THE NETHERLANDS: Soldiers, Unite!

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Aside from the comic-strip troops of Al Capp's Lower Slobbovia or the G.I.s who stumble through maneuvers at Camp Swampy with Beetle Bailey, the 70,000-man army of The Netherlands is probably the raunchiest-looking fighting force in the world. In startling contrast to the red-jacketed guardsmen who stand stiffly at attention outside Buckingham Palace, the honor guards in front of the royal palace on the Dam Square in Amsterdam usually have unkempt uniforms, straggly beards and lank shoulder-length hair. In fact, they look more like refugees from a rock group than members of a NATO contingent that might some day have to face the Red Army in combat. Yet, in one sense, the army of The Netherlands is the most modern in the world: it is fully unionized.

The Dutch have never been very big on military discipline; thus when a conscripts' union for the army was organized in 1966, it was not considered as outlandish an idea as it might have seemed elsewhere. The union started off by demanding better pay for underpaid conscripts and soon began pushing for better working and living conditions. "A soldier is only a civilian in uniform," says Private Jan Witting, chairman of the Union of Dutch Conscripts, "and he should have all the rights of other citizens under the constitution."

The gains that the union has made would warm any G.I.'s heart. In eight years, the soldiers' union has increased pay for draftees nearly ninefold (from $21 a month to $180.55), reduced service time from 24 months to 16 months and made officers more respectful of the men under them. Along the way, the union forced the Defense Ministry to abolish saluting (except on ceremonial occasions), did away with regulations regarding length of hair and beards and ended all weekend duty in barracks.

Just like General Motors executives sitting down for contract talks with heads of the United Auto Workers, Dutch Defense Ministry officials and generals meet monthly with the brass of the soldiers' union at negotiating sessions. The union is now bargaining for overtime compensation as well as free travel on the railroads for soldiers going home on weekends, meal coupons so that they can eat in restaurants rather than mess halls and, somewhat more vaguely, general "democratization and humanization" of the army itself. Indeed, the draftees' union has been so successful that the noncommissioned officers, with three unions of their own, are becoming increasingly militant. There is even a union for officers.

A Bit Apologetic. Though it had some initial reservations, the Defense Ministry has now grown accustomed to the idea of soldiers' unions and such non-soldierly duties as helping farmers with water-logged crops. "This is part of the changing concept of the army that shiny shoes don't mean good soldiers or that noncoms can go to the same toilet as officers," says one Defense Ministry spokesman. On the other hand, some tradition-minded officers are a bit apologetic about the appearance of Dutch troops. "Sure, our military is a disgrace in uniform competition with the polish of other armies," says Commodore Ruud Hemmes. But, he adds, "our soldiers know their jobs, and they are motivated. In a war they will perform, and that's what you have an army for."

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