Trade unions: With new tasks to increase membership?

Are you a member of a workers’ association? Is there an organization that represents your interests? Probably not.

In the past, trade unions were much more important than they are today

At that time, when the steam engine revolutionized the world, they were not created without reason. The new machine found its way into weaving and spinning mills, into coal, iron and steel production. At this time, the first railway also started operation and opened up new possibilities for transporting goods. In Germany, industrial capitalism was born, and with it the industrial exploitation of the labour force.

There was a lot to do for trade unions at that time

Workers and their children were at the mercy of the factory owners. These people often had to work up to 16 hours a day and had a life full of privation despite the immense achievement. In urban agglomerations they lived cramped. Due to the poor hygienic conditions, death and illness were permanent guests. The workforce of the factories was chronically undernourished. Diseases like tuberculosis spread rapidly in the cities. As the displeasure against the factory owners grows, the call for reforms becomes louder and louder. Thus, numerous associations were founded between 1830 and 1840. But anyone who believes that the workers still had the strength to rebel after a 16-hour day is mistaken.

Protagonist journeyman craftsmen

They were the first to advocate the idea of an association. For their existence was threatened by the use of the new machines. Their qualifications were devalued and the pride of their profession was hurt. So it was the craftsmen who joined together to form the first professional organisation to fight for better working conditions and against the devaluation of labour. However, it was still a long way to go before the established trade unions were established. When the first trade unions were formed and covering the majority of the working population, they were of great importance to the workers. Many of the workers without rights joined them.

Why are trade unions increasingly losing importance in today’s world?

Fewer and fewer people are represented by trade unions. The changed world of work and new professional biographies play a decisive role in this. Just a few decades ago it was common practice to work all one’s life in the learned profession, often even in the same company.

Today, workers must be flexible

They must always adapt to new working conditions and frequently change jobs. The constantly changing requirements lead to a continuous self-optimization of the employees. They often have several training courses and numerous professional life stages. Social scientists speak in this context of the “pluralization of biographies and lifestyles“. This development becomes particularly clear when looking at the USA. There an employee only keeps his job for about four years on average.

People who change their jobs frequently are less likely to take part in long industrial disputes

No wonder, then, that the unions are drastically losing members. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that the trade unions cannot represent all employees today. All those who would be in dire need of representation but who are not in regular employment are excluded. This includes, for example, temporary staff and freelancers who are deployed at short notice or employed by an external company.

New tasks for trade unions?

A new task for trade unions could be to advocate the unconditional basic income. This would not only represent a large number of employees, but would also address numerous groups of the working population.

Germany often lacks money for social justice

For example, for the basic financial security of families or for the care of relatives. Financial resources are also needed to train young people without accepting their indebtedness. The introduction of an unconditional basic income could solve many “social imbalances” in Germany.

Also good for the German economy

The unconditional basic income provides innovative ideas and young companies with the necessary backing and could thus strengthen the innovative power of our country. Employers and the self-employed would thus find jobs, freed from existential pressure. Presumably, a large number of new businesses could be expected, unemployment would no longer be a stigma and poverty in old age would no longer be an issue.

Modernisation of the trade unions?

Against the background of digitisation, automation and the introduction of artificial intelligence in almost all occupational fields, trade unions must ask themselves whether they should modernise. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming obsolete, like entire professions. Once the craftsmen organized themselves and finally helped the factory workers out of great need. Trade unions can fulfil their historical task – the commitment to social justice – today if they are oriented towards the labour market of our time. After all, it is they who have long experience in the struggle for just distribution. With their modernisation, increasing membership seems certain.

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