Future of Work

Trade Unions in Transition: Interview with Maria Helena André

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected workers and their organizations across the world. Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) explains different scenarios, which may affect the future of trade unions. She stresses also the ILO’s expectations vis-à-vis the important role of workers’ organizations to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and reinforce trade union movement.

News | 22 March 2021
Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Workers'Activities (ACTRAV)

ACTRAV INFO: COVID-19 is continuing to spread around the world: these are challenging times for workers and workers’ organizations, aren’t they?

Yes, indeed. The world is facing the biggest challenge of our generation. We do not have a road map to deal with the pandemic. It should come as no surprise that the world of work is profoundly affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have observed deep changes in the ways in which work is organized in the different sectors, the total closure of many activities, the rise in unemployment, as well as many support measures from governments to maintain certain levels of economic activity and support the livelihoods of workers and their families. We have seen a failure to respect workers’ rights, and accordingly an impact on the capacity of workers’ organizations to continue serving their members.

Needless to say, the impact for workers has been, and continues to be enormous. I invite you to consult the ILO Monitor, which provides estimates of job losses in different regions, sectors, etc. We know now that all workers worldwide are impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. However, depending on where you are, in which sector you work or your type of employment relationship, you may face different impacts of the crisis. The crisis has also exposed and aggravated existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Think of the working conditions of frontline workers or workers in the informal economy, with their lack of labour and social protection.

The pandemic is affecting not only workers, but also workers’ organizations. Trade unions worldwide have done, and are continuing to do important work throughout the pandemic in supporting their members and the population at large. At the beginning of the year, ACTRAV launched A Global Trend Analysis on the Role of Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19: A Summary of Key Findings, which documents the multiple roles played by trade unions around the world during the pandemic. The study shows that trade unions have been actively involved in policy-making through social dialogue to influence policy decisions, such as employment retention schemes, wage subsidies and the extension of social protection to the most vulnerable workers. Trade unions have also been at the forefront of negotiations with employers to mitigate the adverse impacts of the crisis, ranging from occupational safety and health (OSH) measures to teleworking. Furthermore, during the pandemic, trade unions have developed innovative strategies to continue representing and serving workers, for instance through the use of social media, campaigning and strike action by frontline workers, as well as online counselling and legal services.

However, the crisis is also seriously affecting the core functions of trade unions, which raises important questions: How is COVID-19 affecting the capacity of trade unions to influence policy-making and engage in inclusive and effective social dialogue? What capacities do trade unions have to be the voice of ALL workers? And to what extent have people relied on trade unions during the crisis to improve labour and social protection?

ACTRAV INFO: This brings us to the next question, which relates to the COVID-19 pandemic, but goes beyond it. How are trade unions affected by, and how are they responding to, a world of work that is changing at an ever-increasing pace?

I am sure that I am not wrong to say that the world is undergoing a series of transitions! The transition from youth to old age. The transition from the informal to the formal economy. The transition from an analogue to a digital world. Environmental transition. The transition from a normal work situation to lockdowns and teleworking.

Now, the big question is: how are these transitions evolving to become a new, uncertain and unpredictable normal? Another question is: how are these transitions affecting the world of work, and the future of trade unions?

In effect, asking these questions allows trade union leaders to reflect on what these transitions mean for their organizations. It is important to understand the implications of the transitions for the members, all members, in their diversity. Trade unions need to know the significance of these transitions for their organizational operation. They may also wish to examine themselves, and ask what needs to change for the transition to be appropriate, meaningful, fit for purpose and in line with trade union mandates, values, principles and action to improve the life of workers around the world.

ACTRAV is addressing these questions in its work on Trade Unions in Transition. Have a look at our website, where there are various materials. The report Trade Unions in the Balance provides a “state-of-the-union” of workers’ organizations worldwide, looking at the evolution in union membership, the main challenges faced by trade unions and possible ways forward. A recent edition of the International Journal of Labour Research on The Future of Work: Trade Unions in Transformation examines the fundamental changes in the world of work and the key transformations that these changes may entail for trade unions.

ACTRAV INFO: Could you further elaborate on what exactly ACTRAV’s work on Trade Unions in Transition entails?

Sure. The ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, which was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 2019, identifies four main drivers that impact the world of work. These are globalization and demographic, environmental and technological change. Needless to say, these drivers are affecting the labour markets of today and tomorrow, and consequently the future of trade unions around the world: the potential to organize and serve workers, and to speak with one voice and participate in inclusive and effective social dialogue.

