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French civil engineer Angelina Gill, photographed in her office in Vilvoorde near Brussels, is exactly the kind of member European trade unions need to survive in the 21st century. (FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS)
French civil engineer Angelina Gill, photographed in her office in Vilvoorde near Brussels, is exactly the kind of member European trade unions need to survive in the 21st century. (FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS)

Europe’s anemic unions hunt for new blood Add to ...

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.

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The bubbly 29-year-old is a French civil engineer working for a Brussels-based company that employs fewer 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 specialized 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 labour 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 per cent in 1980 to just under 8 per cent in 2008. In Germany, it has fallen from 35 per cent to just under 20 per cent in the same period, according to data from the OECD.

But some unions are fighting back, taking to the Web to offer more individualized services and reaching out to highly educated employees in small companies and to temporary and independent workers who traditionally have been ignored.

“I think the awareness is very big within our members, and I think the process has started and yes, I think it will accelerate,” said Bernadette Segol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.

Since Ms. Gill joined her soil analysis firm two years ago, her union has helped her submit tax forms and claim holidays to which she did not know she was entitled.

Over the past few months, Ms. Gill’s representative at the liberal CGSLB union, the smallest of three unions in Belgium, has guided her through complex wage negotiations as she prepares to take on a new job, helping her secure a higher salary.

“I have a question, I ask it, I get an answer. What better can there be? They’ve never failed me,” she said, likening the service to that of a lawyer but at a far lower cost.

According to European Commission data, two-thirds of private sector workers in the European Union are now employed by companies that have fewer than 250 staff and annual sales of under €50-million ($64-million). Companies with fewer than 10 workers provide a third of all private-sector jobs.

Richard Hyman, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, says unions are stepping up efforts to appeal to non-traditional members.

“(Unions) have got to find ways of using what they’ve got more smartly and I think in a lot of unions people are conscious of that and are trying to look at ways in which they can do this,” he said.

In France, which has one of the lowest percentages of unionized workers of any OECD nation, unions had little incentive to find new members due to a law dating back to 1948.

Under the law, only five unions were allowed to represent workers in collective agreements, and those five had “irrevocable” rights to representation, meaning that workers had no choice about who represented them. Unions were supported financially by the state and management; membership dues only accounted for a small fraction of their income.

That changed in 2008 with a law that said unions needed to win the votes of at least 10 per cent of a firm’s workers to be able to represent them.

The CFTC, a Christian group which was one of those with “irrevocable” rights, resisted the reforms at first, arguing the system was open to manipulation by management. But like their counterparts, they have since accepted the inevitable and turned their energies to recruitment.

Because the reform also included a clause allowing firms with fewer than 11 employees to vote for external union representation for the first time starting in November, there is plenty of scope for expansion.

Roughly two-thirds of people work in SMEs in France, and some three million workers in the total worker population of 16.5 million work in very small firms.

“We had practically no members in this type of company,” said Philippe Louis, head of the CFTC union, which has about 140,000 members and is mostly active in the private sector.

The appeals CFTC has mounted online are narrowly focused – executive assistants with more than two years’ seniority in a company are one target demographic. Recruiters seek out young members outside offices and concert halls.

“These people have a right to the same advantages as the employees of big companies, but as it is now they are denied privileges like (subsidized) lunch checks, participation in works councils and so on.”

Union membership in Denmark, Sweden and Finland remains high – around 70 per cent – partly because unemployment and other social benefits are paid out through unions. Free of the stigma that can be associated with organized labour, members are also eligible for a range of services not available to non-members, from representation in job interviews to free cooking classes.

But elsewhere in Europe, membership is declining. In Germany, unions are trying to trying to stem departures by recruiting non-traditional members like external contractors and temporary staff.

The Netherlands and Austria has had success by offering services to the self-employed – union membership in Austria has stabilized at around 18 per cent in the past few years from around 50 per cent in the mid-seventies. In the Netherlands it declined from 40 per cent at the start of 1960 to stabilize at 18 per cent.

Belgian unions, aiming to recruit from the third of Belgian workers employed by companies with fewer than 10 staff, say people have become more anxious to obtain the protection of union membership since the start of the financial crisis.

“The crisis has made people more worried about getting into conflicts at work,” Didier Seghin, a spokesman for Belgium’s CGSLB liberal union.

Many European unions are evolving into a type of advisory service that moves with workers from job to job to help them negotiate the best contract and get help with tax returns.

In Belgium, for example, all university graduates are obliged by the government to sign on as job seekers once they leave school, and this can be done through a union, giving people access to advice even before they start their first job.

“When you just get out of university, you have no clue of how the working sphere works. You have no clue what you can ask as a salary,” said civil engineer Ms. Gill.

“If I’d have known, I think I would have joined the union before my first job, because when you have to negotiate your first salary you are just lost, and of course that’s the moment when they try to get the most out of you.”

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