Who Needs Whom ? Trade Unions and the Youth in Belgium

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.1.01 (Tower Two)
Nadja Doerflinger, KU Leuven - CESO, Leuven, Belgium; KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
Valeria Pulignano, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium; KU Leuven - CESO, Leuven, Belgium
Trade unions around the world have struggled to motivate young people to join their organisations. In a way, there is a paradox, since trade unions are in need of new members to stabilize their position regarding social dialogue and collective bargaining in the long-run. On the other hand, young people who often have difficulty to enter the labour market and who are more likely to find themselves trapped in temporary jobs are thus vulnerable and in need of protection. However, the influx of young members into trade unions is limited although they could be the right actors to defend and strengthen the individual and collective rights of the youth, and to give the youth more voice. Even though trade unions and the youth might need each other in a way, they seem to have difficulty to get together.

Compared to most other European countries, trade union membership in Belgium has not declined, but remained stable with a density of about 50% in the past years (Visser, 2013). Although membership figures for young people are lower compared to their older counterparts, the gap is by far smaller than in many other countries. Yet, there is inconclusive empirical evidence about the relationship between age and trade union membership in Belgium. Specifically, some studies like the one of Schnabel and Wagner (2007) did not find a significant effect, while others (e.g. De Witte, 2000) conclude that the likelihood to join a union increases with age in the Belgian context.

By drawing from empirical data collected as part of a European project (YOUnion) financed by the European Commission, the paper examines the strategies adopted by the Belgian unions in order to strengthening their relationship with the youth and reinforcing the rejuvenation of their organisations. Specifically, the paper sheds light on the relationship between the Belgian trade unions and the youth and examines related challenges. It highlights that despite that Belgian trade unions have a solid youth membership base – in comparison with other trade unions in other European countries – they also face challenges, such as the mobilization and encouragement of trade union activism among the youth.


The paper is based on a mixture of primary and secondary empirical data. In the initial stage of the project, documentary analyses were carried out in order to get a first impression about the Belgian unions’ youth working, the related structures and history. Furthermore, the Belgian youth’s position in the labour market was sketched. The project’s second stage built upon the already collected materials and expanded them based on 12 semi-structured interviews of 60-90 minutes duration, conducted between March-May 2014. Those interviews were carried out at different levels, i.e. with national (8 interviews), sectoral (2 interviews) and regional (youth) representatives (2 interviews) of the different trade union federations. Furthermore, participation to some events organised by unions for the youth were attended and followed by various short talks with the organizers, teachers and participants to better understand the practices developed by Belgian unions to reach the youth.



Findings illustrate that Belgian trade unions have sought to tackle the youth challenge in various ways and at different levels. At the national and inter-professional levels, unions have actively engaged in protecting the rights of young people, for example regarding the previously lower wage levels for young people. At the micro level, all the three Belgian unions follow a join approach by organising a variety of actions, initiatives, campaigns and events together to promote union work and encourage membership among youth. Events like the ‘treasure hunt’ which combine an entertaining activity with information on student work is very popular among the youth and they have the advantage to contribute to attributing a ‘younger’ image to trade unions as well. In addition, in response to the young people’s extensive use of social media, unions have started to be present on facebook, youtube and twitter. On the other side, it cannot be denied that the fact Belgian trade unions are as service providers in the Ghent system, by paying out unemployment benefits gives, an extra incentive to affiliate. It is also important to mention that the price of union membership is rather low in comparison with other European countries and many sectoral collective agreements rule that a substantial part of the yearly membership fees is paid back (syndicale premie/prime syndicale). Furthermore, there are free membership formulas offered by all unions for those in education until the age of 25. Hence, the Ghent system and the low price of membership especially address instrumental motives to join a union, since membership can be seen as an affordable “insurance against unemployment”. While instrumental motives can arguably encourage membership, it can be doubted if they are sufficient to also motivate trade union activism which proves to be the major problem Belgian trade unions face with regards to Youth. The Belgian unions perceive encouraging activism among young people as a problem, but they have not yet found possible solutions. Formalized programmes or structured approaches towards motivating activism are missing, and there is no staff specifically dedicated to address this challenge. To conclude, all Belgian unions have increased their efforts regarding the youth in the past years, but it remains a challenge to reach, organize and mobilize young people. This challenge will probably accompany trade unions in the coming years as well and demand creative answers in order to bring them together with the youth.


 De Witte, H. (2000). Onzekerheid over de arbeidsplaats, attitudes, t.o.v. de vakbond en vakbondslidmaatschap. Tijdschrift voor Arbeidsvraagstukken, 16(2): 119-135.

Schnabel, C. and Wagner, J. (2007). Union density and determinants of union membership in 18 EU countries: evidence from micro data, 2002/03. Industrial Relations Journal, 38(1): 5-32. 

Visser, J. (2013). The Institutional Characteristics of Trade Unions, Wage Setting, State Intervention and Social Pacts. ICTWSS Database, version 4.0. Amsterdam: Amsterdam institute for Advanced Labour Studies. [http://www.uva-aias.net/208].