Are unions really needed today?

Future of the unions

Ute bracket

To person

Dr. rer. pole.; born 1963; Head of Section for Social Policy at the Institute for Economic and Social Sciences in the Hans Böckler Foundation, Düsseldorf.
Address: Hans Böckler Foundation, Hans-Böckler-Str. 39, 40476 Düsseldorf.
Email: [email protected]

Publications on socio-political issues, including: (together with Katja Tillmann) Flexicurity - social security and flexibilization of working and living conditions, Düsseldorf 2002.

Reiner Hoffmann

To person

born 1955; Director of the European Trade Union Institute (EGI) in Brussels, since 2003 Deputy Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation.
Address: EGI, 5, Boulevard Roi Albert II, B-1020 Brussels.
Email: [email protected]

Publications a.o .: (Ed. Together with Jeremy Waddington) Between Continuity and Modernization - Trade Union Challenges in Europe, Münster 2001; Editor of the quarterly TRANSFER - European Review of Labor and Research ..

The unions are faced with the difficult task of mastering the balancing act between individualization and globalization in their everyday work. This also includes a stronger Europeanisation of trade union interest representation.


The trade unions are children of industrial society and important pillars of the European welfare states. The improvement of working and living conditions, the safeguarding of real incomes, the shortening and structuring of working hours, but also the design of the social security systems are examples of their successful work for more than 100 years. Past successes are, however, also part of their present problems. A significantly higher level of education and relative material prosperity have contributed to the differentiation of interests and pluralization of lifestyles. On the other hand, the mass unemployment that has persisted since the 1970s has significantly increased the number of people at risk of poverty, and despite the trade union successes, social cohesion in European societies is becoming more and more fragile. A solidarity-based advocacy policy based on unity is therefore becoming more and more difficult under the conditions of socio-economic change. Solidarity and social cohesion can be realized less and less on the basis of unity, but, if at all, only with recognition of diversity and difference. This requires a profound reorientation and reorientation on the part of the unions. Contrary to the opinion of populist trade union critics, these are by no means superfluous in the knowledge society of the 21st century, on the contrary: They are more necessary than ever!

This article deals with some aspects of the situation of the trade unions, highlights recent developments and the reform strategies pursued by the trade unions. It becomes clear that they cannot be labeled as blockers or eternally yesterday. However - and this is what we are focusing on - it is necessary for them to deal more intensely than before with the diversity of forms of employment and life and to aggressively advocate their own social and labor market reform concepts.

This is not an easy undertaking. Internal controversies about old and new tasks are inevitable, even if they should not lead to public debacles, as recently in the IG Metall. Unions have to master the balancing act between individualization and globalization programmatically and in their practical everyday work; this also includes a stronger Europeanization of trade union interest representation.