Trade unions in the whole world are facing huge challenges. The increase in volatility and openness of national economies, the growing role of IT technologies, and dominant neoliberal economic paradigm in combination with market deregulation and an increased role of the financial sector have coincided with a decline in trade union membership and pressure on wages since the late 1970s. The transformation of the economy has resulted in an ever grater share of small and medium-sized enterprises, in the growth of the service sector, and has caused movement of production abroad, as firms look for cheap labour. A share of stable jobs has decreased, and the percentage of precarious workers and the employed poor has increased. The forementioned factors have weakened the traditional role of trade unions and calls for the adjustment of their organisation and methods of struggle to new conditions in the economy and in the labour market.
The stagnation of wages and lowering of social standards have been caused not only by international competition, but also by the Stability and Growth Pact and the Maastricht criteria. An implicit pressure brought about by open economy has thereby expanded through the explicit pressure due to European (Monetary) Union’s rules. Instead of the „upward” convergence, we have witnessed a „downward” race as EU member states try to be more competitive. As decision-making has shifted to supranational level, the participation of workers and trade unions in democratic decision-making has decreased. National systems of tripartite social dialogue lose their importance and influence since major decisions are made in Brussels-based institutions.
All of this has triggered a change in trade unions’ role in society. Trade unions in new EU member states have faced additional challenges as they have only recently gone through the transformation demanded by transition to market economy and political democracy. Lacking tradition and an established role of workers’ movement in society, trade unions in these countries have been confronted with critique from both the ruling elites, which claim they „block reforms”, and from progressive individuals and organisations, that do not find them radical enough.
How do trade unions in Germany, Slovenia, Croatia and other EU member states cope with the new situation, and to what extent are they able to attract new members and protect their rights? Which networking strategies do they employ with nongovernmental organisations that are active in the domain of labour market and human rights? Can they function through political parties and how? How do these strategies differ in corporatist model of Germany and neo-corporatist model of Slovenia and Croatia?