Tuesday, February 19, 2013





Please note that this report soon will be available on the WOW website in Spanish, German and French.

The Seminar Room
Billund, 01 February 2013 – In the past trade unions have played an important role in, amongst others, promoting social dialogue, bargaining for collective agreements, and supporting its members in case of disputes. Today, however, the role of unions is under pressure. Throughout Europe one can detect a decline of membership affecting the position of trade unions. But what does this say about the support for unions? What future do trade unions have?

This was the topic during a two-day European seminar which took place in Billund, Denmark. Focus of the seminar, which was organized by the Christian Trade Union KRIFA (Kristelig Fagbevægelse) and the European Organization of the World Organization of Workers – EO/WOW in cooperation with the European Centre for Workers’ Questions (EZA) and with the support of the European Union.

The seminar with the theme “What reason for existence do trade unions have in a market with declining support?” was well-visited by trade union leaders from over 17 EU Member States. This clearly showed that the them of the seminar is very topical and does not stop at the borders. All countries are faced with the same development to a more or lesser extent. We as trade unions have to find ways to countries these developments in order to remain a representative bargaining power.

The trade union STING delegation of Croatia at work with Lego learning to build and to communicate.

The way in which the economy is organized has changed. Whereas in the past people often worked for the same employee for forty years, these days people shift from one job to the other. Not always by choice, but in most instances it is by choice. People are continuously trying to improve and challenge themselves. This is also something they expect form their employer. If the employer does not do this people look for greener pastures.

What can be seen is that society as a whole has become more individual. There are a number of reasons for that, but one important characteristic is the speedy development of certain kind of media. Another characteristic is the fact that (young) people want to shape their own future more and more and not be dependent on an organization such as, for example, the trade union. But it can also be seen when looking at the lower interest in being part of a community (football-club, music-band, volunteers-work). People in general feel a lesser need to belong somewhere.

The individualization greatly affects the role of unions as well. People not only shift from one job to the other, they may also, because of this, may shift from one branch to the other. Trade union will have to act on this development. Create means to keep members first and to attract new members second. A way to do this is to do as the Romans do. Meaning that if society is becoming more individual, the unions should have a more individual approach as well. Of course without forgetting their role as collective bargainers. Unions are, in principle, for the collective. But certain developments in society are now leading to necessary changes.

EZA President Bartho Pronk, former Member of the European Parliament, opened the seminar with some critical and optimistic remarks.

But not all has to be bad. The current crisis may be of benefit. As Bartho Pronk, EZA President, explained: “A crisis leads to restructuring. It is easier to make these changes with social dialogue than without. New Liberalism has proven its wrongs. The market is important, but without social dialogue it is not functioning as well as it could. The effect of this all is that social dialogue has gotten a prominent role in the Lisbon Treaty. So the crisis has caused a turn-around in thought.”

Indeed crises often lead to positive changes. People are forced to rethink certain strong-held strategies and ways of acting. A trend which started some years ago is the increase of so-called part-time and a-typical jobs. “In Austria, Günther Trausznitz, European President of the WOW, stated, 59% of the jobs are a-typical (typical jobs are from 9 to 5). This makes it difficult to find common grounds for collective bargaining”. True, the interests of the workers is different making certain general agreements difficult to achieve.

Although many trade unions are losing members this is not the case in all countries. In the case of Austria, for example, there has been a steady growth form the fifties of the last century. Lately, what can be seen is that half of the new members within the FCG/GPA-DJP (private services sector) are female.

In Denmark, as in other countries in Scandinavia, trade union membership is quite high. There are various factors that cause this, but the most important is possibly the unemployment insurance scheme. Laust Høgedahl said that: “This so-called Ghent-system allows trade unions to administer government-subsidized unemployment insurance funds (Norway excluded). In the Danish context these funds were trade- and profession-specific. Unions thereby had a monopoly. This does of course not necessarily explain the high density of membership. But what happens in practice is that is that people experience a lack of transparent institutional separation. Wage earners perceive the trade union and UIF as the same thing!”.

When we look at the role of the employer and their expectancy of the future cooperation with trade unions, it becomes clear that they have quite a different perception. Knud Nørbo of the Jyske Bank sees developments on which they do not have influence, but is affecting them as a company. “While the Jyske Bank complies to the standard collective agreement for the Employers Association and Financial Services Union, they also have their own local company agreements (within the framework of the standard collective agreement). This company agreement is more purpose and intent than actual rules. We belief people on the spot know best!”.

EO/WOW President Guenther Trausznitz spoke during his words of welcome on the growth of the so called a-typical jobs, also in his country Austria.

Knud Nørbo sees a few challenges for the future. The challenges, which are global, are the individualization which does not fit well into rigid rules, meaning that a one fits all approach is no longer possible. Secondly, the time, place, nature of the work, and life-style is changing (eg. work-life balance).

This growing individualization is reoccurring point of attention. Particularly what can be done to work within this trend. As Laust Høgedahl stated: “You can change yourself or you can change your members. What is easiest”. Trade unions will have to work with the current parameters. They have more influence on themselves than on their (potential) members. In Austria they are acting with this in mind. They have sent mailings to non-members just before difficult collective negotiations. This to more prominently show what it is they are doing and for whom. Also by offering a reduced membership-fee (or no fee at all) in the first period of membership is a means to attract members, thereby hoping that they will continue their membership.

The same developments can be detected in other countries as well. Not only when there is a decline of membership, but also just to attract more members and thus become more representative. All unions are searching for ways to attract people. Only by showing that you have an important role in collective bargaining is no longer enough. The people demand more. It is always: ‘What’s in it for me?’

Wolfgang Pischinger, President of the Christian Fraction of the Austrian trade union GPA-dj was one of the speakers at the seminar.

Trade unions should be more introspective” stated Jesper Wengel, CEO of KRIFA. “I cannot create jobs, but what I can do is make sure that the people in KRIFA have high-competences, and deliver a high service and quality to the members”.

And this is exactly what is needed. “Attracting members is one thing. Keeping them another”, said Guy van Gyes, Research Manager at the University of Leuven, Belgium. “There is a high-turn-over. People leaving the unions, but also people going form one union to the other”.

There are various reasons for people to leave or switch unions. Important reasons were the price of membership and the fact that the former union supported certain political parties. Perhaps an even more important reason is the that the former union did not attend the member’s interests (Høgedahl). This clearly shows the importance of being attractive for the individual as well as for the collective.

What is striking is that the sympathy for and feeling of legitimacy of trade unions is quite high, although this does not necessarily comes back in an increase of new members. In that respect trade unions should question themselves about the ‘logic of influence’ and the ‘logic of membership/participation’. Of course taking the current societal changes into account”, stated Guy van Gyes. People want to know what is in it for them. “They demand a quick response and a personal approach”.

There will always be a future for trade unions, since there will always be a relationship between employer and employee. This is always a power-relationship and this relationship changes over time. How trade unions will be organized in the future is to be seen. Trade unions should be, more than now, a movement organization establishing a community experience (community unionism).

The need for unions remain so there will always be a future. Trade unions will, however, have to reinvent themselves, without disregarding their core-values and traditional role for the collective. Not everything is for sale. Changing oneself is easier than changing the other.

As Laust Høgedahl stated: “In order to be an attractive trade union in the future, trade unions must strike a balance between relevant individual services and a reasonable membership fee apart from delivering collective goods”. 

Report made by Bjorn van Heusden, executive Secretary WOW

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