Trade Union Movement

Trade Unions in Transitions: Interview with Mr Luc Cortebeeck, Member of the Workers’ Group of the ILO Governing Body

Luc Cortebeeck is a member of the Workers’ Group of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Governing Body. He has acted as Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson of the Governing Body, and President of the Workers’ Group. He is Honorary President of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions of Belgium (ACV-CSC).

News | 09 March 2021

ACTRAV INFO: In a context of declining union membership around the world, what is THE challenge for unions to ensure that they remain relevant and representative in the world of work today and in the future?

It is important not to idealize or romanticize the past: unionism has always been very difficult. We have to navigate upstream. This was the case in the past, and it is no different now. In industrialized countries in the 19th century, labour movements were fought against and even entirely suppressed. The founding of the International Labour Organization (ILO) 101 years ago has been key to open these discussions in our countries, and to win workers’ rights, for instance, the right to freedom of association.

Following World War II, in a context where workers were sorely needed in reconstruction there was the Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted by the ILO in 1944. In compensation for workers’ contribution and productivity, wages were increased through collective bargaining. Social security was built by social partners and governments. To that end, employers and governments needed organized workers through workers' organizations.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, globalization has become an ideology for the economic powers and an important number of politicians worldwide have actively been opposing all forms of social or climatic regulation, and trade unions. In addition, the financial crisis of 2008–10 and the years after it led to austerity measure as a government response. Furthermore, social dialogue, whether with trade unions or as a broader dialogue with civil society has often been absent.

Other elements, to do with the nature of work itself, also play a role. Since the 19th century, work was traditionally organized in workshops, factories or offices. Workers were together, which stimulated solidarity and facilitated contact, discussion and the recruitment of members. The collective aspect of work gave wings to trade unions. Today, work is increasingly individualized, especially in atypical forms of employment and in the informal economy. Think of platform work (e.g. the Deliveroos or Uber-Eats of this world); workers in disguised employment, that is, workers who in practice work for an employer but are not recognized as employees; interim or short-term contracts; part-time work; flexible working hours, which can be positive in some cases but may also reduce contacts with co-workers; or teleworking, which has expanded massively in this period of COVID-19, and while not bad in itself, has among its effects less direct contact with other people.

Another important evolution is individualization. Better educated workers may have the impression that they can negotiate their working conditions individually; in reality this often leads to frustration.

In short, the world of work has changed, and is still changing, and these evolutions do not help trade unions to make contact with and recruit new members.

ACTRAV INFO: What do you think are the biggest obstacles to increasing union membership? Including not only contextual factors, such as the evolution of labour markets, but also on the part of the unions themselves, for example, related to the their image, the ageing of members, or other issues?

It is positive that several workers’ organizations are looking for a new way forward. Our structures, which were created for the period of industrialization, have more or less survived the transition to the service economy, even if the first signs of declining membership were manifested during this period. However, I also note that in their assessments, trade unions start too much from themselves, from their existing structures, from their history, often in the romantic hope that those times may return – which is an illusion – rather than thinking about the needs of todays’ workers. I am going to say two things that may seem harsh, but I say this as a committed trade unionist and friend: all change is difficult and it is often our own leadership (delegates, secretaries, etc.) who slow down the transition to a new unionism. In a certain sense, we are often our own worst enemy.

Unionism has existed since Roman times, but the types of organizations have changed. Workers, whether employees or not, will always organize themselves in one way or another. If current organizations do not adapt, new organizations will emerge. In the first instance, they may be corporatist organizations, which defend people in the same profession or those who experience the same work situations. For example, if unions in the public sector only organize workers with public status, other employees who work in the same public sector may not feel represented. Or, if we do not represent agency workers who work in the same company, we are excluding them. These workers need a union even more than others do.

What will never succeed is adapting workers to our organizations. You can use methods such as advertising, social media or whatever, but that is not the crux of the matter. The key questions are: who are the workers of our time, taking into account all types of workers? What are their problems? What do they need for their protection? What types of organization do they need? If the realities have become different (which is the case), the types of organization must be adapted to these new realities.

ACTRAV INFO: What do you consider successful experiences of enlarging union membership?

The number of paying members remains a cornerstone for unionism, because financial independence, which is not an easy task, is an essential condition for being a quality union.

The power of numbers remains important. A certain trade union pluralism or diversity is healthy, but a proliferation of unions –that is, too many unions – is harmful, because it gives power to governments and employers who will celebrate under the motto 'divide and rule'.

You asked me if I know of any good examples, and yes, there are. People are at the same time individuals and members of a community, of a family, of groups of friends, of co-workers, of a union, and so on. These two dimensions are recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has consequences for the organization of contemporary trade unionism. Since deregulation and atypical forms of work increasingly affect ALL workers, the individual employee needs specialist advice and legal support. This means that individual services have become more important and I see this as a factor of success for trade unions that are strong in these types of services.

This does not diminish the great importance of collective bargaining. The opposite is true, for the content of collective bargaining evolves based on these individual experiences. In tripartite negotiations with government, it is labour legislation and social protection that are the most important issues. With sectoral or company-level employers, collective agreements create a framework for wages, working time and other working conditions such as health and safety. In many countries there are also works councils or workers' committees that can define certain rights. These are important, as they are close to the daily reality of workers.

