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Trade unions try to adapt to new world realities

May 23, 2023

Employee unions are making a lot of noise as the world around them changes. But is this really a renaissance for employees in a time of high inflation, a worker shortage and artificial intelligence?

 A protester holds a placard which reads "No to Macron's pension reform"
Unions play a key role in securing worker dignity and better wagesImage: Sarah Meyssonnier/REUTERS

Many people don't think much about unions or strikes until they are faced with one. And anyone traveling around Europe lately has likely noticed massive protests interrupting life in the UK, France and Germany.

Across the UK, health-care trade unions representing more than a million NHS workers caused havoc while holding out for pay increases. Their strikes meant that over half a million patient appointments had to be rescheduled.

The French have been up in arms for months about President Emmanuel Macron's plan to move up the retirement age. In Germany, a number of railway strikes have stranded passengers across the county. 

Besides striking workers, at the same time companies are facing uncharted problems like artificial intelligence, a lack of specialized workers and spiraling energy costs. Can unions stand up for their members in such turbulent times?

A Verdi union member standing in front of a monitor at BER airport
Strikes have left airline and rail passengers stranded across Europe in the past monthsImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Still coming together for the team?

Modern unions have been around since 1850, says Andrea Bernardi, a senior lecturer in employment and organization studies at Oxford Brookes University. They fought for better working conditions and pay and tried to make redundancies less painful. 

Not only did unions play a critical role in introducing democracy into the workplace and fighting for worker dignity and better wages, they also "push employers to train and adopt high-skill, high-participation strategies," according to Matt Vidal, a reader in sociology and political economy, at Loughborough University London. 

Though generally seen as having a positive influence, since the 1970s there has been a decline in union membership. For the OECD, a group of 38 mostly rich countries, trade union membership has gone from nearly 21% of employees in 2000 to under 16% in 2019. Though union membership varies widely by country; it is often concentrated in the public sector.

But unions have a much wider reach than simple membership numbers would suggest. In countries with sectoral level collective bargaining agreements, their negotiations cover members and non-members alike.

"In Germany, about 40% of all employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. In France, the union density rate is just 10% but its collective bargaining coverage rate is around 95% because the state makes extension of agreements to non-organized employers effectively automatic," said Vidal.

Coming together to dealing with crises

Now 600 trade union delegates from 41 countries are coming to Berlin for the 15th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation. The meeting, which will take place May 23-26, is a discussion round where participants will talk about the future of work. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are both expected to speak.

They will have a lot to talk about as employers and employees face big challenges says Bernardi. "Artificial intelligence is the new frontier and it will require regulation at a national level, and collective bargaining at a sector and company level" to deal with its impact on work. Here, he argues, unions could play a double role by helping protect workers while also helping businesses deal with the transformation.

"The crises facing the world today will only be resolved in a way that's fair to the majority of people if trade unions have a central role," said Esther Lynch, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, a group representing 45 million members from 93 organizations in 41 European countries, and the ones behind this week's congress in Berlin.

Protestors in Strasbourg, France, with banners and pyrotechnics
Unions are striving for more than good pay and could play a big role in climate justiceImage: Sathiri Kelpa/AA/picture alliance

The biggest challenges for the future 

That leaves the issues of inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. "The most prominent issue today is the inflation rate that has been eating up real wages," said Bernardi. It is a problem not seen for two or three decades, but it is back with a vengeance "probably because decreasing real wages added discontent on top of other social, political and employment issues."

At the same time a tight job market has recently made workers' negotiating power stronger. With fewer qualified employees to go around in Western Europe, employers need to do whatever it takes to find and keep them. This could put more pressure on employers to keep increasing wages.

Yet, keeping everyone happy is a monumental task. Focusing on a broader set of issues in addition to just wages and working conditions — things like community investment, education, racial justice and climate justice — could make unions more attractive to a wider swath of workers thinks Vidal.

Lynch emphasizes a move to an economy that puts people and the planet above profits. Here again she highlights the unions' work and the need for fairness. "The move to a green economy will only have the support of the majority of people if it's done in a way that's socially fair," she said. "We need to ensure that as some jobs end, new quality jobs are created."

For unions, their biggest challenges going forward will be threefold says Bernardi: modern communication that includes the young, a move from a conflict mindset to more cooperation, and less internal fighting. Attracting more dues-paying members is key. "At our very core is the concept that there is strength in unity," concluded Lynch.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

New Work - The future of toil

Timothy Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's team of business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.