Catelene Passchier has been a Workers’ rights and Women’s rights activist for more than 30 years.

She graduated with a Law degree from the University of Utrecht and then started working for the FNV (The Netherlands Trade Union Confederation) in 1988, gradually becoming a prominent voice for what is today the largest trade union confederation in the country, it has 1,1 million members.

In 2003, she became a member of the Executive Committee of the European Trade Union Federation (ETUC) in Brussels. As of 2010, she is the Vice President of the FNV, and has taken a clear stance against Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders and his party PVV.

This is a full transcript of the interview with Catelene Passchier.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to Arbetet Global. I recently visited Utrecht, where the FNV arranged a public debate about elderly care in The Netherlands. Most of the parties were represented – but not Geert Wilders’ party, the PVV. As I understand, you have banned his party from all your events. Why?

Let’s take it from the beginning. In the years after 9/11 and the murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 – a very shocking event that created a toxic mix of islamophobia and other developments – Mr Wilders who used to be a “normal” conservative before that, introduced a very strong anti-Islam and anti-immigrant agenda, and decided to form his own party, the PVV.

It is a very peculiar party, because it has only one member: Geert Wilders himself. The reason for this is that he saw how the infighting between different factions had destroyed Pim Furtuyn’s party.

So Mr Wilders, previously a mainstream conservative, decided that it would be much better if he was 100 percent in charge. That way, no members could ever challenge his authority or kick him out. And, of course, that has made the PVV a very undemocratic party.

During this period I was in Brussels working with the European Trade Union Confederation. When I came back to the Netherlands in 2010, I realized that we had quite a complex task ahead: on one hand, we had to deal with the PVV as a party, and on the other, we also needed to deal with its potential voters.

There were quite a lot of our members in the working class that felt attracted to Wilders’ simplistic messages and scapegoating; “Let’s close the border”, “Fewer immigrants will give ‘us’ better opportunities in the labour market”, etcetera.

For a long time, we tried to ignore Mr Wilders and focus on our own social agenda, making strong demands for employment, health care and other issues.

But ahead of the local elections in 2014, Mr Wilders held a public event for his own party members where he asked them if they agreed with him on that there should be fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. And then he listened as they shouted “Fewer, Fewer, Fewer”.

For us, that was the moment when we understood that ignoring him just wasn’t an option anymore. We needed to speak out against this party that so clearly acted against our constitutional principles. And as a trade union movement, we decided that we can’t work with this party, as they act against our principles such as equal treatment, non-discrimination and respect.

We declared that we will not invite its representatives to our events, since it would give them a platform to speak from. Of course, we have and will continue to share our views with every influential politician, and we are still sending our documents, reports, and other materials to all parties, including the PVV. But if we organize something where we want to hear the views of the political parties, we will not invite them.

FNV meeting. Photo: Estrella de la Reguera

How was this received by the PVV?

They were really unhappy about it. But we have maintained this position. Recently some of our members challenged it, saying that we can’t just ignore such a big party. But after an internal evaluation we decided that, as long as this party works against our basic principles, we can’t invite it – no matter how big it gets. And this is accepted by a large majority of our constituency.

Do you know how many of the FNV’s members that sympathize with the PVV?

No, we have never conducted this kind of poll. And that is a deliberate choice. I know that for example the German trade union movement has done quite detailed studies. But in the FNV, we have felt that it wouldn’t be very helpful.

Why is that?

We don’t want to give the PVV the chance to use it from the podium. We don’t want them to be able to say, “look, so and so many of your members vote for us”.

Sure, we have some indications. And we know that our members vote for all parties, although most vote on the center-left of the scale.

We are a large movement and we do not expel anyone on the basis of party membership, even if that membership is with the PVV. However, we expect our trade union members to respect our principles and be respectful of other people.

Geert Wilders’ rise in the polls ahead of this election is often described as the result of a growing discontent among voters. Not least, voters in the working class. Do you agree, and – in that case – what has caused this discontent?

Well, I think there are probably a lot of issues that are similar in Sweden, or Belgium, or Germany. I think several things are in motion here.

First, in politics, there is a general disrespect for people with lower levels of education and jobs associated with lower classes. Almost all parliamentarians today have higher education, and they use ways of speaking, communicating, that does not necessarily attract people in the lower class of society.

There is little space for “normal” working class people in politics today.

Second, in the last 10 to 20 years, liberal-conservative market-oriented policies have been on the winning hand almost everywhere in Europe. Even where there have been Social Democrats involved in government, they always have had to compromise on issues. So what we have seen is a more market-oriented approach to health care, labour markets, flexibilization, and many other areas. And many people feel that this has not best served their interests.

