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Trade unions in transition: What will be their role in the future of work?

Trade unions in transition: What will be their role in the future of work?

Just as the future of work is uncertain, so is the future of trade unions. Globalization and demographic, environmental and technological changes are changing the labour markets of today and will determine those of tomorrow. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed and aggravated existing challenges. Globally, trade union membership has been going down over time, and with that trade unions’ ability to organize and service workers.

Among all the possible scenarios for trade unions, which one is most likely? For sure, the most favourable scenario is their revitalization, wherein trade unions find innovative tactics and form coalitions to represent all workers. 

Students at a centre for apprenticeship of young women, Hyderabad district, India. © ILO

Trade unions during the COVID-19 pandemic

Whereas the pandemic has laid bare the many dimensions of decent work deficits in the world of work, workers have also relied on trade unions to enhance job and income security, and access to social protection.

Despite all the restrictions during the pandemic, trade unions assisted workers and their families in different ways, ranging from legal advice, setting up of emergency funds, awareness-raising campaigns, modified training programmes and advocacy on recognition of COVID-19 as employment injury, to the use of social media.

Around 80% of countries worldwide used social dialogue, tripartite and/or bipartite, as part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis. The most frequent topics of negotiation have been social protection and employment measures, industrial relations, occupational safety and health (OSH), and fiscal measures.

Trade unions have found innovative ways to reach out to new members and contribute to crisis responses through social dialogue. Here are two examples.

Swedish trade unions

Swedish trade unions have attracted new members after successfully negotiating with retail employers to avoid lay-offs and protect workers' wages during the crisis.

While many organizing activities have been put on hold, the unions have continued to reach out to new members over telephone and through social media.

Georgian Trade Unions Confederation

During the pandemic, the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation campaigned to help informal workers meet eligibility criteria and enhance the digital literacy they need to access governmental crisis support.

Textile workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, İzmir, Turkey. © ILO

Where do trade unions stand now?

Trade union membership worldwide has been going down over time, despite a number of bright spots in certain African or Latin American countries where membership increased. Different factors come into play in this overall decrease: Think of the shift from manufacturing to service jobs, the outsourcing of unionized jobs, the informalization of the economy and the changing employment relationship, and automation.

In fact, trade union membership is lower for people in non-standard or precarious types of employment, such as temporary and own-account workers or workers in the informal and gig economy.

Furthermore, legal restrictions and violations of trade union rights, such as the right to organize and to bargain collectively, are widespread. This affects trade unions’ ability to organize, to represent and to service workers. Not surprisingly, trade union membership is lower there where there are violations of trade union rights.

Sewing machine operator in a textile factory in Nicaragua. © ILO

What can we expect for, and from, trade unions in the future?

We see four possible scenarios for trade unions: marginalization, dualization, replacement and revitalization.


The continuation of decreasing rates of unionization, in combination with aging unions. This may result in a gradual marginalization of trade unions around the world.


Trade unions defend their current positions, servicing workers closest to them and in sectors where they are strong, for instance workers in a formal employment relationship and in big industries or the public sector. This would come at the cost of other, more precarious workers or less represented sectors. 


Trade unions face competition from other organizations, such as non-governmental organizations, other intermediary agencies, labour lawyers or employers, for instance through alternative forms of worker participation, led by management and without trade union involvement. 


Trade unions find innovative tactics and coalitions to organize and defend all workers and to strengthen inclusive and effective social dialogue.

Window cleaner of a building under construction, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. © ILO

The path for revitalization

Many positive examples exist of trade union revitalization, and these typically involve:

  1. Organizing and servicing new members, such as young workers or workers in the informal or gig economy.
  2. Speaking and acting as one, namely the ability to act collectively across sectors, at national, regional and global levels.
  3. Ensuring sound internal governance, through a transparent set of rules that governs the mandate, management, elections and activities of trade unions.
  4. Strengthening effective and inclusive social dialogue on the issues of today and tomorrow.
Scene from a farm benefiting from ILO-supported projects, Tunisia. Photo: © ILO

Unions can meet the needs of under-represented workers

Trade unions have been organizing and servicing emerging or traditionally under-represented groups of workers. Unions have addressed the needs of workers in the informal economy, for instance by organizing informal economy workers and integrating them into the formal structures of the trade union movement. The same is true for young workers.

Although there are many obstacles to organizing and servicing workers in the platform economy, gig workers are organizing, through both traditional and innovative means, through existing unions, or by establishing new organizations. 

Organizing workers in the informal economy

  • In Jordan, a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed between the Government and the trade unions to ease the regulations for issuing work permits to Syrian refugees and facilitating their access to the formal labour market. The agreement allows work permits to be issued through a specialized center located at the Office of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions (GFJTU). 
  • The National Confederation of Workers of Senegal (CNTS) has created a national union for private security workers and entered into sectoral collective negotiations to regularize workers in the informal economy, to enhance access to medical insurance, to improve OSH or to ensure contribution to a pension and social security fund.
  • The Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan (FTUU) is organizing seasonal workers such as cotton pickers. The FTUU adopted recommendations for its affiliates to adjust policies, structures and rules to the needs of informal workers, for instance to allow for temporary dual union membership.  

