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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

A Comparison of International Labor Unions

by Gabrielle F. Culmer

Support for labor unions has increased over recent years due to universal backing and the anticipation of a tighter labor market and the need for essential workers. The future of labor unions’ activity over recent months in Europe, according to Harvard Economist – Harvard Gazette Labor, has reflected the influence of labor unions worldwide and varies from country to country, however, there are suggested decreases in membership with the need for the number of workers increased, and with workers facing financial hardships.

United Nations

From an international perspective, labor unions are recognized by the United Nations (UN) Global Compact and designated under their decent work for all mandate. The UN Global Compact supports labor rights with the foundation of the Sustainable Development Goal 8 of Decent Work, which prescribes high labor standards and respect for workers’ rights. The mission is to ensure that all people have access to a decent life and decent work in a healthy environment, along with access to quality public services and quality education and skills training.

There are promising results as well as shortages in the requirements for high labor standards, as the UN states that sustainable and inclusive workplace practices are needed worldwide. An estimated 630 million workers worldwide are not making enough to support themselves and their families. They have assessed that 74 percent of countries excluded workers from joining a worker’s union, while hundreds of millions of people suffer from work discrimination. Decent work is considered work that is productive and produces a fair income. 

In Paris, on April 6, 2023, approximately 570,000 workers marched, which was deemed to be less than in previous protests, over pension laws.

In Paris, on April 6, 2023, approximately 570,000 workers marched, which was deemed to be less than in previous protests, over pension laws.


The UN Global Compact designates its principles for achieving worker standards in the workplace under principles 3, 4, 5, and 6. Principle 3 is labor where “businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.” The principle states that workers should be able to join unions for their occupational interests without the interaction of the state or other entities. It is thought that collective bargaining will reduce confrontational bargaining and allow representatives chosen by workers to negotiate with corporations regarding workers’ interests. This allows solutions and results that benefit all stakeholders and, in turn, society as a whole.

Principle 4 involves upholding the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor, while 5 states that businesses should uphold the abolition of child labor. Principle 6 states that businesses should uphold the elimination of discrimination with respect to employment and occupation.

Recent Global Responses to Unionization Surrounding the Pandemic

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the United States, only 10.8 percent of the U.S. workforce belonged to unions in 2020. Data shows that this is down from 34.8 percent in 1954, according to the Pew Research Center, where private unionization has declined. Concessions were made when there was uncertainty about alternatives. It is stated that since the pandemic, “Unions have stronger ground in negotiating wages and benefits. Nearly 40 workplaces across the nation have gone on strike since August 1, 2022, double the number in the same period last year.”

Now companies are finding the replacement of essential workers difficult, along with rising profits, a tight labor market, and other political support. According to Harvard Labor Consultant Harvey Katz on whether unions are making a meaningful comeback, “We are going to see whether there is a new wave of union representations, elections, and more union successes at elections and getting contracts negotiated and signed, whether at more Starbucks or Amazon locations or more broadly.” He considers whether the current tight labor market exists, whether unions can get contracts at new organizations or have months of negotiations and legal disputes, and whether the dealing of international shocks and inflation will send the economy into a recession. NPR states that the support for unions is at a 57-year high on August 31, 2022. Union membership is highest among frontline workers and production workers, with 20 percent of them belonging to a union. In 2021, the number of workers belonging to unions was 14 million, or 10.3 percent.

Issues in France

In Paris, on April 6, 2023, approximately 570,000 workers marched, which was deemed to be less than in previous protests, over pension laws. This has been described as showing that the movement might be losing its influence.

Although 740,000 marched around France the week of April 1, 2023, the number of strikes in transportation and education has strongly declined, with three out of four high-speed trains running the previous Thursday. The education minister said that 8 percent were on strike, which was less than before. The head of the Confederation Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest union, acknowledged that “enthusiasm for the walkouts was waning in some areas, partly because of the financial burden for striking workers.” The French government has argued that it has followed the law at every step, and most opposition parties did not present realistic alternatives to ensure the financial sustainability of the French pension system.

UK Statistics

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, trade union membership has risen for the fourth year in a row, with a rise of 118,000 during the downturn of 2020.

The proportion of UK employees who were trade union members in 2021 was 23.1 percent, down from 23.7 percent in 2020, and has been considered the lowest union membership rate since 1995. The number of female members increased from 2017 to 2020, however, female membership also declined from 2020 at 27.2 percent to 26.3 percent in 2021. Male membership fell from 20.3 percent in 2020 to 20 percent in 2021. Union membership in the UK has declined in the past four decades and has occurred in the public sector. Overall, since 1995, union membership fell by 668,000 from 7.11 million to 6.44 million.

However, there has still been interest in unions since the pandemic with freelance workers feeling initially without support. The general secretary at Prospect said that it had 12,000 new joiners in 2020 and hoped that meetings with union representatives would be face-to-face in the future, with people concerned about disconnecting outside of office hours, surveillance by bosses, and the continuation of flexible working. It is speculated that more strikes are expected in the UK over the summer holidays.

From the above statistics, although the support for unions has increased due to the needs of essential workers, the recent figures are still stating stagnant membership universally. This can be attributed to the uncertainty in the markets and the need for more positive economic forecasts and job stability. Furthermore, enthusiasm has taken a turn and varies from country to country, which reflects the new perception of the labor market and employees’ needs. This is driven by the issues surrounding the pandemic and resurfacing from the pandemic to create more security for workers.

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Gabrielle F. Culmer

Door Tenant Barrister at 2 KBW Chambers

Gabrielle F. Culmer is a door tenant barrister at 2 KBW Chambers, Inner Temple, London, as well as admitted in New York State and the Bahamas as an attorney in commercial, employment, and insolvency law. She is a self-published novelist and a member of the ABA Section of Employment Law Committee.