After a round of strikes earlier this month, the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV) demanded a new collective employment agreement for bus drivers by Monday, January 30. With the deadline passed and no agreement in sight, strikes are set to resume on February 6, 2023. The strikes will affect everyone – from the bus drivers themselves to the travelers trying to get to their work, school or university on time.
Tim van Malsen, a bus driver for EBS, is not affiliated with the union but understands from other bus drivers that the purpose of the strikes is to demand better working conditions. Although he is not involved in the current strikes, he says that many of his colleagues were involved in past strikes. While some know ‘what has been achieved previously’ others ‘feel the unions are not doing anything for them’ and have left them, he said.
After hearing about his colleagues’ disappointment with the strikes and the union, Tim does not seem to be very optimistic. He admits that he does not think there is a solution to the current situation regarding the employment agreement.
Tim explained that although he did not have to work often during previous strikes, when he was scheduled to do it he noticed the effect of the strikes on the travelers. While some grumbled about the canceled services, others ‘were happy that I was driving’ he says.
Elsa (22), a student at the University of Groningen, is dependent on the buses to go to her classes all around the city. While waiting for a bus that may or may not be coming, Elsa explains how she needs a reliable bus schedule: ‘It’s very unfortunate that the bus isn’t driving today. We’re going to Zernike for an exam right now, so we have to be on time.’
Although the bus strikes have been an issue for Elsa, she can sympathize with the bus drivers and their cause: ‘I do support them, but I find it annoying too that it gets in the way of me going to work or school.’ The next strike planned for the 6th of February however is a source of stress for her as this would mean she will most likely be late for her classes.
Other passengers feel similarly, but some express less annoyance at the situation. Talking to people at Groningen station, it seems students are most reliant on a consistent bus schedule
The struggle for an agreement
Tanja Copal, the press liaison for the association of public transportation companies (VWOV) said the bus companies are ‘very disappointed about the way the unions are handling the situation’. The unions gave an ultimatum for yesterday, January 30, but no new agreement has been achieved. Therefore, bus drivers are expected to strike on February 6.
Ms. Copal reiterated the companies’ disappointment and said that there is ‘a very good deal on the table’. It increases wages by 8% but the unions are demanding more, between a 14 and 17% increase. With the companies still affected by the coronavirus, it is just ‘not realistic’ added Ms. Copal.
In addition, according to Ms. Copal the companies have suggested a deal for older employees where they work 60% but are paid for 80% and can accumulate 100% for their pension. This deal is a loss for the companies but they have suggested it in addition to the 8% wage increase. When asked about whether the companies would budge anymore on the wage increase, she said she ‘cannot say’ but the unions’ demands are too high.
While the FNV did not respond to our enquiries, they have published a statement on their website detailing their demands. According to this statement, since the bus companies did not agree to their ultimatum on January 30, a five-day strike will start on Monday The union demands a wage increase equal to the inflation rate as well as a more flexible work schedule. Moreover, they did not respond to requests for corroborating the VWOV’s statements.
Although it is not clear whether further strikes will follow the five-day strike if there is no agreement, last year’s train strikes suggest that they would continue until an agreement is reached. This seems to be the case with buses as well, since earlier unsuccessful negotiations led to the latest strikes. Thus, it can be expected that if there is no positive outcome to the five-day strike, more will likely follow.
A need for bus alternatives
Travelers inconvenienced by the lack of buses are in need of better alternatives to their usual bus during the many strikes that have taken place over the past couple of months. One passenger mentions that she is very bothered by the strikes as for her it is not a possibility to work from home everyday. To be able to get to work she needs her boss to either cover the costs of a taxi or for the bus companies to provide an alternative to the buses that won’t be driving.
Unlike cities like Amsterdam or The Hague, cities like Groningen lack sufficient public transport alternatives to the lack of buses during the strikes. Where Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht have trams or subways to compensate for the lack of regional buses, for many people in smaller cities the only other options are taking the bike or car. But these means of transport are not available to everybody.
Plans to create a network of tram rails in the city of Groningen have been on the table of the regional government for years. The controversial issue however caused the college of the mayor and aldermen to fall in 2012 as issues surrounding the financing of the project gave rise to disagreements between the political parties. The network of tram rails would cost the city about 209 million euros, according to a research report from 2022.