Today's and tomorrow's unions! Developing digital skills in trade unions after facing the effects of COVID-19

An international seminar about “Today's and tomorrow's unions! Developing digital skills in trade unions after facing the effects of COVID-19”, organized by CNS "Cartel Alfa" / F.N.CORESI (Confederaţia Naţională Sindicală "Cartel Alfa" / Fundaţia Naţională CORESI) in partnership with EZA and with the financial support of the European Union, took place between 20 and 23 September 2021 in Bucharest. The seminar was held in hybrid format, with 47 participants in person (including the project team) and 3 guests participating to the debates online.

The agenda was followed according to the scheduled program and, based on the participants’ feedback and questionnaires, the organization of the event was very satisfactory, while the content of the presentations and debates were found meaningful and inspiring for their activity and organisational projects. 

The topic of the seminar was considered particularly timely, as the period of the pandemic brought many changes and challenges both on the labour market and as regards the activities of worker organisations. It accelerated transformation and the need to adapt rapidly to the digitalisation of activities and interactions.  

The agenda focused the debates on a range of topics related to the theme of the seminar: How can social dialogue be strenghened, how can unions be ready for negociation and recruit new members, while services to members diversified, how can unions be actively engajed in the shaping of recovery plans and how best to share and extend best practices?

  • The effects of the pandemic on the labour market. Here the discussion focused on the recent developments on the labour market, the proliferation of partially-undeclared work and the means to tackle this phenomenon. The pandemic accelerated the change of legislation, in order to protect workers and businesses in the context of the sanitary measures, but at the same time, creating certain problems with provisions that were unfavorable to workers (such as the automativ renewal of collective agreements during the period of sanitary restrictions that eventually turned into blocking collective bargaining), bringing along possible new forms of worker exploatation. The phenomenon of remote work that has an unprecedented development poses new problems and the frutiful debates with the representative la the Labour Inspection suggested new avenues for cooperation in addressing them
  • The role of digitalization in trade unions’ activity. The participants stressed the need for unions to find new ways of communication that keep them relevant and close to members. A broad array of digital strategies and tools were presented (from the old webside to innovative applications and feedback measurement tools) that can be successfully used to facilitate union work and strenghen workers’ organisations. Well used, digitalisation offers the means for unions to stay relevant and representative both for their own members and have o role in influencing public policy.  
  • Adapting trade unions to the pandemic context. Union work, a social activity that unites and supports people remains a chalenge during these times of crisis. Great difficulties were felt in the sudden need for digitalisation of processes, especially by those unions that relied most of their activities on the traditional way of interaction with members. One conclusion that surficed from the panel is that unions that had started the digitalisation process way before the pandemic were much better equipped to face the challenges brought by the sanitary crisis, even increasing membership during the pandemic and increasing their role and relevance in the crisis.           
  • Development directions for trade unions and employers' organizations. The question of building trust between social parters was central to the discussion, and the need to exercise dialogue in order to effectively approach the great challenges that next decades will bring to the labour markets, where social partners, workers’s and employers organizations alike, need to have an active role and contribution. To this end, employers’ organization embarked on a broad project in order to clarify the authenticity of the representativity of various entities engaged in social dialogue processes and digitalization is a key instrument for this purpose.  
  • Strategies and models for recruiting new members. However, it was pointed out that recruiting members (a constant preocupation and effort of unions everywhere) should not be an end in itself, with the sole purpose of increasing financial resources for the trade union, but should not be separated from the broad goal of unions, i.e. building collective power to improve the working conditions of its members and, trough negotioation, to get a fairer share of the wealth generated. 
  • Diversification of trade union services in the context of new challenges on the labour market. The presentation and comments on this panel lead to a lively debate on the role of providing services to members as a core part of the union activity or as a complement to main activity of the union, which is improving the lives and working conditions of its members. It was broadly agreed that, although the provision of services is a great instrument in recrouting and maintaining membership, it should not obscure the main purpose of unions: stiving for social justice through negociation and collective action. 

The round-up for the conclusions of the three days of exchanges of ideas and best practices lead to a few points and directions for action that the participants agreed upon:

  • Digitalisation must be part of a long-term organisational strategy;
  • The need to strengthen cooperation with the Labour Inspectorate and other relevant institutions in order to tackle the new challenges on the labour market brought by digitalisation;
  • Building trust is essential for a successful social dialogue and digitalisation of processes can help and facilitate achieving this goal; 
  • Recruiting members should not be an end in itself but just a part of the strategy to build collective power;
  • Providing services must remain a complement to union activity. Concentrating on providing services to members should not obscure the real goal of unions, i.e. improving working conditions.