Europe continues to treat the world of work in all its antagonistic industrial glory: employers and employees belong to 2 different worlds, regulated by laws and practices, with national governments unwilling to address today’s reality of a post-industrial society. In all of the EU member states, the labor code has become overly complex and out of touch with the Zeitgeist and modus operandi of the world of work. Proof is that we all turn a blind eye to the law stricto sensu as it is trying to harness the present into an armor of the past. Being 100% legal is not only unworkable, it’s also impossible.
I know I might read too much into the physical abuse of Xavier Broseta, head of HR of Air France, when I say the unions present at the work council meeting, realizing again their impotence and irrelevance, resorted to violence and chose the easiest target to vent their frustration. Some of you think it was just be a scandalous act by a couple of individuals. For me there’s more. The unions seem to be stuck in the industrial model while for the last 30 years it has been abundantly clear that Europe thrives on a service and knowledge economy, therefore requiring a different approach. Thirty years of wrong strategy kills all companies, unions included.
The world has not only moved on. There is another reality dawning, which might (r)evolutionize flexible work: the human cloud: work performed remotely and on-demand by independent workers. Knowledge work is easily transportable to these individuals who refuse to be employees. This allows employers to get the right person at the right time for the right cost, irrespective of their location, without employment contracts or limitations. I can imagine a world of work where independent knowledge workers will start to bid for the work on offer. Even a ‘Work Echange’, much like the NYSE, is not unthinkable. Upwork, connecting freelancers with jobs in a variety of industries, guestimates it will reach $10bn in the foreseeable future.
The most sobering statistic out of the Air France story that I discovered in the press is that only 8% of the workforce in France carries union membership. It’s high time the unions revise their strategy and start thinking about how they can influence the future legislative labor environment. They need to surmount their heritage and totally reinvent themselves. Their framework will have to be European, or potentially global, just like their environment. Violating individuals just like strikes withholding essential public services is not the answer. Abandoning current thinking and practices is a prerequisite. It will not be long before union membership falls below 5%, as the industrial share of the economy continues to decline.
Meanwhile, not only the unions but all stakeholders in the European labor market believe they’re making real progress and are modernizing at the required pace. Few acknowledge that the world has passed them by. Most are making swimming pool-size changes oblivious to the fact they are swimming in the ocean. Ask Volkswagen. They understood how big the ocean is they swim in. Air France meanwhile is still trying to fly it every day.