Theme I: The Challenge of Economic Restructuring: Public and Private

In the pursuit of flexibility, employers are seeking to re-regulate the labour market and the workplace through economic restructuring. The frontiers between organizations are being reconfigured through outsourcing, privatization, public-private partnerships, and the fragmentation and re-definition of bargaining units. As the larger coordinated structures give way to smaller, decentralized units, this raises significant challenges for for the right to organize and the ability to bargain collectively as well as for individual employers to do “better” for their employees. What is the range of union responses to such flexibility strategies and which are likely to be more effective?
Sub-Theme A: Re-inventing Coordinated/Pattern Bargaining

Many of the historic gains of the union movement flowed from pattern bargaining. The current trend in much of the developed world is from larger agglomerations of employers to smaller units and even to individual agreements. Labour legislation and the move to lengthen the duration of collective agreements can further hinder the possibility to coordinate bargaining strategies and targets. What strategies are unions pursuing to spread unionization and collective bargaining beyond single and isolated workplaces? How are employers reacting? What innovations are likely to give smaller workplaces some leverage in increasingly globalized markets and lead to gains in the degree of unionization for less unionized sectors?

Sub-Theme B: Union Responses to contracting-out and public-private partnerships (PPP)

Employers increasingly seek to externalize costs by getting other firms to supply materials and provide services that are peripheral to their core and often most profitable activities. Governments and public sector employers are also attempting to divest their activities through sub-contracting and partnerships with the private sector. What are the consequences for union strategies? Which types of strategy have proved more effective?

Theme II: Unions and Political Action

Unions are engaged in politics to influence public policies that affect their members and other workers. This involves both ends and means. Some see an interest in the traditional union vision; others see a need to enlarge and renew the union “project”. Some unions engage in politics through alliances with political parties; others work with a wide range of organizations and groups beyond their membership. What’s the place of political action in projects for union renewal?
Sub-Theme A: Building Union Imagination: Agendas, Ideologies and Values

Many unionists feel that they face an existential crisis. Is “pure and simple” trade unionism at a dead end? What should be the core agenda of the union movement? What, if any, are examples of new agenda items that appeal to new generations and new types of workers? How to bridge the gap between public and union perceptions about core union values? Is there an agenda for the future?

Sub-Theme B: Unions and Political Parties

Are trade unions experiencing a declining ability to influence public policy, be it with friendly or unfriendly governments? What are the avenues for influencing public policy: lobbying governments, building links with political parties and trying to them elected, building civil society coalitions, protesting in the streets and/or educating members for political change? What are the strategic options in the light of recent experience?

Theme III: Organizing into the Union and Organizing the Union

In many countries, union “organizing” means increasing the size and scope of individual unions and the union movement. Amid a generalized drop in union density, unions are pursuing many strategies to expand their reach to workers hitherto unrepresented. But is that all that “organizing” means? In order to reach and attract new members, don’t unions have to make significant changes to their culture and to the attitudes of their members? So “organizing” could also mean re-jigging the way unions relate to their members and if so, then unions will undergo considerable (in the words of one author) “labour pains.”
Sub-Theme A: Building an Organizing Culture

Unions have increasingly been caught in a debate about “organizing” as opposed to “servicing” models or internal organizing as opposed to external organizing. Is too much time invested in the daily handling of grievances and collective bargaining for existing members and not enough in organizing new members or conducting campaigns to influence the community? Is it possible to transform union members from consumers of services to active and dynamic participants in union life? How to assess attempts to renew unions by involving activists and members in organizing and servicing strategies?

Sub-Theme B: New Workers, New Expectations, New Methods?

Workforces are being transformed with a diversity of workers, expressing new needs, values and goals. Long deprived of collective representation, women, people of colour, minorities, professionals, the self-employed, and the precarious are now among those most open to collective representation. What does this mean for the way that unions organize? Are these groups likely to look for new organizational forms and new types of unionism? Indeed, some appear to be finding it outside of traditional collective bargaining mechanisms, for example in professional societies and cooperatives. What are union responses to the challenges of greater diversity?

Theme IV: Transforming the Internal Life of the Union

Industrial and other unions have been increasingly professionalized. Paid, full-time officials carry out more and more of the “business” of the union, with less and less left to regular members. Is such a model sustainable? Can such unions both defend their members in a wide variety of workplaces and engage in more extensive recruitment efforts? Unions are facing increasing challenges to self-governance and internal democracy, be it in terms of renewing the role of delegates and stewards, coming to terms with the diversity of their membership and the values of new members such as youth, women and visible minorities.
Sub-Theme A: Revitalizing Union Life and Democracy

How many union members have read or understand or use the provisions of their union constitutions? How many union members regularly attend union meetings other than those called on collective bargaining issues? Some unions are developing new and interesting ways of returning their organizations to the mass democracy that marked their early years. Other unions are learning to accommodate the gender, language, cultural and age diversity among their members by exploring the needs of those diverse groups and, in so doing, revitalizing union life.

Sub-Theme B: Building Organizational Capacity through Union Education

Unions face challenges to recruit and retain leaders and staff – at all levels – for both unpaid and paid positions. There are so many goods reasons not to invest even more time in the union: job and career requirements, family responsibilities, leisure activities, to name but a few. Moreover, activism takes its tool on both local leaders and staff. And are the skill sets developed for previous generations of leaders right for the times? What's the role of membership education in developing local leaders and staff? Are there “best practices”? What role can education programs play in succession planning and leadership renewal?

Theme V: Building Alliances and Coalitions

Go-it-alone unionism no longer seems a viable strategy to many observers. The kind of industrial strength built from monopoly unionism and coordinated bargaining in one country appears increasingly vulnerable to global competition. Many unions are looking to build coalitions within their communities and/or across borders in order to enhance their ability to give voice to the concerns of their members and the communities in which they live.
Sub-Theme A: Building Solidarity with Local Communities

Community unionism seems like a nice idea but what does it actually mean to engage in coalitions with the community? What form should they take? What issues should they cover? Are there lessons to be learned from unionists and community activists who have engaged in such strategies?

Sub-Theme B: Building International Solidarity

The increasing internationalization of production and services means that workers are integrated into global production chains, international benchmarking, competitive undercutting and a general anxiety that workers of the world are meant to compete and not to unite. What are the pitfalls and the potential of organizing across borders? Does the European experience within a common institutional framework provide a model of solidarity and common targets? Can solidarity flow between the different concerns of unions in North and South? What are the lessons to be learned and the priorities for the future?