Trade union crisis and the potential for renewal

Trade unions are in crisis, due to a combination of external factors (political attack, globalisation and changes to the mode of production), and internal factors (rigidity and an inability to adapt to changed circumstances).

With regard to external factors, there has been an ideological attack on the raison d’etre of trade unions, the belief in collective action and unions as working people’s shield and defense; the rise of neo-liberalism under Thatcher and Reagan has seen the elevation of individualism.

Employment in trade unions’ traditional areas of strength in manufacturing has declined significantly, while there has been a growth of employment in the service sector and an increase in labour ‘flexibility’. This has also changed the demographic base that trade unions have recruited from, as workers in flexible and service sector jobs are disproportionately women, ethnic minorities, migrant workers, young people or other groups not traditionally associated with trade unions.

Internally, unions are resistant to change and structurally not suited to the job of organising this new, diverse workforce. In order to bring about a renewal and revitalisation of the labour movement, among other things unions need to reach out to new groups of workers, allow these groups to establish voices by facilitating autonomous organising, and increase union democracy and the accountability of union structures.

Early renewal strategies focused on the ‘servicing’ model and particularly the need to recruit more members. This has fallen out of favour, and an ‘organising’ model – aimed at increasing the participation and mobilisation of members – now has wider currency.

The next step is to figure out to what extent new technologies can contribute to this renewal..

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