Old and new ways of solving social problems

While trade unions have played an essential role in social dialogue between workers, employers and governments, their membership in many countries has declined dramatically in recent years. Looking back over a long career in the German and international trade union movement, Werner Thönnessen explores some old and new ways in which trade unions can adapt to this trend, while meeting the challenges of globalization.

Article | 11 November 2003

GENEVA - Recent publications of the ILO show a far from positive picture of work and employment standards in today's world. Open unemployment has hit 180 million - its highest level since World War II. And violations of ILO core labour standards on freedom of association, forced labour, child labour and discrimination are widespread. Inside and outside the labour movement, many people are asking: where are the unions?

In most industrialized countries today, trade union membership is dwindling. Between 1990 and 2000, union membership in the United Kingdom dropped from 38 to 25 per cent of employees. In Germany, it fell from 38 to 22 percent in the same period, according to the European Trade Union Institute.Only Denmark and some other Scandinavian countries have seen slight increases in union members.In other parts of the world, meanwhile, the picture is similar.

Among the reasons for these massive losses in membership are growing unemployment, and a perception of inefficiency and lack of attractiveness of the labour movement. In Germany, for instance, monthly real wages dropped within 10 years by 21 euros. Why should a worker join a union under these circumstances and continue to pay union dues?

New members of the workforce are adopting a similar stance. Young people, women and white collar workers appear even more reluctant to join unions, according to recent studies and surveys. Workers' organizations are aware of this and attempting to adapt to the new realities, sometimes focusing on new or missing categories of workers.

One such category is comprised of "middle class" of highly-qualified workers. Some have already discovered that collective bargaining and solidarity are not necessarily antiquated categories. Others have started to build unions of their own to take care of their interests.

Old ways

Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that traditional forms of solidarity still pay for union members. Every year, German unions win millions of Euros in labour and social courts as compensation for unfair treatment of their membership.

While it is true that strikes occur more rarely than 20 years ago, they are still a last resort when negotiations for better working conditions breakdown, as recent examples in public service sectors show. The Canadian steelworkers' twelve-week long strike ended with a favourable agreement with a multinational company; the British union AMICUS obliged a firm to reinstate unfairly dismissed workers by striking almost two years; and in the Republic of South Africa, an already announced strike against petrol stations and car dealers was called off because the employers made substantial concessions.

These examples show that the traditional means of conflict resolution are not outdated.

New ways

But today unions can offer even more than these traditional means of defending workers' interests at the national level.Among the new ways of doing this are so-called framework agreements between multinational companies and the international trade union movement and other "workplace initiatives" to be discussed by the ILO Governing Body's Working Party on the Social Dimension of Globalization this week.

24 of these agreeements had been concluded by the end of July 2003 between global union federations (IMF, IUF, IFBWW, ICEM and UNI) and transnational corporations such as VW, Daimler Chrysler, Danone, Chiquita, IKEA, Faber-Castel or Anglo-American, according to a paper 1 prepared for the November 2003 session of the ILO Governing Body.

Topics frequently covered are trade union rights, collective bargaining rights, information and consultation, equal opportunities, safety and health, minimum wage standards, and the banning of child labour and forced labour. Effectiveness and outreach of these agreements are still to be ascertained, but they put pressure on others to follow the example.

While the efficiency of framework agreements depends on the willingness and the capacity of the partners to monitor the issues covered by these agreements, the creation of workers' representations at the international level originates in the determination of trade unions to go "global" and draw the consequences from the growing internationalisation of company activities.

Within the European Union (EU) these institutions have had a legal basis since 1994. Companies with more than 1,000 employees operating in at least two member countries of the EU can set up such European works councils. It is surprising, however, that such bodies only exist in 37% of the firms concerned.

Worldwide works councils exist in major companies like Volkswagen, Daimler Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, General Electric, ITT, Leoni, Nissan, Toyota, Siemens and IBM. Such councils have been created for these transnational corporations following the initiative of global unions and independently from the agreement of the firms concerned.

Trade union activities in the German information and communication industries show another "new way" of conflict resolution. In a number of German companies in this sector, the union concluded voluntary agreements on company level for a shorter workweek with equal or slightly reduced pay and no dismissals. Thus thousands of jobs could be saved in major companies.

According to the Governing Body report, the number of "workplace initiatives", including codes of conduct, corporate policies and model codes promoted by employers' and workers' organizations and governments, increased from some 200 in 1998 to well over 300 initiatives in 2003.

The need for allies

First and foremost, I believe, trade unions have to strengthen their own ranks by clarifying their message, reforming their organisations, overcoming the concentration on the old industrial workforce, showing more interest in the unemployed, in women and youth, opening themselves to new ideas and redefining the concept of solidarity.

The global trade union movement is fully aware of its present weakness and that it can only fulfil its role with strong allies. They are to be found in the first place in the ILO, but also in numerous other institutions of supranational and national character, NGOs, political parties, religious groups, farsighted governments and employers.

Werner Thoennessen is a former official of the International Metal Workers' Federation (IMF) and has written frequently for ILO publications. The article reflects the view of the author which is not necessarily the view of the ILO.

* Information note on corporate social responsibility and international labour standards, Working Party on the Social Dimension of Globalization, Governing Body, International Labour Office, 288th session, GB 2288WP/SDG/3, Geneva, November 2003