Over the last twenty five years there has been a widespread decline in trade union membership throughout most of western Europe. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, unionisation in many eastern European states has collapsed at an even more dramatic rate. In Poland, for example, today’s 13 % level of unionisation is in marked contrast to that of the Soviet-controlled era, when almost all workplaces were unionised. Most of those who remain trade union members in Poland work for former state-owned companies.
In only 8 out of the current 27 member states of the European Union (EU) are more than half of the employed population members of a trade union. In fact, the EU’s four most populated states all have modest levels of unionisation, with Italy at 37%, the UK 25%, Germany 18% and France at only 8%.
As a consequence, three out of every four people employed in the EU are now not members of a trade union. Furthermore, in every EU country outside Scandinavia (except Belgium, Italy and Portugal), trade union membership is either static or continues to decline. Even in the UK, where a clear formal procedure for trade union recognition was introduced through the 1999 Employment Relations Act, the unionisation of employees has gradually fallen.
FedEE estimates that, in the medium term, the average level of unionisation across the EU (excluding Scandinavia, Belgium and Italy) will fall even further – from 16.0% today to just under 11% by 2020.
Trade unions have reacted to this trend by mergers and re-organisations and seeking both large multinational corporations and organisations such as the World Bank to adhere to ILO core labour standards. They have also been pressuring multinationals to build in new standards for corporate governance – including higher standards for workplace equality and CO2 emissions.
Trends Outside Europe
Whilst trade union membership has declined in Europe and North America it has tended to grow in a number of other regions. Running with this trend have been Brazil (stable since 2006). New Zealand (stable since 2004), South Africa (stable since 1999), Australia (since 2010), Costa Rica (since 2001), India (since 2004), South Korea (since 2005), Syria (since 2000), Canada, Chile, Columbia, (slight increase), and China, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan (longer term major increases). Figures are also highly erratic for Peru – but an increase seems to have taken place since 2002.
Many of the regions where trade unionism has grown have been production centres for outsourced goods and services. As the supply of available skilled labour in Asia and South America declines workers have begun to assert their economic power. The is been strengthened by improvements in communications via the social media – which have made it much easier to organise industrial action. This has become such a problem that China has been forced to introduce legal restrictions on “the use of the Internet to disturb social order”.
Leading International Bodies
European Trade Union Congress (ETUC): 85 member organisations from 36 countries and 10 industry federations, making a total of 50 million members. The umbrella organisation for national trade union confederations in Europe.
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICTFU): 324 organisations in 161 countries which represent a total of over 150 million individual union members. A campaigning body concerned about ‘globalisation’ and involved in monitoring the activities of multinational enterprises.
The South Asian Regional Trade Union Council (SARTUC) brings together trade unions in South-East Asia. It consists of 17 national trade union organisations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Union Network International (UNI): A grouping of 900 trade unions representing a total of 20 million individual union members around the world.
The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was founded in 1945. It has been subject to several schisms – firstly in 1949 over the US Marshall Plan and then following the collapse of the iron curtain in 1989/90. It now has only 6 national affiliates and radical trade unions such as the UK’s Rail Maritime Trade Union in membership.