Third, we have the problem with the extension of the EU to Eastern Europe, which has been handled very badly.

In the trade union movement we were never against open borders, nor against free movement, and I know that the Swedish trade union movement has been even stronger on that position.  But we always argued that you can’t just open up the borders – you also need strong social policies to accompany such action.

However, because of the right-wing political wind that has been so strong in the EU, we haven’t been able to deal properly with this enlargement.

In sectors such as agriculture, and especially the horticulture, we have a lot of workers from Eastern Europe here in The Netherlands – and we have had a lot of problems in securing one of the central issues of a trade union: equal pay for equal work.

It has taken us ten years – at least – to get this issue on the European table. We have had enormous difficulties in getting politicians to understand that this issue is of key importance for the popular support for European enlargement. Most politicians have been very late in realizing this – and that has set people against immigrants. As a trade union movement we have tried to say that we´re not against the immigrants, but that we are against the employers that are abusing immigrants.

We continue to say that in order to improve the situation, and we continue to work with immigrants and to collaborate with trade unions in Eastern Europe.

But there are quite a large number of people in the Netherlands that feel that, “well, we are better off without those people” – which is kind of the same sentiment as we saw in the Brexit referendum.

Meanwhile, in the trade union movement, we have been very much alone in consistently stating what is needed in order to find a solution to this problem: strong social policies.

What about the crisis for the Social Democratic party, PvdA? It has formed part of the government in the Netherlands for several years now, but is polling at historically low levels. Isn’t it time to be self-critical, especially with regard to the austerity measures of the last few years? And the FNV historically has had a close relationship with the PvdA…

Yes, but not as close as in Sweden… It is true that the austerity measures have done a lot of harm. I was about to mention that as my fourth point.

The problem here is that the PvdA, our Labour party, has had different voices and faces.

For instance, the current party leader, Lodewijk Asscher [elected in December 2016, ed. note], has done quite a lot of good things during his four years as Minister of Social Affairs and Employment. He has placed the question of equal pay for equal work on the agenda, and has worked together with us in combatting the abuse by employers. Steps that we see as very positive.

However, others in his party, such as Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, have been very outspoken in favour of the austerity policy and continue to say that they were a good idea. We have been very much against these policies, and we have challenged them repeatedly: They were not only bad for Greece, but also for The Netherlands.

The PvdA has been in a difficult position, because they have been governing with the right wing party. It is always difficult for a left-wing party to maintain its popularity when you have to compromise all the time. But they have also been very ambiguous on several other issues…

Such as?

Yesterday, I was at a meeting concerning showing solidarity with Muslims. We are part of a coalition against racism, and there was a meeting at a mosque here in Amsterdam to discuss the increased sense of insecurity that many Muslims experience. And what became clear was that these groups also very much feel abandoned by the Labour party because they have not clearly been challenging the extreme right.

Many mainstream parties have taken anti-immigrant positions, in fear of the PVV. And now the Labour party are, quite rightfully, being blamed by a quite large portion of our immigrant population. They are saying: “Where have you been? What have you done?”.

The PvdA used to have very strong support amongst Turkish and Maroccan immigrants in our country. But now that has dwindled, because they feel that the Labour party has not really been a good friend to them. Due to the language that has been used and the measures that have been taken. Some of these measures were inspired by the PVV and put on the governing coalition’s agenda by the conservatives – because the conservatives, of course, want to compete with the PVV. And now, that is costing the Labour party a lot of votes.

On the other hand, the Green Left party is growing, and its leader, 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, is sometimes presented as a Dutch version of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Well, right now it looks like we might get a right-wing-green coalition in government after this election. Because, you see, the party that is called the Green Left is actually more “green” than “left”. It is an Establishment party and is attracting mainly voters with a high education. Though it is true that Jesse Klaver is a young guy and that, in general, he attracts young people.

But this is not necessarily a party that will champion working class issues.

The FNV as a trade union never endorses a particular party, but we read and compare the respective programs. And I think that the parties that would best serve the interests of workers are, on the one hand the Labour party (PvdA), and on the other hand the Socialist Party (SP), which is a left-wing socialist party.

The Socialist Party has never been in government and has always been a bit too far away from being considered – in part because they never want to compromise on anything.

So the interesting but also worrying question is: what will happen to our constituency, the people that we represent?

Well, the parties that look like they will be forming a government are not the ones that will take our members interests into account. It is therefore quite sad that PvdA, that has shown political responsibility in the last four years and has done quite a number of positive things from a working class perspective, is now paying a high price for taking governmental responsibility.

Erik de la Reguera
Twitter: @erikdelareguera