Europe's anaemic unions hunt for new blood

Tue Sep 18, 2012 11:05am EDT
 
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By Ben Deighton and Nicholas Vinocur

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - The future of European trade unions is under 30, has never worked an assembly line and is just as likely to wear high heels as work boots.

The experience of Angelina Gill, for example, couldn't be further from the grime of the furnace and the bustle of the factory floor. And yet she is exactly the kind of member unions need to survive in the 21st century.

The bubbly 29-year-old is a French civil engineer working for a Brussels-based company that employs less than 10 people. She has a masters' degree in engineering, is fluent in three languages and until recently never dreamed of joining a union.

"I thought unions were just here to strike. That's the idea I had. I never thought they could help you," she said.

For much of the past 50 years unions have found most of their primarily male, working-class members in heavy industry and the public sector. They flourished in factories or mines with masses of workers whose economic interests were closely aligned, exerting leverage through collective bargaining.

But as the factories closed, economies became increasingly service-oriented and so did most employees. With specialised skills and a more individual sense of their careers, office workers had far less interest in the collective.

The result has contributed to a slow decline for organized labor in many countries, highlighted by shrinking membership and some embarrassing displays of weakness, most recently in the failure to organize a credible resistance to layoffs in the 2009-10 economic crisis.

In France, union membership has fallen from almost 20 percent in 1980 to just under 8 percent in 2008. In Germany, it has fallen from 35 percent to just under 20 percent in the same period, according to data from the OECD.   Continued...

 
French civil engineer Angelina Gill poses in her office in Vilvoorde near Brussels July 11, 2012. The experience of Gill couldn't be further from the grime of the furnace and the bustle of the factory floor. And yet she is exactly the kind of member unions need to survive in the 21st century. The bubbly 29-year-old is a French civil engineer working for a Brussels-based company that employs less than 10 people. She has a masters' degree in engineering, is fluent in three languages and until recently never dreamed of joining a union. Picture taken July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir