American novelist Thomas Pynchon once wrote: “If you can get people to ask the wrong questions, you don’t have to worry about the answers they come up with.”

So… (cue violins…) how do we stop the decline of unions? It’s a question that has launched a thousand conferences. And, of course, it’s an issue that must be faced. Yes, unions in many rich countries have declined since the early 1980s. I say “of course” because the social pact between labour and the State that followed WWII in these countries was always going to be a temporary phenomenon. The level of union membership that we achieved from 1945 through to the rise of neo-liberalism (with Reagan and Thatcher etc) was an historical anomaly. In fact, something rather similar could be said about level of unionisation in the former Soviet bloc. Of course, yes yes.

If we want to ask the right questions, we really need to think more critically than this. For starters, we need to establish what has been happening to the labour movement as economics went global. That is, what has been happening this century?

Incredibly, the last truly international study of union membership came out in 1997. Since then, for a number of reasons, the ILO has declined to update its global data. Bizarrely, the ITUC now seems to be avoiding the area of membership numbers as well, despite all their good work on union rights at country level.

Frustrated by this vacuum, the New Unionism Network began collecting data in 2004 (see We’ve had a team of 14 volunteers working on this, and they have collected reliable and comparable data points, post 2000, for almost 100 countries. Together, these countries account for by far the majority of the world’s population. We’ve just updated the database for July 2012. Here’s the global picture:

For the record, this result has been confirmed by a parallel study of membership rates in national membership centres. If I were to try and summarise the picture in a few words, I would say this: Since 2000, overall global union membership has increased at a fairly healthy rate. Unions in most rich countries have managed to slow or arrest their decline; unions in most poor countries are growing.

However, it’s not just a numbers game. No matter how solid our data is, if we reduce it all to a crude headcount then we are still asking ourselves the wrong questions.

Consider this: the three countries with the highest union density in the world are Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and the People’s Republic of China (each with more than 90% membership density). By comparison, unionisation levels in France, Spain and Germany are 8%, 15% and 20% respectively.

Raw numbers might correlate with union staffing levels, but they tell us next to nothing about organizing or influence!

Organizing for what?

“New Unionism” is generally contrasted with “business unionism”. The central tenet of business unionism is that people join unions if the benefits of membership outweigh the cost of dues. It’s an argument straight out of market economics. To grow the union, all “we” need to do is provide “them” with a solid cost-benefit ratio. Does this model hold up? Most definitely not. The data shows that business unionism and union decline are strongly correlated. At a more complex level, it also shows that a large share of the financial value arising from union membership goes to non-members (see With the exception of the “freerider” problem, this is almost universally regarded by members as a positive thing. In other words, when it comes to setting our goals, unions need to consider something more than the members’ fiscal self-interest.

But what? What do the members actually want? How does your union work this one out, in an objective way? This is not a question about pay and conditions, although that is a part of it. More than anything else, it is a political question. Towards what kind of society should we be organizing? If you can’t answer that question by referring to some objective test, referring back to the membership, then I would suggest there are serious issues with our union’s democratic process. More importantly, I would suggest that the members are feeling the same way.

Over the last few years there has been a lot of academic work in the area of workers’ aspirations. Strangely enough, almost none of it has been carried out by unions (see and The New Unionism Network has distilled a series of key principles from this work. See We then ran a five year global survey of union values (see To cut a long story short, the top 15 of 42 values are presented below. As you scan the list, think about your union’s priorities. I think you will see why business unionism has been performing so poorly.

The top two values identified for the movement, by a huge margin, are solidarity and equality. What kind of social goals does this point towards? A 2.4% pay rise over two years?

We may not have the right answers yet, but I think we are getting closer to the right questions. However, before we go any further with this line of enquiry, let’s consider some enormous changes in context.

Change at work

In 2004, the ILO carried out its first ever global study of economic security levels.

“An Economic Security Index (ESI) has been calculated for over 90 countries (covering 86% of the world’s population). …The report shows that about 73% of all workers live in circumstances of economic insecurity…”

(And that was four years before the current, ongoing economic crisis!  See

In light of this – a phenomenon which some describe as “the rise of the precariat” — it is hardly surprising to find that workers feel so strongly about values such as solidarity and equality!

Other objective factors to consider in reframing our questions are:

  • The unprecedented growth of the world’s labour pool, following the entry of such countries as China, India and Russia into the globalised work force;
  • The rise of networked social activism and militancy;
  • The shift from unpaid labour to underpaid employment among female workers;
  • New and evolving forms of capitalism;
  • The erosion of identity, collectivity and citizenship that accompanies a shift to precarious work.

Each of these warrants a separate discussion, and no doubt there are others you would add to the list. At the end of the day, though, it is not our own views that should interest us.

Beyond business unionism

At the risk of repeating myself, I would like to suggest we are doing our activists a great disservice by suggesting their primary concern should be union decline. Their aspirations quite rightly run deeper. Of course, there is a huge diversity of views to consider. But learning to formulate these into a coherent programme is not rocket science. It has always been (or should have been!) core union business. We can also draw on new techniques from the NGO sector, municipal government, social networks and community organisations. Essentially, business unionism is about finding sufficient membership base to keep paid officials in work. We can only pretend that this is what members want if we actively ignore them.

In the light of changes in the way  we work, unions in rich countries may have much to learn from unions in developing countries, where membership has been (in most cases) growing despite precarious work conditions.  Unions like the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India and Streetnet, the global union of street vendors, make no bones about having a political agenda. However, their social goals are not decided by the leadership. They have been democratically determined in the context of real struggle, and they are all the more real and inspiring for this process.

Going back to the idea of right and wrong questions, I would like to suggest that the data directs us towards the shift set out below. (Aside: I would also like to admit that this is not for me to say! It is for you — as organizers, activists and workers — to determine the right questions democratically and in context).

The wrong questions

  • How do we stop union decline?
  • How do we win pay increases, in the face of membership passivity?
  • How do we get young people to see us as relevant?

The right questions

  • What political goals do workers want us to organize towards?
  • In pursuit of these, how do we start reorganizing the workplace — locally and across borders?
  • How do we welcome different types of worker into the union movement, in leadership as well as membership?

A generation ago there would have been no practical way of answering such questions. But perhaps that is irrelevant. With the Cold War in full swing, the union movement was more concerned about providing prefabricated answers than discovering members’ aspirations.

In this age of networked communications, mobile apps, freeware, and cloud computing, we CAN learn to deduce and articulate the right questions. And in doing so, we can also democratise our unions.

I’d like to suggest that the rest comes fairly naturally.

by Peter Hall-Jones

Peter is communications guy for the New Unionism Network. This address (in a slightly different form) was presented at the opening of the Global Labour Institute’s summer school in Manchester, in July 2012.