companies such as PostNL and Deliveroo. That latter case was actually initiated to improve the position of those young people delivering food on bicycles. And there are self-employed people working for PostNL who are in fact in paid employment but who, for example, have to make a costly investment to purchase a van for mail delivery. Their position is also one of the positions the trade union is trying to improve.”

The same trade union is currently performing a difficult balancing act. The labor market includes plenty of people who would greatly benefit from the help of a trade union, such as migrant workers and young people with flexible contracts. But it's actually these groups who are rarely a member. Gortzak believes that will not stop the labor movement from trying to help them. “The trade union is trying to turn the tide. Not to win converts, because the labor movement is not a goal in itself, but to provide a better position for employees. So even if not a single employee of Deliveroo is a member of the trade union, the labor movement will still stand up for the working conditions and labor conditions of the people working in that sector. Because it's truly exploitation.”

The fact that the labor movement is defending the interests of people no matter what, does not always benefit the membership level. Gortzak calls employee who benefit from these services without being a member free riders, as they are free riding the bike racks of a member. “And that too is representative for the current zeitgeist. Everywhere it's just me-me-me and if something goes wrong, it's always someone else's fault and the solution lies with the other. But what if something within a Collective Labor Agreement is not to their liking? They complain! Don't do that, not if you're not a member yourself. People who want to make a fist and want their voice to be heard, join the labor movement.”


Gortzak is however concerned about the falling figures. Because, as he says, in one way or the other, the employee is the underlying party. “It is and continues to be extremely important to build a proper defense around them. And things can only be achieved with the help of the majority.”