ONE OF the largest demonstrations in Dutch history took place last Saturday as 300,000 people, mainly trade unionists, marched against attacks on pensions and workers’ rights.
The right wing Dutch government has introduced the biggest cuts package since 1945.
The cuts are part of a huge programme of “social reform”, aiming at a complete restructuring of the welfare state, introduction of longer working hours and ending the possibilities of early retirement.
These issues will be familiar to workers in Britain and across Europe.
Almost identical attacks led to a demonstration of 50,000 people in the German capital, Berlin, on the same day as the Amsterdam march.
These mobilisations are bringing together longstanding trade unionists with radicalised young people, immigrants and new sections of workers.
So three hours before the start people began pouring into the Museum Square, where the official programme of events took place.
At the same time 50,000 people participated in a “pre-march” calling on the government to resign.
Workers in Rotterdam harbour had struck for 24 hours, and young anti-capitalists pulled down a mock statue of the prime minister.
In the run-up to last Saturday 60,000 trade unionists participated in a massive strike in Rotterdam, uniting black and white workers in a city where the far right politician Pim Fortuyn started his career. Many thousands struck and demonstrated in other parts of the country.
All this has led to a public debate in Holland about the “return of the trade unions”. Much of the media is commenting on how the union mobilisations are no longer characterised by old bureaucrats but reflect the vibrant diversity of Dutch society.
The unions have now announced a “hot autumn” of activity. After years of calm in terms of strikes, there is a general feeling that the left is on the offensive.
In the coming weeks unions have called a strike on public transport, and are discussing national strikes in other sectors.
The government is in trouble. It was already unpopular for following George Bush’s disastrous war policy.
According to opinion polls, if there were new elections now prime minister Balkenende’s three- party coalition would lose its majority to opposition parties to its left.
One of the demonstrators on Saturday was Klaas Zantingh of the CNV union organisation, who is the chair of Balkenende’s CDA party in the town of Emmen.
He said if the CDA does not change its policies he will resign from the party.
That’s just one indication of the political turmoil in Holland.
But a much deeper process is at work. Tory and Labour-type governments across Europe are ripping up a welfare state that has helped to provide stability for two generations.
In Holland in recent years we have seen how that can provide a breeding ground for right wing anti-immigrant forces.
In Germany the assault on welfare is coming from Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic and Green government, showing we need a political force to the left of social democracy to confront this assault.
Labour-type parties that are in opposition in Europe are trying to gain from the revolt against neo-liberalism. But large numbers of people remember what they were like in office.
So the discussion about a left alternative is raging.
It will be a theme at the European Social Forum in London next week.
And some of those at the heart of the movement in Holland are travelling to London to take part.