Changing Europe together by growing unions

Monday 14 March 2016

Winners of UNI’s Breaking Through award for successfully organising unions presented a number of case studies during the first afternoon session of the UNI Europa Regional Conference in Rome to show how different approaches can succeed.

UNI Europa President FRANK Bsirske said, “The UNI Global Union Breaking Through award is given in recognition of outstanding union growth. UNI Europa is honoured to have some of the European award winners present here today.”

Bsirske paid particular tribute to UNIONEN, the Swedish union with the most successful organising campaigns in Europe.

John Douglas, Mandate, Ireland and Pia Desmet, SETCa, Belgium, acted as moderators for the presentations and put the organising work into the context of the Conference theme, “Changing Europe Together”. Douglas said that when it came to ‘infill organising’ only too often members do not realise that “density is power.”

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Dawn Jackson from Unite the Union, UK, said “We are talking about very important issues this week, but without trade union membership, without collective agreements, how will we achieve them?”

Jackson said organising was the responsibility of everyone at Unite and that is why they had introduced campaigns such as the 100% Campaign.

“The aim is to ensure that if it is a Unite organised workplace it is a 100% organised workplace.

“It has taken a lot of hard work and in some ways a change of culture within the union to put organising at the heart of everything we do.  But it has worked.

“We have run nearly 2,500 campaigns, developed and trained 8,000 activists and organised over 250,000 workers into membership of Unite,” Jackson explained.

Ute Kittel from Ver.di, Germany spoke about the business travel agency industry and the fact their working conditions are often ignored.

“They often work behind the scenes. It is very difficult to organise these workers because they are often tolerant of poor conditions,” Kittel explained.

“It is important to show these workers we have something to offer. We started with one particular company asking if they were happy with their work and wanted to be represented – 80% said they wanted a union and therefore we had a mandate. We then asked them if they would fight for a collective agreement.

“They saw the advantages of a union once they were informed.

We had to get them emotionally involved in fighting for a collective agreement – we now have a rate of 40% of unionisation.

“We also worked with young apprentices and created an agreement for them to have an open ended job with the company when had finished their apprenticeship.

We fought to improve their social benefits. Those who joined ver.di were given additional benefits including training.

“It has been a very successful campaign.”

Per Tonnesen from HK Denmark said there had been falling membership and therefore we changed to a new four year strategy 25 % of income on organising, and created a centralised unit to manage the strategy.

The major challenge was to change culture among shop floor stewards and the membership. In 2017 we will have a new collective bargaining procedure which we’ll continue on to our next Congress,” Tonnesen explained.

The next section was devoted to ‘green field organising’, where organising starts from scratch.

Laurentiu Andronic from FSAB, Romania, outlined the challenges of green field organising in Romania’s insurance sector.

Andronic said that communication tools such as newsletters were vital in both informing present workers about their rights and building trust and solidarity.

The trade union at ASIROM, the biggest employer in the Romanian insurance sector reached majority in January, thanks to a successful campaign backed by UNI Global Union.

Andronic said UNI Global Union’s support was essential to the success of the campaign.

“We broke through in a difficult environment. UNI Global Union’s support in the Romanian banking industry was crucial to our success.”

Moving on to Poland and continuing the theme of green field organising, Rafal Tomasiak and Czesia Sonta from ZZP, focused on the Smurfit Kappa campaign. First they explained that big multinationals with extensive resources were increasingly moving their operations to Poland where majority of workers were not organized. The operations are often set up in newly built isolated sites in areas of high unemployment. Fear of unemployment was one of the ways these multinationals controlled their workers.

At Smurfit Kappa in Poland, they said a milestone had been reached by the union celebrating its first anniversary. Organising was challenging because the company was set up around five decentralized workplaces with significant differences in conditions and culture. The local management started from a position of ‘absolute power’ with no dialogue and workforce either scared or apathetic to the idea of change.

Sonta said membership was rising thanks to increased action, and international support from Smurfit Kappa unions in other countries and unions at other multinationals in Poland.

Sonta concluded, “On behalf of our ZZP Union National Executive we would like to thank UNI SCORE, UNI Europa Graphical and all who support and contribute to the UNI organising fund, for the opportunity to effectively influence the improvement of conditions of workers in graphical and packaging sector in Poland. This project is of the highest importance to us and we acknowledge that without it, without UNI SCORE, we would not be able to achieve all that we have done.”

The final session was on the challenges the digital workforce presents to organising.

Fredrik Soderqvist from Unionen, Sweden, said the platform based economy was truly green field, and that the digital economy had experienced a seismic change, comparable to the first and second industrial revolutions.

“Our task is difficult because we have to organise the internet and the people who work through it. Unionen has had freelance members since the late 90s. We have the experience,” Soderqvist said.

He added that it was important to be realistic and accept that many people chose to work via these digital platforms but that should not exclude them from social benefits and the right to join a union.

“We must first establish dialogue with the digital workers.”

“We then need to develop collective bargaining models that are realistic to this new world of work,” Soderqvist concluded.

The final speaker, Kirsty Lenham from CWU UK testified to the success of the Call Centre Action weeks

Lenham said, “CWU branches have become quite imaginative and innovative in what they do during the action weeks-organising everything from Halloween parties to photo bomb competitions.

“We are conscious that all of this work ties in, well, to the CWU Building Tomorrow Together strategy. The UNI call centre actions have seen us add 1200 new union members.”

“I work in a BT call centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire where I am proud to be a CWU rep.”

“Along with our actions we continue regular recruitment work on our call centres attending inductions, identifying reps and providing a consistent union presence.   For me recruitment starts with the new entrants whilst still in training.”

Other speakers from the floor emphasised the importance of organising young people by going to schools and telling them about unions. The point was made that if young people are not asked to join a union they may go elsewhere and look to other organisations for solutions.

At the conclusion of the session, the motion on organising was unanimously passed.

The moderator Pia Desmet concluded “We are on the way, but we still have a long way to go!”