Governments have borrowed eyewatering amounts to support workers and businesses in these challenging times. Even as the world emerges from the pandemic, the long-term effects of recession and extraordinary levels of borrowing will put further pressure on workers’ livelihoods. Workers in the public services are particularly vulnerable, as governments look to reduce public expenditure to try and balance the books.
Faced with these threats, workers need strong trade unions to protect their interests. Yet all this is happening at a time when, as research by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) shows, many trade unions across Europe are in long term decline, with falling membership and density. The ETUI report indicates that trade union density across Europe went down from around 28% in 2000 to less than 22% in 2016. The decline is particularly acute in some Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries where again according to the ETUI there has been ‘a massive decrease in membership…(which) continues today.’ To reverse this decline in trade union strength, unions need to organise and this involves two vital and complementary elements:
- Recruitment and retention of members, which manifests itself in trade union density in the workplace. This shows the strength of a trade union; and
- Activism and engagement among members. Having an active and engaged membership is essential to mobilising those members in support of demands made by their trade union on their behalf.
Trade union federations, such as EPSU – representing public service workers across 50 European countries – and many individual trade unions have already committed to focusing on organising. The pandemic and its economic consequences make this more urgent than ever. This article reflects on EPSU’s long-term strategy targeted at its members in Central and Eastern European (CEE) and sets out the principles of organising that affiliates are being encouraged to adopt and some of the early learning from that initiative. Since autumn 2019 EPSU has a new recruitment and organising team consisting of Agnieszka Ghinaruru, Miloš Vlaisavljević and Artem Tidva with a range of experience in organising, campaigning trade union education.