The future of worker representation


Like many of our global counterparts, the AFL-CIO faces many challenges.

Last year, the federal Bureau for Labor Statistics announced that the percentage of U.S. workers represented by unions fell in 2012 to levels not seen since the 1930s.

In response, the AFL-CIO Executive Council reaffirmed its commitment to organizing a stronger, more inclusive labor movement.

As part of this commitment, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, announced an initiative on the future of worker representation.

The initiative will engage elected union leaders in the United States and globally, as well as their members and staff, workers, allies and experts, to gather information to ensure that workers continue to be represented at work and in the political arena and that the labor movement makes the changes necessary for a renewal of worker representation.

Across the globe, trade liberalization and an ever-expanding global marketplace have, in many cases, left workers unprotected, with weak labor standards and few means of securing effective representation. In the United States and globally, trade unions have been under attack and are generally losing labor market density.

Yet, simultaneously, shifts in global economic trends have encouraged notable creative trade union strategies for protecting and representing workers in changing workplaces.

The Global Labour University (GLU), in coordination with the AFL-CIO, is hosting an online discussion on how unions worldwide are responding to similar economic and political challenges.

Specifically, it is looking to how unions identify country-specific problems as they build alternative models for representing workers, or build worker power in an innovative way; what forms of worker representation have thrived in what contexts; and what potential models exist for global partnerships that could lead to collective power for workers.

The discussion is looking at these research questions across a spectrum of economic relationships—ranging from sectors of the formal economy where the union movement has had density but the nature of work relations is changing, to formal work in new sectors of the economy where labor has no density, to the contingent workforce, broadly defined to include agency hire, part-time, temporary, subcontracted, self-employed and home-based work.

In this work, special emphasis will be put on understanding growing key constituencies in our movement—mainly young workers, women and migrant workers, as well as workers from historically disadvantaged minority groups within our countries—and the strategies that have been developed for organizing these workers.

Over the next weeks, the Global Labour University will moderate an online discussion around a key set of questions that will help us address the future of worker representation.

We would like to engage in a discussion of the five questions below, dealing with one question per week.

Within each discussion, we want to emphasize strategies that have addressed the needs of young workers, women, migrants and other groups of workers that historically may not have been actively engaged in or served by the labor movement.

1. How have unions responded to the challenges that arise in formal sectors of the economy where the labor movement has had core density but the composition of the workforce has changed due to new configurations of employment in the same workplace that range from full-time to contingent?   2. How have unions responded to the growth of contingent work in sectors of the economy where the labor movement has little or no density? Here we want to consider the various big themes around the growing contingent workforce: agency-hire, part-time, temporary, subcontracted, self-employed and home-based work. What do models of organizing and bargaining look like?   3. How have unions responded to the growth of formal work in new sectors of economy where labor has little or no density? How do you grow membership in new core sectors of the economy where there also are different configurations of employment (i.e., Google, tech industry)? (Such configurations would also include changing skill profiles, i.e., academic backgrounds.)   4. Where have strategic global partnerships led to collective power for workers (i.e., regional and global networks, global framework agreements)? What strategic concepts are being pursued toward building transnational union networks?   5. Where have national centers (federations?) made effective organizational changes to their structures in order to better represent workers?

We will post a new discussion question weekly. Please share this forum with your networks, so we can have an inclusive and meaningful conversation, engaging many different perspectives. You may post on the forum as a guest but need to be registered to post and read attachments.