Trade Unions as Actors for Change

A world of work in transformation

The Future of Work is uncertain. The world of work is faced with multiple transformations in the context of changing labour markets, driven by technological advancement and digitalisation, climate and environmental changes, globalization and demographic shifts. The effects of overlapping crises, such as the Covid-19 crisis, worsening geopolitical tensions, natural disasters, economic disruptions and shocks and armed conflicts have further exacerbated these realities. These multiple pressures and crises impact the world of work and oblige trade unions to reflect and act upon uncertainty and change.

“It is not the first time we are living a situation of crisis or multiple crises and it won’t be the last. Trade unions have shown resilience over the years, and I believe that trade unions have the capacity to continue adapting to changes in the world of work and in society overall. They have to continue playing a central role in building forward better and advancing inclusive human development and active citizenship, as well as in strengthening democracy and promoting social justice.” - Maria Helena André, Director, ILO Bureau for Workers’ Activities. 

Trade unions: Actors for Change

ACTRAV’s programme on Trade Unions in Transformation : Actors for Change supports trade unions to engage in this debate and to strengthen transformative action on the future of trade unions. The programme started in 2019 comprising: knowledge development (e.g. global and regional background research; best practices; etc.); awareness raising (e.g. virtual and face-to-face seminars at national, sub-regional and regional levels); strategic thinking (e.g. foresight); and training (e.g. Global Workers’ Academy).

The programme developed around 5 key pillars:

1. Wake-up call. Trade unions face multiple - external and internal - challenges, ranging from violations of trade union rights, a changing employment relationship, structural economic change and shocks to effective governance. However, all these come together in one core element, and that is trade union’s ability to shape a “World of Work that Works for Workers”, based on the respect of workers’ rights and decent working conditions for all workers.

 2. Based on these multiple challenges and trade union responses to these, one can distinguish four scenarios for the future of trade unions: (i) marginalization, understood to mean decreasing rates of unionization and ageing unions; (ii) dualization, where trade unions defend current positions and service the members closest to them; (iii) replacement, which points towards competition between trade unions and other actors; and (iv) revitalization, where trade unions use innovative tactics and coalitions to strengthen trade unions as strong, relevant, democratic and representative actors.

 3. Many examples exist where trade unions have been able to transform by tackling existing challenges and by coming up with innovative solutions, for instance to attract new membership in the informal economy, across borders, through digital means; by addressing concerns of workers in emerging jobs, for instance in the green/blue or platform economy; by advocating for change on new topics, such as data rights, just transition, violence and harassment; or by engaging in new forms of workers’ voice, broad-based coalitions and union campaigning.
4. One core element that runs through the various dimensions of trade unions in transformations is the ability to navigate uncertainty and change. ACTRAV supports trade unions worldwide to strategize around trade unions in transformation through strategic thinking and foresight.
5. In the next phase of the Programme, ACTRAV uses the Trade Unions in Transformation: Actors for Change LENS (see ACTRAV policy briefs on TUs in Transformation) to look at broader key challenges and opportunities in the world of work. It is a way of looking at a broad number of topics, ranging from trade and investment, macro-economics, employment, green jobs, to Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, while asking: how does this contribute to a “World of Work that Works for Workers”.