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Although trends vary from country to country, there is no doubt that trade unions in the European Union have generally lost members and experienced reduced density levels since the nineteen-seventies. A new report from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) rounds up these developments and the attempts of unions to re-invigorate recruitment.
|THE MID-1970S SEEM, IN RETROSPECT, TO HAVE been a high point for trade unions in many European nations. While the eastern European countries had communist political systems and therefore state-run unions, many western Member States were recording peak levels of both membership numbers and percentages of employees signed up (density). Since that time many factors have come together to influence both measures in a negative direction. The eastern countries experienced a transition to capitalist economies which involved both a severe economic downturn and the privatisation of many state firms. In the west multinational companies began to move manufacturing to lower-wage labour markets, first to the new Member States and then further afield. This process had a serious effect on membership in a traditional union stronghold and was followed by outsourcing and privatisation of functions in the public sector, another. Job creation usually took place in the service sector and in small companies with dispersed workforces where union organisation was difficult. These phenomena were joined by increasing individualisation of employment relations, both by company personnel practice and through the changed views of a younger generation of workers who found it harder to identify with a collective interest as represented by trade unions.Faced with this decline unions have pursued various new initiatives to win back members. Special women’s and youth sections have been set up and migrant workers, who typically work in unorganised sectors of the economy (the report quotes figures from the Danish construction industry where only 4% of migrants are union members compared to 85% of all workers), targeted. Squads of organisers||
Trade union density & membership + employment (2000–2006)
|have been trained to carry out recruitment campaigns and networks of contacts established for members in small and medium-sized companies (SMEs). Another approach is to offer individual incentives through benefits that unions can negotiate such as health plans, insurance and legal and tax advice. Sometimes this extends to shopping discounts and even, in Finland, to a lottery with reduced union dues as a prize. How successful have these initiatives been? Between 2000 and 2006 Belgium was the only EU Member State where both union membership and density rose. Then there are a group of countries, including Finland, Ireland and Italy, where raw membership numbers increased as the percentage of the working population in unions fell. This is often due to the expansion of employment in sectors of the economy where it is hard to organise outweighing recruitment in more traditional areas. In most countries however the decline continued in this period. Advances have been made in organising women workers. In Nordic and some eastern Member States women are now more unionised than men though this has not been reflected by more females in executive positions within unions. It is also worth noting that the resources to mount new kinds of recruitment are dependent on the traditional strengths of membership and organisation. As potential members have become more heterogeneous trade unions have adapted their techniques but the report confirms the importance of traditional methods.|