Trade unions in transition: What will be their role in the future of work?

Just as the future of work is uncertain, so is the future of trade unions. Globalization and demographic, environmental and technological changes are changing the labour markets of today and will determine those of tomorrow. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed and aggravated existing challenges. Globally, trade union membership has been going down over time, and with that trade unions’ ability to organize and service workers.

Among all the possible scenarios for trade unions, which one is most likely? For sure, the most favourable scenario is their revitalization, wherein trade unions find innovative tactics and form coalitions to represent all workers.  Students at a centre for apprenticeship of young women, Hyderabad district, India. © ILO

Trade unions during the COVID-19 pandemic

Whereas the pandemic has laid bare the many dimensions of decent work deficits in the world of work, workers have also relied on trade unions to enhance job and income security, and access to social protection.

Despite all the restrictions during the pandemic, trade unions assisted workers and their families in different ways, ranging from legal advice, setting up of emergency funds, awareness-raising campaigns, modified training programmes and advocacy on recognition of COVID-19 as employment injury, to the use of social media.

Around 80% of countries worldwide used social dialogue, tripartite and/or bipartite, as part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis. The most frequent topics of negotiation have been social protection and employment measures, industrial relations, occupational safety and health (OSH), and fiscal measures.

Trade unions have found innovative ways to reach out to new members and contribute to crisis responses through social dialogue. Here are two examples.

Where do trade unions stand now?

Trade union membership worldwide has been going down over time, despite a number of bright spots in certain African or Latin American countries where membership increased. Different factors come into play in this overall decrease: Think of the shift from manufacturing to service jobs, the outsourcing of unionized jobs, the informalization of the economy and the changing employment relationship, and automation.

In fact, trade union membership is lower for people in non-standard or precarious types of employment, such as temporary and own-account workers or workers in the informal and gig economy.

Furthermore, legal restrictions and violations of trade union rights, such as the right to organize and to bargain collectively, are widespread. This affects trade unions’ ability to organize, to represent and to service workers. Not surprisingly, trade union membership is lower there where there are violations of trade union rights.

 Sewing machine operator in a textile factory in Nicaragua. © ILO

What can we expect for, and from, trade unions in the future?

We see four possible scenarios for trade unions: marginalization, dualization, replacement and revitalization.

The path for revitalization

Many positive examples exist of trade union revitalization, and these typically involve:

  1. Organizing and servicing new members, such as young workers or workers in the informal or gig economy.
  2. Speaking and acting as one, namely the ability to act collectively across sectors, at national, regional and global levels.
  3. Ensuring sound internal governance, through a transparent set of rules that governs the mandate, management, elections and activities of trade unions.
  4. Strengthening effective and inclusive social dialogue on the issues of today and tomorrow.

 Scene from a farm benefiting from ILO-supported projects, Tunisia. Photo: © ILO

Unions can meet the needs of under-represented workers

Trade unions have been organizing and servicing emerging or traditionally under-represented groups of workers. Unions have addressed the needs of workers in the informal economy, for instance by organizing informal economy workers and integrating them into the formal structures of the trade union movement. The same is true for young workers.

Although there are many obstacles to organizing and servicing workers in the platform economy, gig workers are organizing, through both traditional and innovative means, through existing unions, or by establishing new organizations. 

Inclusive and effective social dialogue increases trade union impact

Trade unions must engage in inclusive and effective social dialogue to enhance decent work, but also on broader socio-economic and sustainable development issues that affect workers globally. The 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development is one platform for this broadened social dialogue.

A future with trade union revitalization

The four future scenarios for trade unions – marginalizationdualizationreplacement and revitalization – are all possible, and in fact are all happening now, sometimes in the same country, in different sectors and in different combinations. For instance,

  • Dualization as a holdout against marginalization;
  • Replacement as a source and inspiration for revitalization; 
  • Revitalization as the opening-up of dualization.

Various tools, such as foresight or scenario thinking, can be useful for trade unions in dealing with this uncertainty – to anticipate change, to explore possible futures, and enable transformative action.

Yet in this context of multiple transitions, with trade unions are faced with so many serious challenges, they have shown great resilience and a remarkable capability to revitalize themselves in innovative ways. This bodes well for the future. Strong trade unions are needed now more than ever to build a world of work founded on sustainable development that ensures decent work for all.

 Workshop discussions in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. © ILO

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