The decline of the trade union movement: The only way for trade unions to succeed is to embrace the future

For many years now the trade union movement in Europe and worldwide has been under pressure. Over the years the unions lost quite a large share of their members and it has become less ‘the normal thing to do’ to become a member as was the case some twenty, thirty or more years ago. Consequentially this means that trade unions had to find new paths to follow. And they have done so, but not always that successfully. So what next then? Should the trade union movement be considered a relic of the past or are there still sufficient reasons for hope for a better future? It was exactly this topic which was discussed during a two-day seminar in the city of Porto. The World Organization of Workers (WOW) in cooperation with the European Centre for Workers’ Questions (EZA) and supported by the European Union organized a seminar titled “The decline of the trade union movement: The only way for trade unions to succeed is to embrace the future”. The seminar took place from 8 to 10 October 2019 in Porto.

Trade unions have always been actively fighting for the improvement of the labour-conditions of its members and the workforce as a whole. Through Social Dialogue much has been achieved. But the world has changed a lot since the heydays of the trade union movement. And this has many implications as was noted by John Hurley, a researcher from the Eurofound institute. In his presentation titled: ‘How the world of work is changing: Implications for unions’ he discussed the main labour market trends as well as the role of the unions. Clear is that there are a number of trends which have effects on the membership of unions. One such trend is the increase of non-standard employment. Unions have difficulty in connecting to this group of people. What can further be seen is that there is a pattern over time which is mainly one of declining job quality. This very much follows the pattern in the US.

There are numerous drivers of employment change and all are of influence to the trade union movement. There is upskilling, workers are on average older, there is more gender-balance, and it is more service-oriented. The labour-market furthermore is more fragmented, segmented and more unequal, more individualised and less collective. This all complicates the collective representative functions of unions. Still unions are key in negotiating worker pay, working time, contractual security and mitigating the effects of large-scale restructuring. And there are possibilities for further exploration into the influence of unions.

In ‘Notes from the periphery on trade (dis)unionism’ João Pedro Ferreira Loureiro, Researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations further elaborated on the future relevance of trade unions. When looking at the last 20 years we see a steady decrease in union density, meaning that a smaller share of the people is member of a union. This is a European-wide phenomenon There is furthermore a larger pressure on labour as a result of globalization, financialization and government policies.

Today when we look at growth we see that first the GDP growth is now widely associated with rising inequalities. Second, GDP growth is no longer correlated with improvements in wellbeing. Third, severe environmental degradation has forced a recognition that today's patterns of economic growth are undermining our capacity to maintain currents standards of living. And this is what people fear for. That for the first time in history we see that the next generation is worse off.

This generation is the younger generation. And in the case of Eastern Europe this young work-force seeks greener pastures elsewhere. To consider Eastern Europe as one block is incorrect first of all. The differences between the different countries are enormous. The manner in which they were treated during Soviet times is also different. Generally one can say, however, that Social Dialogue in Eastern Europe is still rather weak. The main reason for that is that there is no tradition of social partnership. Social dialogue simply has never been a social or economic necessity. High union membership and large union infrastructure existed but have been lost due to deindustrialization, privatization and unions’ inability to adapt to the market economy needs. Today, the people do not know why there should be a need for social dialogue. But there are real chances for the trade union movement. Eastern European economies are strongly export-driven. But they lack the coordination instruments for productivity improvements and cost containment. Collective bargaining may become one of them. And thus the role of trade unions may become bigger. Unions should become real economic partners to employers and governments.

The situation is again very different in North America. The US for example has one of the lower rates of union membership among developed countries in the world. As was debated by Susan Siemens and Brendan Kooy of the Christian Labour Association of Canada in their contribution ‘Is the labour movement declining? – Perspectives from a modern Canadian union’ the general union density declined. While in the private sector, membership rates have dropped even faster, the membership in the public sector union has held steadier. Attraction of unions seems to be different by age range, where older workers are more inclined to be union members. Meanwhile, union membership is much lower among younger workers who are new to the workforce. This while unionized workers generally earning 10-20% more in average weekly earnings. In Canada the developments are quite similar although unions have always been slightly more popular in Canada than in the US. in Canada we are seeing a trend towards what we are calling “Precarious Work.” By that we are referring to any work that is “non-traditional,” temporary or contract work, low pay. This mostly affects the young, the women and those with a migrant background. Some key challenges for the future are to create space for flexible work practices and to embrace the Gig economy. This is the only way forward.

When looking at the ‘Perspectives and strategies for the revitalization of the Spanish unions’ as presented by José Pablo Calleja Jiménez of the Department of Sociology of the University of Oviedo it becomes clear that trade unions need to adapt or they will disappear. In order to regain power they should find strategies for doing so. In Spain the unions have a bad image. There is climate of mistrust. They are considered as a part of the political apparatus. Unions must focus on issues that are of interest to them and their members. Forming alliances with other like-minded organizations could be a solution to better connect to the needs of their members and the labour-market as a whole.

Isabel Maria Bonito Roque, Researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra in her part titled ‘New Challenges for Portuguese trade unions and social protest movements in the digital era’ focused on how precarious workers reorganize themselves in a precarious and digital economy. self-organizing and self-liberation from exploitation and uncertainty is an important driver for this. Nowadays people search for new modes of trade unionism different from the past. People do no longer believe in hierarchical structures. They look for alternatives. And these could be different from the traditional trade unions and structures present.

It is clear that the trade union movement as a whole is at a turning point. Key is that they will in a way have to reinvent themselves and find new paths and approaches. Forming alliances with other likeminded organizations could be one such new path. Offering new services may, or better, should be another. And maybe in the future bargaining collective agreements may not even be part of the core-business any longer. Time will tell. What is important to realize is that the trade union movement will have to change and adapt in order to remain relevant and important so that social justice will prevail and worker will be protected.