It is in this light that ACTRAV has developed a work programme on Trade Unions in Transition around the following four main pillars:

a) First, trade union representation and services, that is the capacity of trade unions to address concerns about declining trade union membership and the encouragement of innovative and promising practices to organize, represent and serve members;

b) Second, trade union consolidation, that is, addressing the great diversity and even divisions between trade union organizations so that they can act and speak with a single voice on matters that are fundamental for workers;

c) the internal governance of trade unions, including democratic deficits, women's participation in management, representation of young workers and communication strategies; and, finally

d) inclusive and effective social dialogue on the issues of today and tomorrow.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda for instance, is an important platform for trade unions to engage in social dialogue on broader socio-economic and sustainable development issues that affect workers globally.

In the various online seminars that we have organized in recent months in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe, discussing these topics with national, regional and global trade union leaders, we have seen a lot of interest in discussing, and a willingness to act on these big questions.

ACTRAV INFO: Now, based on your years of experience working with trade unions all over the world, what should we expect for, and from, trade unions?

In our ongoing work, and building on the analysis of Prof. Visser, we are exploring four scenarios for trade unions. These are:
  • first, the marginalization of trade unions, characterized by decreasing rates of unionization and ageing unions;
  • secondly, dualization, or the tendency for trade unions to defend themselves where they are traditionally strong, that is workers in a stable employment relationship, in big companies, the public sector, etc.;
  • third, replacement, where trade unions are in competition with other actors, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), employers (for instance through direct employee participation in the company) and other intermediary agencies, such as lawyers when dealing with labour disputes; and
  • finally, revitalization, understood as innovating tactics and coalitions to reinforce trade unions as strong, relevant, democratic and representative actors in organizing and serving the ‘new unstable workforce’ in the Global North and South.
Clearly, the preferred option is revitalization and, while recognizing multiple challenges, trade unions have been taking action and there are many cases in which trade unions have been organizing and serving emerging or traditionally under-represented groups of workers.

In Jordan, for instance, trade unions are involved in facilitating access by Syrian refugees to the formal labour market. In Uzbekistan, trade unions are organizing seasonal workers, for instance by allowing temporary dual union membership. Danish trade unions have signed a collective agreement with a digital labour platform on matters such as the transition from freelance to employment status, insurance coverage and dispute resolution. The Australian trade union movement is organizing and serving young workers, for instance through one-stop-shop Young Workers’ Centres (YWC’s). Moreover, trade unions are increasingly involved in new policy debates on a just transition, LGBTI rights, data protection, the right to disconnect, fair taxation, violence and harassment at work and the gender pay gap, to name but a few. Unions are exploring innovative tactics and alliances, using social media and mobilizing around international campaigns. Various trade unions around the world have organized digital strikes or picket lines by drivers in the gig economy, or are targeting young workers through virtual organizing and social media, including the use of podcasts or TikTok.

Thus, while the challenges are growing for labour movements to remain an integral voice for social justice, we are seeing encouraging signs that many trade unions around the world are adapting to the changing world of work. Whether this will occur as effectively and quickly as is required remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that if there is to be an inclusive recovery that leaves no one behind, unions need to confront the major challenges in our labour markets and play a central role in building forward better and advancing labour and social agendas, particularly now in times of COVID-19.

ACTRAV INFO: This brings us to our final question. What’s next?

The current context is compelling workers’ organizations to take stock of the risks and opportunities brought about by the multiple changes in the world of work, which include the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and to consider possible scenarios for progressive change.

To this end, ACTRAV is undertaking research on how COVID-19 is affecting the core functions of trade unions, that is, their capacity to organize, represent and service all workers.

Together with the International Training Centre, a virtual training programme is being developed to support trade union leadership at the sub-regional, regional and inter-regional levels, around the following pillars:
  • assessing particular key transitions and sustainability challenges faced by trade unions;
  • analysing in-depth the four possible scenarios outlined above;
  • based on the experiences of trade union leaders, discussing best practices for trade union revitalization;
  • learning from trade union responses in times of COVID-19, with a particular focus on successful practices through which trade unions have shown resilience and are at the forefront of shaping policy responses to COVID-19 through effective and inclusive collective bargaining and social dialogue; and, finally
  • using foresight or scenario thinking to help trade unions deal with uncertainty, anticipate change, explore possible futures and enable transformative action.
In conclusion, this is not the first crisis 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.