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For the trade union movement, the future of work starts now, and trade union organising, collective bargaining and political strategies to shape the future world of work are firmly embedded in the realities of working life today.
People have formed and joined unions for over 150 years to promote and defend their interests at work, and pursue broader goals of social justice, equality and democracy. Workers still come together to take collective action, even when the denial of their rights by governments and by employers is absolute, whether they be Uber drivers in Qatar , plantation workers in Honduras or workers in Asia’s supply chain factories .

In most countries, union membership is stagnant or in decline, as governments weaken or eliminate laws protecting fundamental rights to organise and bargain collectively, and impose yet further limits on freedom of speech and assembly.
Changes in the organisation of work in the era of globalisation, in particular through technological innovation, have made it more difficult for unions to organise. Growing fragmentation and precarity in the labour market are making the challenge yet harder. 40% of the world’s workforce is struggling to survive in the informal economy, and the majority of formal economy workers are experiencing levels of insecurity as never before - the ITUC 2017 Global Poll shows that 73% people are worried about losing their jobs.
In addition, erosion of the public sector, with its relatively higher level of union density, threatens both job security and social cohesion. The union movement faces the twin challenges of defending and promoting the public sector, as well as organising workers in privatised services, such as the growing numbers of women working in privatised care services.
At the same time, trade unions are the largest and most potent force for social justice in the world, with more than 200 million members, and with influence often beyond their actual membership through political action and through the positive impact, for workers who are not unionised, of collective bargaining and legislative gains.
The ITUC Global Poll has consistently shown huge public support for the core values and demands of trade unions and for the rights to organise, to bargain collectively and to take industrial action.
Building the power of workers has never been more important in the face of a dominant model of globalisation that has marginalised workers with insecure, low paid and often unsafe work. People know that the power has shifted. 93 percent of people say the economic system favours the wealthy rather than being fair to most people, and 90 percent say it’s time to re-write the rules of the global economy.
This puts unions on the frontline of defending of decent work, whether the work is done through direct employment, subcontracting, agency recruitment or contracted through digital platforms or other means.
All workers must have the same fundamental rights; the right to social protection, a minimum living wage, to collective bargaining and employer compliance with labour standards. Those employed through “digital platform” businesses are already organising and taking action. Unions will fight to guarantee that these rights are fully exercised.
With the rapid acceleration of technological change through digitalisation of production and services, and the use by companies of digital platforms to avoid their responsibilities as employers, unions are adapting their strategies, and will need to further adapt. Well-established principles and methods including cooperatives or other collective bodies, where digital work is organised and shared and a floor price is set, can be part of the answer.
Just as SEWA is organising cooperatives of self employed women workers in the poorest areas of India, Georgian unions are organizing informal transport workers, Sweden’s UNIONEN is working on regulation of platform businesses and digitalization for decentralised collective representation and Germany’s IG-Metall is engaging with “crowdworkers”.
The weakening of legal protections for workers is the result of companies looking to escape responsibility for an employment relationship. The responsibility of Governments is to hold them accountable as registered businesses which obey the rules of a social license to operate, including on taxes and social security contributions, minimum wages/contract prices and organising and bargaining rights.
Unions are working to shape the future of work through political action to challenge the dominant economic model and ensure decent jobs and rights for all workers, through negotiating and bargaining around new technology and industrial transformation, and through campaigning to increase the wage share and ensure living minimum wages.
Success will depend not only on effective action in these spheres, but also on organising workers from all sectors and all types of employment into union membership. At the global level, the ITUC is helping unions build strategic organising through the Global Organising Academy, complementing global campaigning and advocacy work. Global Union Federations too are shaping the future of work in their sectors through research, campaigning and organising.
With powerful corporate forces seeking to erode laws and standards yet further and deploying technology in a way that makes labour entirely subservient to capital, union action to shape the future world of work is indispensable not only to guarantee fairness at work, but to the very future of democracy and equality in every part of the world.