In the new reality of the individualization of work through atypical forms of work and flexibility, it has become even more important to create frameworks of rights in which employees know how to move and evolve, taking into account their needs and respecting their rights. These are ways to set the boundaries and limit flexibility for the employer.

In the 19th century, a worker was a worker. Today we know many types of workers. The art of trade unions is to organize all groups, all types of workers. Accordingly, it is not enough to remain only in the classic sectors of industry and services. For example, health and education services will gain in importance. These need to be organized, and is already the case in several countries around the world. But a lot still has to be done. I have seen good examples of the organization of workers in the ‘gig economy’, such as those on digital platforms and in bogus self-employment in some Scandinavian countries. This is not easy, especially because we are dealing with individuals who are in the same precarious situation but who do not work together, even within the same company.

I had already given other examples, such as public service unions that could organize more precarious workers in their sector, or the organization of agency workers in the private sector. Furthermore, I have seen many great examples of organizing workers in the informal economy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Togo and others, as well as different types of organization in the rural sector such as in India or Latin America.

Another element is communication. We have to talk about what we have achieved. In my country, Belgium, 96 per cent of workers are covered by collective labour agreements. However, not even half of these workers are aware of this. Unions do not say enough about what they are doing. Why? Because they are never satisfied with their accomplishments. It is never 100% per cent; nevertheless, for the recruitment of members it is necessary to highlight the progress that has been made or which past achievements have been safeguarded. And for that we must use all means, including social media. In this area we need innovation. How can these means be used for the trade union cause? I already see good examples, but we still have a lot to learn.

It is essential that good practices and the conditions under which they can be successful are shared among participants in the courses run by the ILO’s International Training Centre (ITC) organized by the Bureau for Workers’ Activities’ (ACTRAV), in collaboration with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Despite all the above, I do not forget that there are serious problems with respect to the fundamental ILO Conventions on freedom of association, in around 50 per cent of countries, with different levels of non-application, prohibition or even persecution. There are also gigantic companies like Walmart, Amazon, Google or Samsung which organize themselves using surveillance technology to control their employees and to block all attempts to organize. However, even in these companies there are some successes. For example, I observed the methods used to organize the staff of Ryanair, which was successful. In Germany, a 24-hour strike was announced at Amazon by the union Ver.di, a member of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) after a spontaneous strike of 500 workers the week before. So even in such companies there are opportunities, because there are serious problems of working conditions and labour relations.

ACTRAV INFO: In your most recent book- Still Work To Be Done: The Future of Decent Work in the World-, you draw on your extensive experience, notably as President of the Workers' Group and Vice-Chairperson of the Governing Body, on complex issues ranging from forced labour in Qatar, freedom of association in Guatemala, or child labour in Uzbekistan, to name but a few. What can the new generation of union leaders learn from this experience?

Thank you for referring to my book "Still Work To Be Done: The Future of Decent Work in the World", which was published last year. I wrote it really for the union leaders and activists of the future.

Summarizing the book is difficult, but the message I want to give is that I believe in the model of social dialogue. Without trade unions, there is no question of trade union action, social dialogue or collective bargaining. I have seen other models in the world, but I do not see another feasible model. I appreciate the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and as trade unions we have to cooperate with them, because for certain issues such as climate change or peace, they are better than us. We do not know how to do everything. However, for issues such as working conditions or labour relations I do not see any other alternative: it is up to labour organizations, to unions. I do not see how politics, or even political parties close to us, could play that role. Not at all.

ACTRAV INFO: You address the issue in your book, but could you explain in more detail what you think Covid-19 means for the future of unions?

Compare the current situation with the post-war situations in 1918 and in 1944. After the First World War, the ILO was created, after the Second World War the economy was rebuilt with all available hands. For a reconstruction, a recovery after COVID-19, we will need the cooperation and commitment of workers. So now is the time for labour organizations to play their role. For example, we must ask NOW for recognition of and respect for the working conditions of healthcare workers. It is up to us to organize the workplaces, to avoid Covid-19 contamination and to discuss conditions such as teleworking, among others.

ACTRAV INFO: Using this forum to ask yourself a question relating to your years of service with the ILO, what is THE biggest challenge in maintaining the relevance of the ILO in the decades to come?

The existence of a United Nations (UN) agency established for the promotion of workers’ rights and putting the role of social dialogue and the importance of trade unions at its centre is key for the future of trade unions. For even those governments and employers who have no respect for trade unions, there are internationally recognized ways to call them to order. These are the international labour Conventions and standards and the ILO’s supervisory system. It is not easy, but it is possible, and I did not promise you that unionism would be easy.

If this is the challenge for the ILO, may I suggest, in closing, the following passage from my book:

“The ILO needs the three groups - governments, employers and workers - to achieve its goals. This makes the organization both strong and fragile. Strong, because its chances of success are much greater with such a broad support base. Fragile, because one group is enough to crack the system. The future will depend on the positive dynamics of the tripartite structure. The three groups must show that they believe in the organization. The quality of the future of the ILO will be directly proportional to the strength and quality of their commitment. However, each group separately also faces major challenges. Trade unions will have to organize the new workforce and those of the rural and informal economies. Employers' organizations will have to represent large companies, supply chains and small businesses in the informal economy. Governments will have to nurture and support tripartism both domestically and internationally.”