Can Europe Make It?

What role for the ETUC in organising workers in Europe?

The added value of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is its role as a think-tank or even of a think-and-do-tank on strategies to organise workers.

Thiébaut Weber
17 June 2016
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Agnes Jongerius, former chairman of the Netherlands federation of trade unions and ETUC affiliate, FNV, demonstrates in Brussels on April, 2014 for a social Europe. Wikicommons/ Sebastiaan ter Burg. Some rights reserved.“Trade union growth and increased union density must become a political priority. A strong membership base is a prerequisite for a powerful and representative trade union movement.” Put another way, trade unionism draws its legitimacy from its members, and it is through them, and in order to obtain results for them, that it engages in the public debate, struggles and negotiations. This is the message adopted by the ETUC congress held in Paris last October.

There has been a decrease in the number of unionised workers in Europe since the 1980s. In spite of varying situations depending on the country, with growth in the number of members in some places, trade unions have not regained the number of members they had in the 1970s. Trade union development is a key challenge for our organisations, but above all crucial for the workers themselves who need strong unions more than ever.

Many people are openly questioning the role and prerogatives of trade unions. Obsolete, worthless, from another age… trade unions are often depicted as leftovers from a world that no longer exits. The reality is different.

About 29% of European workers are members of a trade union. So trade unionism is still the main social movement in Europe. And it is producing results! The introduction of a minimum wage in Germany, for which trade unions have campaigned for more than ten years, is just one example.

Yet the world is changing on every front: the economy, work, information, modes of consumption, communication, etc., and like other players in a democracy, trade unions are faced with these changes and they challenge our capacity to deal with them.

Revolutions, such as digitisation, cannot be dealt with overnight. The task is huge. But irrespective of the scale of these changes, we must ask those who think that trade unions have no future: “Has a better alternative to trade unions been found to defend the interests of workers? Have other forms of organisation or collective bodies taken over from trade unions?” The answer is no. NGOs play an important and innovative role. But their role is not to compete with trade unions. Their action is parallel and not workplace-based or focused.

The key issue is therefore to better represent more workers across Europe. How? That is precisely the question that ETUC will try to answer with trade union organisers from all over Europe.

The ETUC is not a national trade union, it does not recruit members, and its role is certainly not to take the place of its affiliated organisations.  

So what useful role can the European trade union play? ETUC’s added value is more in terms of a role as a think-tank or even of a think-and-do-tank on strategies to organise workers. Our European confederation can act as a spur, to “create collective intelligence” so as to help and support trade unionists.

We need to understand in detail the differences in national context and how this impacts on organising and membership. Only 8% of French workers are affiliated to a trade union, whereas 98% are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Conversely, in Romania, collective bargaining agreements cover 33% of the workers but 36% of Romanian workers are unionised. The trade union champion is Finland, with 74% of the workers unionised (and 91% covered by a collective agreement). This diversity of trade unions in Europe should make us adopt a practical and carefully considered approach to how we go about this task.

But the diversity of trade union contexts and practices does not exclude shared observations and shared practices on trade unionism in Europe. What works in one country might work in another.

Why join a trade union?

This is particularly the case when examining the reasons why workers are members of a trade union. 45 million workers are members of ETUC-affiliated trade unions. That is no negligible figure. Asking workers why they belong to a trade union is particularly instructive. Researcher Jeremy Waddington did so in his 2015 study[1] of several thousand members of 14 trade unions in 12 countries in Europe[2].

The main reason for their affiliation, irrespective of the country, is the “support that the trade union can provide if there are problems at work.” This is by far the number 1 reason cited (55% of the members asked), including in Nordic countries, where it is often thought that the prime reason for affiliation is the unemployment insurance benefit managed by the trade unions.

Improve my pay and working conditions” is the number 2 reason cited.

Conviction” as a reason for joining a trade union comes third. It would appear that the attachment of members to the “cause” is forged after the fact, but it is not a key element before joining. 

Let us now look into how women and young people respond.

For women, trade union “support” is more important, than for men. This is easily explained. Women are actually more present in sectors where trade union representation is weaker. “My pay” is also cited more by women than by men, reflecting a strong aspiration for equal pay.

Women attach less importance to “conviction” than their male colleagues. This undoubtedly means a more pragmatic approach to trade unionism and very concrete expectations. Beyond the inequalities that still separate them from men, women are victims of a double jeopardy in unionism: they are more present in sectors where trade unions are less present, but they are also represented less among trade union officials. Their pragmatism is therefore easy to understand.

Young people often get a chaotic start in the world of work, which makes it difficult for them to join a union. Waddington shows that once they are members, young people want a concrete impact on their career path, and do not necessarily seek a service.  “Support in their work” is also more important, and they seem to have a less ideological approach than their older colleagues. Young union members want concrete action. But they are not seeking to take part in the trade union’s actions at any price, nor to assume responsibilities.

Lessons for organising

What lessons can be drawn from all that on the organising front?

First: everything is played out at the workplace. It is there, in the field, that workers join (and leave) trade unions. That is where workers need concrete trade union action in terms of support for and improvement in working conditions and pay – the core tasks of trade unions.

Conviction comes next. If we consider that trade unionism actually contributes to the emancipation and empowerment of workers, then it is normal that conviction comes afterwards and is not the main reason for affiliation. The challenge for trade unionists is not to preach to the converted, but to engage in concrete action for those who do not believe yet. Trade union action must lead to empowerment for workers and promote their emancipation.

Trade union development in the future will obviously not be limited to “conventional” workplaces, which constituted the golden age of trade unionism in the 20th century. Innovative forms of action must be thought up for trade unionism to prove useful and obtain results for so-called “atypical,” “non-standard” or “digital” workers, who work in the growing margins of the labour market. It is an enormous and inspiring challenge.

The solutions, some of which are already tried and tested by trade unions in certain countries, can have a considerable and positive influence on trade unionism as a whole. Solutions can be found by using digitisation to our advantage to meet the needs of workers, and by offering specific support to self-employed workers, for example, by being at their side in the co-working areas.

Measures to welcome more young people, women, workers in precarious situations, crowd workers or workers in the collaborative economy, must be accompanied by the development of our internal structures, which are often too ponderous and discouraging for new members.

In the organising strategy that ETUC will put in place with its affiliated trade unions, there is an important role for researchers and research. The cooperation between researchers and trade unionists must in my opinion assume concrete shape in the search-action method in order to think and act – to find best practice, to understand the information and training needs of organisers and recruiters, to document trade union organisation practices and lessons learned.

Workers want concrete action. This reality-based approach must help the trade union movement in Europe to obtain tangible results. Here once again, ETUC, in close cooperation with ETUI[3] and other interested researchers, must be in a position to identify and address the research and training needs of trade union teams.

By joining their efforts, the ETUC, its member organisations, and willing researchers can support trade unions in Europe to restrade unions in Europe to to respond better to the needs of workers whether they are employed in a company, a public service, a co-working area, for a private individual or in their own home. This is how the European trade union movement could do its bit in creating a stronger trade union movement, as relevant as ever in improving the working lives of its members. 


[1] “Trade union membership retention in Europe: The challenge of difficult times”, Jeremy Waddington, University of Manchester, UK and ETUI, Brussels, Belgium

[2] Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK

[3] European Trade Union Institute http://www.etui.org/

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