Below you find an interview with the sociologist Jelle Visser. His favorite research topics are the relations between employers and employees. From 2000 to 2010 he was scientific director of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies, a part of the University of Amsterdam. Visser is the founder of the institute.I believe it is interesting to know how scientists today are looking to trade unions.
Have the trade unions a future?
I am convinced that there will always remain a countervailing power. But that will be another countervailing power than the unions we have inherited from the nineteenth century. The labor movement will consist of moments of protest organized through internet and twitter. Of course a party that negotiates with the employers on a collective labor agreement will always be needed. But that need not to be the union. It can also be done by the workers’ councils or other bodies elected by employees.
Are collective agreements not outdated given the large number of freelancers with no collective agreement at all?
No, in Europe 8 out of 10 employees fall under a collective agreement. Employers prefer not to negotiate with individual employees on their benefits. A collective agreement is more convenient. In the future collective agreements will contain less, they get a minimum character with plenty of choices. For example it will be possible for an employee to change wage for more free time. By the way, we should not exaggerate the amount of freelancers. On a population of 8,5 million workers in the Netherlands there are 1,2 million freelancers. The rest just works for a boss.
Why trade unions do not have a future?
A movement needs a great story and unions do not have this. They have become clubs that protect existing interests, especially of older workers. Historically the trade unions were agents of change in the welfare state and the labor law. Now they prevent change. Across Europe, the unions have become more conservative over the last decade. The great leaders who were open to change and for Europe, have disappeared. Since the euro crisis the unions have withdraw themselves into their own country. Solidarity with workers in countries such as Italy and Spain is virtually eliminated.
Become trade unions more powerful during a crisis?
No. If unemployment grows, like now is the case in Europe, trade unions immediately become less powerful. They loose members. They become weak against employers and governments who say: now it is not the time for wage increase. Trade unions will only become more conservative. All attention goes to the negotiations for social plans during mass layoffs. The future is not important anymore. More young people will quit.
So all power to the employers?
It is doubtful whether the power of employers increases as the power of unions decreases. For example in France only 8% of the employees are member of a trade union. But the trade union members in France are working in strategic important sectors like for example in the public transport sector in Paris. Those trade unions paralyze the city as soon as they don’t like a government proposal. If Sarkozy wants to raise the retirement age, so he must still get the unions behind him.
Highly skilled workers have less need for the unions. Even alone they are strong enough to confront employers. However, the power of flexible, unskilled labor has fallen. Trade unions are trying to affiliate them but they are not very good at. Traditionally trade unions are there for the large middle group of employees. These are the secondary educated people working in routine jobs. That kind of jobs are rapidly disappearing. We sociologists call this the vanishing middle of the labor market.
(original interview published in NRC Handelsblad 22 november 2011)