Social media campaign promotes union membership

Finnish trade unions are exploring new ways to tackle declining membership. A month-long recruitment campaign was organised by AKAVA, the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff, and used social media platforms Facebook and Twitter to encourage discussion on union issues. The campaign became a forum on the importance of union membership for both employees and Finnish society. Decreasing union density has been a concern for the movement since the 1990s.

Background

Union membership began its decline in Finland in the early 1990s and dropped by more than 10 percentage points in less than 10 years. Figures show it decreased from a peak of 84% in 1993 to 73% at the beginning of the 2000s.

Over the past 10 years, union density has stabilised at a level where almost three-quarters of employees belong to a trade union.

One of the reasons for the decline in the 1990s was the popularity of an independent unemployment fund. This has now competed successfully with trade union unemployment insurance funds for two decades.

The Working life barometer compiled by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy shows that in 2012, 65% of men and 82% of women said they were members of a trade union.

Factors affecting membership

Trade union density varies depending on sociodemographic factors and also between sectors. In industry and in the public sector, union density has traditionally been much higher than in the private services sector. Lower density in the private sector has put the generally binding nature of collective agreements in danger.

Unions have sometimes exaggerated their numbers, including students and retired members in their membership registers.

Ongoing concern about decreasing density has led to the launch of several recruitment campaigns and the development of new strategies to attract members by several confederations and individual unions throughout the 2000s (FI0901029Q). Unions have continued to search for new, cutting-edge recruitment methods.

Over the past decade, the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff (AKAVA) and its affiliated unions have run successful campaigns targeted at students of universities and polytechnics. Membership of AKAVA increased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2013, recruiting around 200,000 new members.

Union recruitment campaigns

In campaigning for new members, union confederations have tended to work with their affiliated unions. A good example is a month-long Be smart! campaign organised by AKAVA and its 35 affiliated unions that began on 14 January 2014.

AKAVA stressed that the campaign was open, and everyone was welcome to take part in the discussion – union members, activists and non-members alike. The essential forums of the campaign were on Facebook and Twitter. Content was created by participants and entire workplaces took part in the discussions.

Employees and Finns in general were challenged by the unions to think about how they had used services provided by trade unions in the past and how they might use them in the future. The campaign highlighted unions’ important role in Finnish society, supporting key social structures, the fair distribution of wealth and prosperity, and appreciation for workers’ efforts.

AKAVA’s Director of Organisational Activities, Risto Kauppinen, said the campaign’s main goal was to provide a live forum where people could discuss union membership and the role of trade unions in society.

Ville-Veikko Rantamaula, President of AKAVA’s Organisational Committee, said there was a real need for a forum where people could freely discuss the meaning of being a union member and the necessity of trade unions. He said union members were key actors in efforts to improve the quality of working life and develop better workplaces. He said:

Union membership can be seen as one of the main building blocks of an individual’s professional identity and a guarantee of competence. Union members are involved and interested in their workplace and constantly looking for ways to do things better. People’s views and ideas, workplaces, and dialogue formed the heart of the campaign.

Mr Rantamaula said union membership could still be a touchy subject for some people. However, he emphasised that trade unions were owned by their members, and there was no reason not to be proud of that ownership. In a rapidly changing world, he said, trade unions have to move with the times and react to change. He added:

The campaign month actually offered a fantastic opportunity to talk openly about the role of trade unions in safeguarding employees’ rights, services provided by the unions, or things happening in workplaces, for instance.

AKAVA’s Campaigns Adviser Veikka Kuusisto hailed the campaign a success. He said it had reached 350,000 people, generating several thousand postings both on Facebook and Twitter. He also stated that during the campaign AKAVA and its affiliated unions gained a vast amount of useful information – not only about positive reasons to be a union member, but also about unions’ negative image. He said these comments would inform development of future campaigns.

Commentary

Increasing or at least maintaining the current level of union density is a tough challenge for the union movement. Unions have been particularly concerned about the relatively low level of membership among younger employees, particularly those in part-time work or on fixed-term contracts.

Trade unions have also found it difficult to encourage union membership among employees in the private services sector where most new jobs are currently being created.

AKAVA’s recent campaign is a good example of how trade unions are trying to bring fresh ideas to the old movement and find new ways to recruit. Some activists have observed that traditional presentations on the meaning and importance of trade union membership are not working. They say some of the old methods lead to young people packing up their iPads and racing out of the lecture hall.

Pertti Jokivuori, University of Jyväskylä

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