Organizing workers in the platform economy

  • In Argentina, the Platform Economy Staff Association (APP) is organizing workers in the gig economy through a new union supported by the Federation of Argentinian Workers (CTA) and the General Confederation of Labour of Argentina (CGT).
  • In Indonesia, motorcycle and taxi drivers and various trade unions established an Online Transportation Action Committee, which has engaged in dialogue with firms as well as with the Ministries of Transportation and Manpower to better regulate the sector.
  • In 2018, the United Federation of Danish Workers (3F) signed a collective agreement with Hilfr, a Danish-owned digital labour platform. The agreement addresses matters such as transition from freelance to employment status, insurance coverage and dispute resolution.       

Organizing young workers

  • The Australian trade union movement is organizing and servicing young workers. Young Workers’ Centers (YWCs are a one-stop shop for young workers who want to learn more about their rights at work or who need personalized advice or assistance (including legal) in resolving workplace issues. The Australian Confederation of Trade Unions (ACTU) is targeting young workers through virtual organizing and social media, including the use of podcasts and TikTok.
  • The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) developed an app to mobilize and recruit unemployed youth workers in the country, and established a nationwide alliance with different civil society organizations.
  • The National Young Workers Forum of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), launched in 2018, has developed an operational strategy for the provision of improved services to young workers, which include a customized political education programme and the establishment of young workers structures.  

Strengthening trade union internal governance

Democratic internal governance is not only key for effective trade union operations, but also for assuring credibility among workers and the general public.

  • The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) has internal governance high on its agenda. It prioritizes the performance of unions and union leaders and the renewal of the organizational structure.
  • The Trades Union Congress (TUC) of Ghana has put trade union internal governance front and centre. The TUC prioritizes its representatives to act with knowledge, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Speaking and acting as ONE

Many countries and regions are characterized by trade union proliferation and fragmentation. However, improved trade union cooperation, where trade unions speak and act as one, has improved representation and impact on decision-making.

  • In Benin, the main trade union organizations developed a joint Declaration and Charter to enhance trade union unity and joint action. The Charter establishes a new union structure, encompassing decision-making, operations, membership and financing.
  • In Lithuania and Ukraine, unions are collaborating across borders through joint campaigning and a bilateral cooperation agreement to enhance recruitment and representation of Ukrainian truck drivers in unions in both countries.
  • In Mauritius, trade union unity – in action and structure – has become a priority for the union movement. The establishment of the Council of Trade Unions of Mauritius is an effort to bring together the main trade union confederations in the country.
Adult training centre for construction trades in Dolakha district, an earthquake-affected area in Nepal. © ILO

Inclusive and effective social dialogue increases trade union impact

Trade unions must engage in inclusive and effective social dialogue to enhance decent work, but also on broader socio-economic and sustainable development issues that affect workers globally. The 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development is one platform for this broadened social dialogue.


In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) helped develop the national development strategy and progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The union’s inputs underscored the role of decent work in developing a pro-poor and pro-worker COVID-19 recovery process and a sustainable development strategy.

Russian Federation

In the Russian Federation, trade unions’ effective engagement in national social dialogue secured the adoption of a new legislation on teleworking.


In Colombia, the ILO collaborated with various sectoral and national trade unions in the agro- and rural economy to strengthen trade union organizing and representation in rural areas, particularly in the post-conflict context.

This allowed trade unions to contribute to policymaking in alternative social dialogue forums – for example at the municipal and departmental level – on issues such as skills development or territorial planning.

Republic of Moldova

In the Republic of Moldova, trade unions collaboratively advocated for amendments to the law on labour inspection.

A new law resulted from years of lobbying by the National Trade Union Confederation (CNSM), and awareness about the issue was also raised by the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations.

The Committee of the Whole, 108th (Centenary) Session of the International Labour Conference, Geneva, 2019. © ILO

A future with trade union revitalization

The four future scenarios for trade unions – marginalization, dualization, replacement and revitalization – are all possible, and in fact are all happening now, sometimes in the same country, in different sectors and in different combinations. For instance,

  • Dualization as a holdout against marginalization;
  • Replacement as a source and inspiration for revitalization; 
  • Revitalization as the opening-up of dualization.

Various tools, such as foresight or scenario thinking, can be useful for trade unions in dealing with this uncertainty – to anticipate change, to explore possible futures, and enable transformative action.

Yet in this context of multiple transitions, with trade unions are faced with so many serious challenges, they have shown great resilience and a remarkable capability to revitalize themselves in innovative ways. This bodes well for the future. Strong trade unions are needed now more than ever to build a world of work founded on sustainable development that ensures decent work for all.

Workshop discussions in a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. © ILO

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