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Digital syndicalism

What could trade unions look like in the future?


This blog provides a few thoughts to sit alongside the work we've been doing on innovation in jobs, including our living map of jobs innovations worldwide, various reports, and the EU Social Innovation Prize.


In the UK and some other countries unions have been in decline for some time. They remain strong in the public sector and strong in the professions, but elsewhere they've withered. 


The basic need for trade unions persists: employers and capital tend to be concentrated and well organised, while individual workers, particularly poorer ones, will tend to be divided and weak. But unions have responded in the classic way that declining businesses respond to declining market share: by merger and consolidation rather than reinvention and innovation.


What would innovations in trade unions look like?  Here are three examples or suggestions that I offer mainly to prompt others to come up with better ideas.

Networked collective bargaining

This involves using online member groups to link all the workers in a firms' many plants or offices, and potentially supply chains, to discuss options, to deliberate on demands, and then to  vote online. The various tools being used by campaigning platforms like Awaaz, and the crowd-sourcing platforms used by parliaments (like Finland's Open Ministry) are pointers to how this could be done.


A very different option is to set trade unions up as vehicles for organising workers and selling their labour to businesses. Deployers are the mirror of employers - they deploy labour rather than employing it. The deployer (which could be structured as a cooperative) takes on some responsibility for developing their members' human capital and for providing some security (eg offering pensions). It would then sell labour to employers, either in groups or individually.  It would probably need some conditionality not unlike welfare to work programmes, ie. requirements on members to take up skills offers and to accept jobs etc, but the rules and criteria would be determined collectively by the membership rather than by the state.  Some deployers already exist, and there are elements of this model in some private firms. But it hasn't been actively pursued by trade unions.

Jobs Action Networks 

Those most in need of trade union support are likely to be either out of work, or in and out of work. The weakest people in the labour market, living on low incomes and dependent on insecure and irregular jobs, are both hard to organise and probably the least represented either in national politics or in the media.  The question is: what kinds of structure would best support them.   Are there opportunities to redefine trade unions for the unemployed so that they become clubs providing membership, help with job searches and training, peer support as well as connections to people in jobs in existing trade unions.  Such bodies would be well-placed to campaign - for example demanding apprenticeships from local authorities or health services or major employers, but they would also be directly useful to their members. It's surprising that the current rise in unemployment hasn't yet generated visible experiments of this kind.


These are just a handful of illustrative examples of many.  I still don't understand why there hasn't been more creativity in the reshaping of trade unions.  In previous periods this space was full of imaginative social design. I'd be interested to hear good examples of creativity that use new means to achieve trade unions goals.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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