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Anticipating Change: Why should unions do foresight?

Anyone trying to count the number of media pieces or blog articles starting with the sentence "The world is changing fast" has probably given up by now or died of old age in the trying... Yes, the world is changing fast but this is not new and should not be a cause for concern. What is new is the volatility, complexity and unpredictability of these changes.

Trade unions have successfully adapted to changing environments since their creation and can continue to do so, using a new and powerful tool called foresight.

What is foresight?

Foresight is not about predicting the future. It involves taking a retrospective look at the present, seeing the signs and understanding them earlier rather than later. It produces data that organisations can interpret to anticipate change. Foresight is used by an increasing number of governments, businesses and organisations, including trade unions, to think ahead and identify multiple plausible and different futures. It can be used to improve internal operational processes or, in the case of trade unions, to provide better services to their members and, by having a wider perspective on issues, to be more effective in collective bargaining at all levels.

Five concrete benefits of foresight for trade unions

1. To better explore their horizons: trade unions have the advantage of being present both on the shop floors of companies (as close as one can be to actual working conditions) but also in European Works Councils, on the boards of multinationals and in the European Union social dialogue. This uniquely privileged position allows them to collect data from many sources, conduct megatrend analysis and explore long-term horizons.

2. To collect weak signals: trade unions should develop a greater ability to pick up weak signals, understood as the first indicators of a possible change or an issue that may become significant in the future. They are unstructured, fragmented and incomplete elements of data hidden ‘among the background noise’ and often remain undetected, just below the visible surface. If trade unions can detect them, it will give them the ability to start collecting relevant data and to generate useful strategic information.

3. To work on a long-term approach rather than short-term reactions: through foresight, trade unions can develop the ability to work on long-term scenarios, thinking 30 or 40 years ahead, rather than react to day-to-day events. For meaningful changes to take place, trade unions should define long-term priorities, which their leaders can then follow in order to achieve greater societal goals.

4. To reshape how trade unions see their own future: as ETUI researcher Kurt Vandaele shows in a recent publication, trade union membership in Europe is on the decline and organising workers is a major challenge, particularly with the increasing number of self-employed workers and workers active in the ‘shadow economy’. Through foresight, trade unions can discover and experiment different ways of communicating and reaching out to new and younger potential members.

5. To decide what to preserve and what to change: the world of work has changed enormously in the past 50 years. Where we once had tripartite negotiations, we now have situations where other actors are involved or, indeed, no negotiation at all. Today's workers face a barrage of new forms of non-standard, precarious and gig-work, new types of discriminatory practices, automatic profiling and algorithmic workforce management, to name just some of the issues. Foresight is key to preserving the essence of the trade union mission, while ensuring the movement evolves and makes sure that new problems and threats are tackled.

There is no unique recipe to doing foresight. The ETUI publication Anticipating change, staying relevant: why should trade unions do foresight shows how foresight can be practiced and provides both theoretical and practical information. For more information about the topic, please contact Aida Ponce Del Castillo at ETUI. Or, feel free to watch and share our video below.