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28 August 2019

The two options facing Belgian unions: cut costs or invest

Looking at the figures, Belgian trade unions are still faring well or even very well compared to the rest of Europe. With its net unionisation rate of 53% (2016), Belgium ranks well above the European average (28%), with just Finland %), Sweden (66%), Denmark (67%) and Iceland (90%) doing better – and it is not by chance that these are countries where the unions are also involved in paying unemployment benefits. But unionisation levels are falling in the majority of European countries, to be precise, in 28 of 32 of them, with falls more pronounced in Central and Eastern Europe.

Now is the time for Belgian trade unions to invest to recruit new members. Resource transfers are still possible.

While the unionisation rate in Belgian has been fluctuating around 55% since the late 1990s, for the first time it has fallen due to membership losses. This loss (beginning in 2011) is more pronounced in the case of the CSC (Confédération des syndicats chrétiens), though the FGTB (Fédération générale du travail de Belgique) is also being hit (from 2014 onwards).

By contrast, the CGSLB (Centrale générale des syndicats libéraux de Belgique) does not (at least at the moment) seem to be affected. Just as the overall figures mask the differences between the individual unions, there are obviously also differences between the union confederations.

Reductions in administrative staff

What are the causes of this decline? One of the causes specifically affecting the CSC is that the administrative clean-up have led to a certain loss of members. But there are also structural causes. The 2008 economic and financial crisis had a major impact on the industrial sector, with Flanders hit particularly hard, as reflected in the membership figures for the Flemish branch of the CSC.

The share in overall membership of union federations with industrial roots thus dropped at an accelerated pace. A further factor is that the Di Rupo government (2011–2014) made it harder for workers to gain an entitlement to unemployment benefits, with the extension of the eligibility period for young workers making it more difficult for the unions to reach out to them. Also, the influence of “pillarisation” on unionisation for young people is diminishing, but still plays a role. And contrary to the popular belief, young people are not a priori against unions.

The main problem is that a large and highly unionised cohort of workers is now leaving the labour market. This is virtually automatically leading to a loss of members .... and of revenues. While staff and ICT costs continue to increase, the financial resources available to unions are decreasing. On top of this, in recent times the political wind has been blowing against the unions, with a number of state subsidies available to unions for their specific activities having been reduced or withdrawn.

Similarly, employers are reducing the funds available for social security in certain economic sectors. And then there is a cyclical effect. The unions receive compensation from the state for administering the payment of unemployment benefits. This is however a double-edged sword: compensation goes up when unemployment goes up, but falls when the economy recovers.

The cost-cutting measures targeted

And now? What needs to be done? The drops in both membership and revenues do not necessarily oblige unions to reassign their resources and put more effort into recruiting new members. After all, there are less risky options available. Increasing membership dues or cutting costs is a proven and easier way of absorbing the drop in revenues. Also closing down offices and internal restructuring measures such as merging unions are ways of compensating for membership losses.

This does not mean that cost-cutting measures are not necessary. The choice of this article’s title is therefore a somewhat false choice. The main aim of cost-cutting measures and economies of scale must be to free up resources to gain new members. Costs can be cut in a targeted manner, for example by doing away with non-essential benefits for current members. In particular, benefits accruing to members where the unions’ specific knowledge of the labour market is not or barely essential are possible candidates for doing away with.

Investment should target developing sectors where unions are currently weak. The unions can learn by targeting sectors characterised by seemingly new forms of work organisation such as the platform economy. Now is the time for unions to invest to recruit new members. Resource transfers are still possible, proving room for manoeuvre to experiment with new small-scale recruitment campaigns.

A few steps in this direction have already been taken: the CSC has set up an organising department and has launched a new union to recruit freelancers, while the FGTB has launched its “Fight for €14” campaign, inspired by the American “Fight for $15” campaign. There is indeed a growing critical mass within the Belgian unions with knowledge of similar initiatives in other countries and which is prepared to experiment.

However, taking up this path in a structural manner requires courage, leadership and a critical debate on the future of the union movement and on how to deal with the climate crisis. The tempting opposite is the well-trodden path seen in examples from abroad: putting too great a focus on the needs of existing members, with this leading to further membership losses.

Kurt Vandaele is a researcher working at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)

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