It is an open secret that trade union membership globally has been in decline for some time. While one could argue that this is a sign of an individualistic society whereby employees only seem to be interested in their personal gain even if it is at their colleague’s expense, the day that unions adopt a defeatist approach and accept the status quo would signal the beginning of the end. Like anything else in life, workers’ organisations and unions must change and adapt or else face an existential threat if not extinction.

This is one of the questions posed during the recent National Congress organised by UHM Voice of the Workers. The key words touched upon by CEO Josef Vella are revitalisation, solidarity, stronger communication with the grassroots and effective action.

All this comes into play whenever industrial action is being mooted, which is a crucial tool for unions to lobby for change and pile pressure to seek redress on behalf of the employees. Traditionally this takes the form of work-to-rule, strikes, go-slow or not performing part of the duties.

However, in this day and age when everything seems to be decided on social media, are such tools still effective as before? How many times decisions have been reversed as a result of industrial action and how many times has this happened following a publicity backlash from social media? Let us not forget that a decade ago, social media place a crucial role during the Arab Spring, prompting dictatorial regimes to shut down these platforms. This consideration is even more relevant in the health sector where the government is muzzling unions by filing an injunction to ban industrial action, after brushing aside all calls for social dialogue. Hence, unions must look outside the box in order to take effective action and not just action for the sake of doing so.

Another area which needs revitalising is engagement with youths. At present members in the age cohort between 15 and 29 years only amount to 12% of members. Youths are not engaging with the union until they encounter the first issues at work, when the honeymoon period is over. That means unions are only serving as a sort of an insurance policy. Clearly, they must find other means how to increase their relevance.

One of the solutions could be to widen the unions’ remit to being a provider of basic training to cater for youths who lack a basic knowledge in mathematics, and literacy in both Maltese and English. Unfortunately, despite the millions being spent in education, we still have an unacceptably high number of 16-year-old who are practically unemployable. Though one could argue that certain trades such as masonry and others involving hard labour are no longer attractive, there are other less intensive highly-sought and well-paid manual jobs such as air conditioning repair and carpentry which are nonetheless not attracting workers. Why is this? This shortage is being accentuated by government’s decision to poach workers from the private sector in return for a cushy-job on the State payroll. Even though more often than not this translates to a wage cut, employees take the ‘offer’ as they know they would be able to keep doing a secondary job by the side. Such practice is undermining government’s own efforts in education and employment, but it seems that securing votes take precedence.

Another worrying trend which unions need to fight is the lack of solidarity which is being exploited to drive a wedge not only among workers themselves but also in their relationship with unions. One such example is the over reliance on outsourcing, whereby this is resulting in employees doing the exact same job but getting paid less. Turning a blind eye to colleagues suffering this form of discrimination will ultimately backfire as employers will simply keep outsourcing until those having the better conditions will be outnumbered. This would lead to a stage in which employees enjoying the better conditions can no longer rely on collective bargaining. Hence, they would face the same fate of the colleagues.

Looking ahead one may fall in the temptation of saying these challenges are for trade unionists to take up. However, as the name implies, there can be no union if this effort is fragmented. Hence, workers must ponder – What can I do to start implementing this vision?