Research on the current state of unions in the world, commissioned by the Bureau for Workers’ Activities on the occasion of the International Labour Organisation’s Centenary celebration, shows that trade unions have enormous challenges ahead of them.
Important changes in the economy and labour market impact trade unionism
The working paper “Trade unions in the balance” conducted by Professor Visser of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, explores developments in union membership across the world in the past decades. This research launched by the Bureau for Workers’ Activities of the International Labour Organisation (ILO-ACTRAV) acknowledges that it is hard to be a unionist today: violations of trade union rights are widespread; and technological and economic changes affect the nature and type of jobs, and with that the potential of organising and representing workers both in the North and in the Global South.
Among the challenges facing trade unions, the paper highlights persistent poverty, inequalities and injustices, conflict, disasters and other humanitarian emergencies that shape the world of work of today and constitute a threat for the workforce of tomorrow. The ILO Centenary Declaration for the future of work stresses the urgency to act in shaping a fair, inclusive and secure future of work with full, productive and freely chosen employment and decent work for all.
The first part of the paper describes the current ‘state of the unions’ and explores developments in union membership and union density in regions of Africa, America, Asia and Europe since 2000.
The second part suggests future scenarios for trade unions: marginalisation, dualisation, replacement and revitalisation. The future will tell which of these scenarios will become reality.
EI: trade unions are crucial vectors of democracy
“With a world of work changing at a very rapid pace, we firmly believe that strong trade unions can make contributions to societies with robust human rights,” stressed Education International (EI) General Secretary David Edwards.
EI agrees with the ILO-ACTRAV paper that trade unions have to further assess their organising and advocacy strategies. Efforts have to be made to organise and represent new forms of employment, including those workers that fall outside the employment relationship or workers in the informal economy. And young workers must be convinced to join unions and must be integrated in the union’s governance structure.
Inthe Resolution on education union renewal: the new imperative adopted at the 8th EI World Congress, education unions affiliated to EI recognise that education unions across all sectors play an invaluable role advocating for high quality public education for all, and defending the rights and conditions of education workers.
Trade union organising is made increasingly difficult by attacks such as the introduction of anti-trade union laws that limit the rights of trade union members to act collectively, continued austerity and the associated growth of precarious employment. Often those most affected by precarious labour are those who are already most vulnerable in the labour market, and therefore those most in need of trade union support.
The resolution underlines that at precisely the time when education workers face some of their biggest threats, the trade union capacity to resist these challenges is being deliberately undermined. This requires education unions to find new ways to respond to changed circumstances. For EI and its affiliates, the status quo and ‘no change’ are not an option.
Also approved during the 8th EI World Congress, the Resolution on quality public education and free trade unions are the cornerstone of democracy affirms that democracy is necessary for working people and unions to secure our economic livelihoods, to ensure a decent standard of living, to have voice and rights in the workplace, to elect government representatives who are committed to a fair economy and the interests of working people, and to freely advocate for a progressive agenda on behalf of the many, and not just the wealthy few.
Furthermore, noting that a vibrant and robust system of public education is an essential component of democracy and is crucial for its survival, the resolution insists that authoritarian governments have always sought to suppress unions and other free institutions of civil society perceived as threats to their rule.