By using innovative means of communication, unions can reach teleworkers and show that collective action is the best way to address their concerns.

During the first lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, nearly 40% of workers in the European Union were reported to have switched to telework. While the pandemic will eventually end, teleworking may remain, for good. This change will also affect our industries. Workers who operate fully or partially outside factory or office premises will need the protection of a union and a collective agreement. But how should unions organise teleworkers and communicate with them?

There are already many good examples from 2020 that show organising was possible online. IndustriAll Europe reported about the Finnish Metal Workers’ Union digital organising campaign and the hybrid campaign of the Czech union, OS KOVO.

So how do we reach workers who operate from home? Getting workers’ contact details is labour-intensive and takes time. Organising teleworkers is more challenging than it is for those in the workplace. You need a proper contact list, because you cannot meet ‘in person’ and creativity is often needed. Some affiliates search for contacts using social media, others go to court to receive the contact data of the employees. Once this problem is solved, it should be possible for unions to reach even wider circles of workers.

The pandemic has prompted a steep learning curve and people are now used to digital communication and online meetings. The pandemic has also given us an idea of how unions should develop their ways of working in a ‘new’ world where telework is increasing. It requires changes to the way unions communicate with existing and potential members, carry out organising, collective bargaining and training.

The Unions 21 report summarises some of the key lessons learned from the pandemic year 2020:

  • New forms of effective online communication enable unions to engage with more workers, listen to their concerns, and understand their needs.
  • Unions need to rethink their communication methods, upgrade and refine their infrastructure, and train the staff and union reps.
  • Making it easier to join the union should include a user-friendly online joining system.
  • Integrating social media (particularly Facebook Messenger) into the union’s formal communication channels is a recognition of the fact that increasing numbers of members contact their union in this way.
  • Email remains the quickest way to share information with workers. This requires a comprehensive and up-to-date register.
  • Retention work is valuable: going through a list of recently resigned members and calling them has led to a healthy number re-joining the union.
  • Visibility is important: lots of people have joined because they have been impressed by the role the union has played in fighting for the industry.

Isabelle Barthès, industriAll Europe’s Deputy General Secretary, says:

“Teleworkers must be able to enjoy the same rights as all other workers, including the right to join a union, collective bargaining and training. By using innovative means of communication, unions can reach teleworkers and show that collective action is the best way to address their concerns.”

Organising works when people realise that their membership of the union serves their interests and when they themselves can contribute to actively shaping their working environment. Telework does not change this. The challenge now is to keep that momentum and the links that have been created.

Our campaign ‘Telework: my right, my decision’ sheds light on the advantages, but also the dangers of imposed telework for workers.
Our detailed demands on telework are laid out in our position paper EN, FR, DE and summarised in our campaign leaflet.

Contact: Andrea Husen-Bradley (press and communication), Ildikó Kren (strategic organiser)