Within ten years, the Zürich branch of construction workers’ union Unia saw its membership decrease from 5,800 to 3,750 members. It was feared the union would become irrelevant in the main economic metropolis of Switzerland. However, a new leadership changed the branche’s strategy. Now, the branch is winning about 400 new members per year.
The branch has made its staff spend less time participating in ‘endless’ committees and requires them to spend at least half their working time in the field. There is a tendency to hire higher-educated staff, and the branch claims that 70% of its staff are women and 75% immigrants (this includes second-generation immigrants).
The branch has adopted an assertive strategy, engaging conflicts that can be won. Many of these conflicts concern (early) retirement issues, but the branch also supports campaigns for the rights of undocumented workers.
Other efforts to involve immigrant workers include the provision of language courses and computer courses for new immigrants and the establishment of migrant activist groups.
Roman Burger, executive director of the branch, says that the innovations have met with some internal resistance and have caused small numbers of activists to leave. However, the gaps were easily filled by a new generation of activists attracted by the new campaigns.
Burger’s account is included in a new brochure on organising published by the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI). According to BWI’s vice-president in Europe, Vasco Pedrina, unions need to put more emphasis on organising if they want to be able to withstand neo-liberal attacks on the European social model.
The BWI brochure further includes papers on Dutch efforts to organise self-employed workers, on IG Bau’s new emphasis on organising and participatory trade unionism and on a migrant workers’ network.
Brochure. Photo: Alex.ch