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20 May 2019

The battle to win back new generations to unions

Many outside observers have commented on the membership crisis afflicting trade unions in Europe, following decades of economic and financial crisis undermining their position in the labour market. Now, trade unions themselves are attempting to quantify the challenge they face.

A new report published by Kurt Vandaele documents the numerical decline in membership among trade unions in Europe since 2000. Yes, the results appear to suggest  bleak prospects for many workers’ organisations, with a fall in membership reported in 24 of the 32 European countries surveyed, along with a continued decline in union density and the increase of the average age of the union member.  

But to combat the inevitable pessimism  about the future of trade unions, it's worth noting that there are some positive trends in countries like Iceland, Italy, Norway, Malta, Belgium or Luxembourg where a sharp increase in membership was recorded. What is happening in these countries that can explain these unexpectedly  positive outcomes? What strategies were deployed  to counter the decline in membership that undermined trade union density?

Of course, there is no single answer to these questions, or an identifiable strategy for overcoming the challenges. But a new ETUI Policy Brief gives us hope for better engagement with young workers. The report analyses young worker engagement in the UK, France, Germany and the US and highlights that the new generations “are not ideologically opposed to unions, but rather are not exposed to or aware of the role of unions and the labour movement in general”. What follows from this are a set of  important new recommendations for engaging with the new generation: be more inclusive by increasing the age limit for being considered a “young worker” to 35; adapt and modify your traditional union structure and practices to allow young people to innovate and create their own spaces; support non-traditional structures that participate in collective action; and support and engage with a broader social justice movement that are among the core values for the young generations.

A concrete example of an innovative, dedicated space for young trade unionists inside a big German confederation is the “Perspective U35” experience launched in Stuttgart by Ver.di. “Young people in Ver.di often felt that they did not have breathing space to come up with suggestions or try new ideas due to time-consuming committee work. U35 was put forward as a way to let young workers try out new ideas and strategies” and apparently this experience quickly became a success-story for the German trade union movement.

But why is the membership issue the main concern of current trade union leaders? “Labour movements remain essential for the survival and renewal of democratic societies. However, they need young members and activists, not just to revitalise the membership base but also for their transformative potential and experimentation”, say the ETUI researchers. This broadens out the question of the survival for unions to include a wider  debate about the renewal of democratic societies which, after all, is among the  the main concerns of our citizens today. On the eve of major European elections in May 2019, why do citizens still feel distant from the functioning of our democratic structures? True, complexity is often difficult for our minds to deal with (who still remembers the Pythagorean theorem?), but simplicity isn’t the right way to handle these questions either.

Maybe workers’ attitudes, and their propensity to engage in collective action, can be related to their demographic and socio-economic characteristics, and to their experiences of job quality? The hypothesis has been analysed by in a recent Working Paper digging into the working conditions of Deliveroo riders in Belgium. Digital labour platforms - like this food delivery platform – may be a new form of employment for the younger generations, but this new form of work offers new opportunities and incentives for workers to organise collectively. The report, based on a Belgian case-study, offers a brand-new strategy for trade unions to enrol platform workers. It follows how Deliveroo riders mobilised against the termination of their contractual agreements and details the emergence of a Riders collective with the support of the long-standing traditional unions. It also provides information about the demographic and other characteristics of the young workers, including their attitudes towards unionisation, details the job quality and working conditions. The piece ends with a commentary on the labour market context that shapes workers’ propensity  to unionise.

Based on these reports, inclusive trade unions can build a new narrative to counter the decline in membership and rebuild strong organisations to better support the renewal of our democratic societies.

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