Trade Unions as Actors for Change

Trade unions have important challenges ahead of them

The ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work identified four drivers that impact the world of work. These are globalization, demographic, environmental and technological changes. These drivers affect the labour markets of today and tomorrow, and with that the future of trade unions: the potential of organizing and servicing workers, and to speak with one voice to participate in inclusive and effective social dialogue.

Whereas important challenges existed before the ongoing pandemic,Covid-19 has aggravated many of these. Think of massive job losses, whole sectors that may disappear, or people in precarious employment with no access to unemployment benefits or health care. The current pandemic, and trade union responses, will determine the future of trade unions. 

Social, economic, environmental and developmental changes affect the future of trade unions

The shift from manufacturing towards services, environmental change, the informalisation of the economy, automation and technological change determine the capacity of trade unions to organize and service workers.

Today, legal restrictions and violations of trade union rights, such as the right to organize and to bargain collectively for ALL workers, are widespread. Not surprisingly, trade union membership is lower there where there are violations of trade union rights.

Four scenarios to respond to these challenges

In this context of rapid change, of multiple challenges and opportunities, what can we expect for and from trade unions in the future? Four possible scenarios:
  • Marginalization - decreasing rates of unionization and aging unions
  • Dualization - defending current positions and servicing members closest to them
  • Replacement - a process of replacing trade unions by others, such as NGOs, social movements, states, employers or other intermediary agencies
  • Revitalization - innovating tactics and coalitions to strengthen trade unions as strong, relevant, democratic and representative actors in organizing and servicing the ‘new unstable workforce’ in the Global North and South.

It is time to act

In light of these challenges, ACTRAV works to support trade unions to engage in debate and transformative action on the future of trade unions.

ACTRAV activities address issues of trade union revitalisation, ranging from innovative organizing tactics and services, to inclusive and effective social dialogue, enhanced trade union cooperation and internal governance.

Through various activities, ACTRAV will continue to collect examples, to draw lessons with regard to best practices, and work with trade unions to disseminate, scale up and replicate good practices.