In the shadow of our modern, rapidly-changing world in which complete globalisation appears to be inevitable, the voices of workers worldwide are being diminished.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), after a steady decline in union density worldwide, the growth of organised labour now appears stagnant.

As unionists, we must ponder the reasons behind this alarming trend.

BPSU President, Senator Jason Hayward

The Battlefront

On close examination, it is clear that the decline in unionism is not the result of a reduction in the number of critical battles facing workers.

With the rapid change towards increased inter-penetration and inter-dependence of the world’s economies, income inequality continues to grow while the world’s wealth remains in the hands of a few powerful capitalists.

Technology is replacing labour at a rapid pace.

There remains an ever-present need for the improvement of worker salaries and benefits to ensure that they are not being outstripped by the rising cost of living.

In addition, labour-related battles continue to be waged against modern day slavery, gender inequality, workplace bullying and harassment, precarious working conditions and the privatisation of public services.

The Challenge

Neo-libralism has become the new buzz for the left to describe capitalist governments’ agendas, but despite what some may espouse, capitalism and neo-liberalism are not what is leading to the demise of labour unions.

As organised labour struggles to adapt in order to preserve its very survival, it is evident that unions are faced with two major dilemmas: its inability to appeal to millennials and the continuance of outdated operating models.

The Millennial Factor

At the core of trade unionism is collectivism. Solidarity has been the antidote to the greatest attacks against workers rights.

It is through the principle of solidarity that trade unions are financed, and it is the virtue which forms the basis of trade union resilience and endurance.

Society, however, has evolved from the battles of yesteryear which had fueled the need for solidarity.

Opportunities available for the current generation are greater, personal liberty is on the rise and millennials are looking for new and innovative ways to do things.

For the sake of individualism, millennials by and large, have rejected the ethos of solidarity. Millennials typically embrace the movement of ‘me’; ‘me’ above all else with a shift away from sacrificing for the greater good of the group.

As a result, millennials are moving away from traditional unionism at a rapid pace and labour unions must move with them or get left behind.

Labour unions must seek to develop strategies to attract and involve young workers in core labour union activities. 

We must harness the energy of the millennials and allow them to use the union as a means of empowerment and the progression of their interest.

The Forward Vision

Which leads to the second dilemma: the outdated operating model of labour unions.

Labour unions should be proactive organisations engaged in bottom-up decision-making with an active membership, however, labour unions have been historically reactive with centralised top/down decision-making and have passive, apathetic members.

Trade unions are in desperate need of transformational leadership; leaders who have the ability to provide a vision, instill pride in the membership, relate to members, embrace individuals and transform culture.

It is imperative that unions also break away from operating in silos and instead, form active coalitions and expand the reach of its advocacy throughout society.

Undoubtedly, there will always be a need for organised labour. The question is whether organised labour can evolve to be relevant.

The answer is that it is imperative that we do.