The origin of labour market organisation traces back to the sweeping industrialisation of Europe starting in the late eighteenth century. In the period that followed, societies underwent an immense transformation including momentous urbanisation, changing demographics, and the rise of a new class of industrial labourers. It was in this context that trade unionism arose out of a need to advance the common interests of workers in a rapidly changing society. The broader trade union movement went on to become one of the most influential forces shaping modern societies, not least in the Nordic welfare states which continue to have the highest union density in the world.
Fast forward to today, where we find ourselves at the advent of the next era of technological and societal transformation, with the emergence of the digital economy as a defining characteristic. In this new era of technological and societal change, a culmination of trends are transforming the core nature of work, which is becoming increasingly more global, automated, digitised and fluid. We also see fundamental shifts in social structures and people’s way of life, which are challenging models that are rooted in an industrial-age mindset. Are trade unions facing a watershed moment?
A Generational Divide
While trade unionism is not easily compared across countries and labour markets, owing to differences in traditions and preconditions for unionism, there are nevertheless some clear trends and challenges affecting the future of labour market organisation across regions.
Trade union membership levels have tumbled almost universally over the past decades, although a recent spike was seen due to Covid-induced job market uncertainty. A 2019 estimation from The European Trade Union Confederation suggests that with the current de-unionisation trend, unions in Europe will lose more than 11 million members (26% of the current members) towards 2030.
While the reasons for declining union membership naturally vary greatly from country to country, a common denominator is the challenge unions have in attracting younger generations. Among the many reasons for this given in surveys and by researchers, three in particular stand out. The first has to do with a lack of trade union organisation in (new) sectors where young people are over-represented, including in the emerging digital economy which is characterised by new job designs and employment patterns. The second reason has to do with a limited sense of affiliation with fixed professional unionisation in a working life characterised by more frequent job changes and shifts in professional identities. This challenges traditional union structures that evolved around the assumption of workers being employed in the same industries and/or professions throughout their working lives. The third reason relates to changes to culture and lifestyles. More young people find it difficult to identify with the relevance of a trade union in relation to the way they live their on-demand lives and how they approach work. As a result of these and other factors, the median age of membership continues to increase, with many members in their mid-40s to early 50s.
TRADE UNIONISM DONE DIFFERENTLY
But the decline in traditional trade unionism cannot simply be ascribed to less of a need for a strong voice for workers (old and young) or collective action as such. It is also not a result of people shunning the idea of organising altogether. In fact, the opposite is true. Collective action and grassroot movements to raise awareness and to make a difference are on the rise globally, not only centred around campaigning for workers’ rights but also around climate action, fighting for social justice, and other issues. Especially younger workers are exploring bottom-up grassroot unionism to carve out their own collective action paths in response to emerging issues. They often come with an alternative vision of trade unionism that pushes for better labour rights for themselves while at the same time connecting those rights to broader societal agendas – often in a very vocal and explicitly political manner.
Modern-day alternatives to the traditional trade union are already starting to fill the void left by the decline in union memberships. These are often supported by new digital tools for more decentralised collective action strategies. Examples related specifically to the platform economy include the #DeclineNow labour action movement, where more than 30,000 DoorDash drivers organised ‘against the algorithm’ and colluded to reject any delivery that didn’t pay at least USD 7 (more than double the platform’s base rate of USD 3). Another prominent example is the YouTubers Union’s ‘FairTube’ campaign that brings content creators on the platform together to push for creator-friendly changes. YouTubers Union started in Germany but managed to collectively represent content creators globally – with the backing of the German metalworkers’ union – and succeeded in securing greater transparency around the platform’s algorithm, clearer rules, arbitration power and greater formal participation in important decisions. For context, consider the fact that the market size of the creator economy – as a nascent industry – has grown to well over USD 100 billion in 2021, with more than 50 million people globally who consider themselves professional content creators.
The emergence of digital peer-to-peer collective action platforms, along with other ‘WorkerTech’11 innovations, has made new forms of self-organising easier. They can be a means to bring workers together on an ad-hoc, needs driven basis to campaign on issues. They also support individuals with data-driven and measurable insights into working conditions, sharing experiences and knowledge, as well as with setting collective action strategies. You could almost frame it as the ‘unbundling’ of labour organising with more flexibility and individualisation than the traditional trade union ‘bundle’. The trade-off, of course, is that such unbundled models cannot deliver all of what a traditional trade union does, and comes with much less security.
One such platform is Coworker.org. They describe themselves as a non-profit laboratory for workers to experiment with power-building strategies and win meaningful changes in the 21st century economy. The platform provides digital tools and communities for employees to share information, self-organise, and form collectives – with a special focus on securing quality jobs for tech workers in the digital economy. Interestingly, the idea for Coworker.org arose from the frustrations its founders encountered while working at a traditional, old-fashioned labour union.
Of course we are also seeing traditional unions engage with the new nature of work and new approaches to unionism, with efforts to digitise, offer different membership models, and exert their collective action power in new ways all in the mix. Take for example Denmark’s 3F Union, which reached an agreement with Hilfr (a digital platform for domestic cleaners) in 2018 and are currently negotiating with Wolt (food delivery platform) to secure benefits such as holidays and sick pay for the workers using the platforms. An even more high-profile example is the recent case with UK’s GMB Union and Uber, which concluded in securing Uber drivers a minimum wage, holiday pay and a pension.
The rise of the digital economy should by no means be seen as a death sentence to trade unions, even though new forms of post-industrial organisation that complement – and potentially in some ways usurp – the old have already arrived. There remains the potential to reassert the visibility and relevance of unions around the vast reskilling agenda. There is also a pressing need to secure quality jobs in the digital economy, through shaping the role of technology, data and digital rights of workers.
Most likely, solidarity and collective action will remain at the very core of trade unionism. But in this new era of technological and societal transformation, the future raison d’etre for trade unions will depend on connecting the dots between the future of work and the modern issues workers will face, the prevalent societal challenges beyond the world of work, and the new reality of future unionists with all their different attitudes, beliefs and visions regarding collective action and labour market organisation.