Elected at PSI’s 22nd World Congress in Singapore in December 1981, Hans was never opposed and was re-elected several times until he retired in 2007, at the Vienna Congress celebrating PSI’s 100 years of existence, after serving for more than 26 years as PSI General Secretary.
A dynamic and visionary leader, Hans led the organisation through many world-shaking events during his mandates, building up the organisation by more than 10 million members and reaching an impressive 20 million by the time of his retirement.
“Hans was a genuine man from the working class, by nature allergic to injustice. Hans was a passionate character, sometimes tough, but always on the side of progressive movements and ready to support democratic unions around the world. When travelling these last years, there has not been a place in the world where PSI affiliates have not asked me for news of Hans and I know many of them were still in contact with him. He was a great internationalist and unionist and we honour his legacy in PSI”, says current PSI General Secretary, Rosa Pavanelli.
Hans was born in 1943 in the Netherlands. He started working at the age of fifteen as a pantry boy on a sea-going vessel. A self-educated man, he took night school courses and a state examination for university entrance, after which he followed courses in economics and law. He had a natural flair for languages and was fluent in English, French, German and Spanish as well as his native Dutch.
He was an active trade unionist, in his jobs with the Chamber of Commerce in The Hague and then from 1976 to the end of 1981 when he was a national officer of the Dutch Public Service Workers Union, Abvakabo, in charge of negotiations for postal workers.
His dynamism and untiring devotion to defend workers’ rights were reflected in the many missions he undertook, visiting imprisoned trade unionists in Turkey and South Korea as well as meeting and lobbying governments in person for the release of those prisoners. Hans was also a strong supporter of PSI’s South African affiliates and worked closely with them to bring an end to apartheid.
Hans was also determined to see PSI expand its position in the trade union world and was a strong promoter of global unionfederations working together on common issues especially relating to the public sector. Early in his mandate, PSI moved headquarters from London to its current location on the outskirts of Geneva, not far from the UN agencies, in particular the ILO.
Hans was instrumental in promoting women's worker rights and the first PSI World Women’s Conference was held in 1984 in New York, following which the current PSI World Women’s Committee was established. His pioneering support for LBGTI workers is also well worth mentioning, and that work continues today.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, during PSI’s 24th Congress in Zimbabwe, and the opening up of the former USSR resulted in a dramatic growth in membership as old and new unions from the former Soviet bloc poured into PSI. Hans actively promoted bringing in the old unions from Central and Eastern Europe as well as working with the new ones.
In 1993, when the European Union was created, a small office was opened in Brussels to monitor and work closely with the EU, which then became the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). Hans then pursued the regionalisation process, ensuring a PSI presence in other PSI regions and making PSI a truly global organisation.
It would be impossible to list all of Hans’ achievements during his trade union career. There are countless stories and anecdotes about him, which will be told and retold for many years, for Hans was a convinced trade unionist and a fine human being.
His death is a personal blow to many people around the world, to the workers and unionists in public services, to the staff who worked with him for many years and to the organisation he helped to build to its present strength.
We offer our sincere condolences to his family at their most tragic loss. Hans will be sorely missed and the international trade union community will remember his name for years to come.
Share your memories and stories of Hans or express your sympathy and condolences: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will compile and forward them to his family.
Remembering Hans by Jim Baker