Trade unions in transformation: Reasserting union strength in Asia

Trade union power is often described as fading away under the pressures of globalized markets and closing civic spaces. A photo story from a conference with trade unions from Asia and Global Union Federations captures how unions nonetheless successfully reassert and restructure their power resources and how future challenges can be overcome.

Globalized markets and closing civic spaces in many Asian countries make maintaining labour power increasingly difficult and put pressure on workers and trade unions. Nonetheless, unions constantly establish new ways to reassert their power resources and remain relevant, even in the rapidly changing economies in the region.

In order to shift the narrative about trade unions away from the depiction as victims of globalization and instead show that unions in fact do have power, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) has gathered remarkable trade union success stories from all over the world.  

These success stories, their underlying strategies and future challenges were the subject of a conference held in Singapore by FES, bringing together members of Global Union Federations, trade unions and research organisations from Asia for them to share their personal experiences and discuss mutual challenges. Together, participants explored how to best use their power resources, how to cross the divide between the formal and informal sectors and how to face the digital economy.

“Power is not a reality but a potential that needs to be activated,” said Dr Melisa Serrano, Associate Professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of the Philippines and Member of the Steering Committee of the FES project “Trade Unions in Transformation”, summing up the Power Resources Approach at the conference.

The approach, based on a paper by Klaus Doerre and Stefan Schmalz (link to study), emphasizes that trade unions are not solely subject to external developments but are able to make strategic choices by activating their different  power resources. The concept of structural, associational, institutional and societal power can help unions analyse their greatest strengths and identify areas that offer potential for increased union power.

The conference was part of the FES project “Trade Unions in Transformation” which aims at enriching the conversation about union revitalization and facilitating exchanges among trade unions. By focusing on labour’s power resources, FES offers a space to learn from each other and be inspired from positive experiences of struggles around the globe. FES has gathered 26 stories worldwide that show successful trade union transformation.

Read the stories of successful labour struggles and learn more about the project at the “Trade Unions in Transformation” webpage.

Our photo report from the “Trade Unions in Transformation” conference captures some of the ideas on power resources and innovative ways of trade union action that were discussed.

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Christina Colclough, Director of Platform & Agency Workers, Digitalisation and Trade at UNI Global Union delivers opening address to trade union representatives and researchers from Asia.


Carolin Grüning in currently an intern at the Singapore-based FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. For more information about the regional work by FES in Asia on trade, labour and social dialogue contact <link about contact _blank external-link-internal-icon>Veronica Nilsson, programme manager at the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. 

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