BEERG: Politics, “Apptivism,” and Union Relations

December 06, 2019

Despite sharp declines in union membership across OECD countries, collective influence will continue to play a key role in policymaking.

The share of workers who are union members has fallen from almost 30% on average in 1985 to 16% in 2018—down by half.  The share of workers covered by a collective agreement has also shrunk from 46% on average in the OECD in 1985 to 32% today.

Nonetheless, unions will continue to be important.  Even if membership is only half what it used to be, representing 16% of the workforce is not insignificant and still brings power and influence.  But in the workforce that power and influence will be restricted to areas where the unions have traditionally been strong: manufacturing industry, the waterfront, public transport, and public services.  Elsewhere, there may be pockets of membership.

The future of collective bargaining?  Two paths seem open:

  1. Pay and working conditions will increasingly be set by legislation, resulting from interactions between politicians and pressure groups/lobbyists/activists.  In other words, unions across the world are increasingly seeking to rely on the law rather than on their own economic leverage.

  2. Social media-based activism, otherwise known as "apptivism," which involves groups of concerned employees sharing thoughts through WhatsApp or some other closed online discussion forum.  Out of such discussions can come calls for action, such as globally coordinated walkouts on specified days for a couple of hours.

Employers need to find ways of listening to the employee voice, especially in the absence of traditional structures of representation.  In western Europe other channels of collective voice are available through works councils and board participation.  European Works Councils provide for a transnational level of voice.  Membership of works councils is open to all employees.  They are not restricted to union members.  Positively engaged with, these councils can add value to the business.  All operate within legal parameters set by the European Union and/or national governments.

Read the full story in the BEERG Global Labor Newsletter.