Spain: In-depth study of trade union representation

A study by the CCOO trade union confederation provides a detailed insight into trade union representation and workers' participation in union elections in Spain.​ It finds that the Spanish trade union representation system follows an ‘audience' model, meaning that it is based more on electoral representativeness than on membership.


One of the most thorough and detailed studies on trade union representation in Spain (in Spanish, 7 MB PDF) was published in June 2015. Based on data from 2003 to 2012, it also looks in detail at workers’ participation in elections for their representatives. The study was carried out by the 1 May Foundation, an affiliate of the CCOO trade union confederation. 


European context 

Trade union representation in Europe is a mixture of two factors: ‘presence’ (membership or affiliation) and ‘audience’ (electoral representativeness). It varies according to the trade union model or labour relations system of each country. According to data from the 2013 European Company Survey, the highest proportion of workers with representation occurs in Nordic countries (countries with a high level of trade union membership), followed by central Europe (countries with a medium level of trade union membership and a high level of representation through work councils), liberal countries (medium level of trade union membership) and finally, southern European countries (with low trade union membership rates but a high level of representation at workplace level).

The report uses data from the 2002 European Social Survey to analyse the proportion of workers who say it is easy or difficult for trade unions to determine working conditions. It shows that the percentage of workers who think that trade unions can easily decide or influence working conditions is higher in Nordic and liberal countries (between 30% and 35%, for example, in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the UK). The proportion of workers who think that it is difficult for unions to influence working conditions is higher in central and eastern European countries (40%–50%).

Trade union representation in Spanish workplaces

Spanish legislation stipulates that trade union elections can be called only in companies with at least six employees. Data from Spain's Central Business Register (DIRCE) for 2012 show that 78.7% of Spanish companies cannot hold elections (921,804 out of a total of 1,171,844). The remaining 21.3%, which can call elections, employ 84.6% of all employees in Spain. Business dispersion and the high number of small and micro enterprises are an obstacle for the institutionalisation of labour relations in Spanish companies.

According to data from SIC-CCOO (a database developed by CCOO), 20.6% of Spain's companies had trade union representation in 2012 (69,595 out of 337,287); in 2007, the percentage was 20.5%, and in 2003 it was a little higher at 25.7%. The data show that 51% of workers had trade union representation in 2012 (51.1% in 2007 and 52.4% in 2003). The existence of trade union representation is closely related to the size of the company: the larger the company, the higher the probability that there is trade union representation.

Worker participation in union elections

The trade union representation system in Spain follows the ‘audience' model (based on electoral representativeness rather than on membership) as it combines limited active participation and low commitment in membership terms with high participation in trade union elections, thus transferring the responsibility for defending workers’ interests to trade union representatives.

During the crisis period (2007–2012), the number of workers and companies decreased, and so did participation levels. According to estimates by the report’s authors (using data from the Spanish Labour Force Survey (EPA) and the SIC-CCOO database), 67.9% of the workers who had the right to participate in trade union elections in 2012 did actually vote; in 2007, the participation rate was 70.5% and in 2003, 71.3%. Participation decreases as company size increases. The reason for this may be the greater closeness between representatives and workers in smaller companies. It may also be that since it is more difficult to hold trade union elections in small companies than in large companies, once elections take place, participation is higher in smaller companies.

Main trade unions

The SIC-CCOO database shows that in 2012 CCOO was the majority trade union in 38.2% of Spanish companies, closely followed by the General Workers Union (UGT) in 36.8% of Spanish companies. The importance of other trade unions was much lower: 7.5% for nationalist trade unions, 3.5% for corporatist trade unions, and 3.4% for general trade unions. The CCOO and UGT are more likely to win the majority of votes in elections held in smaller companies. This is because in larger companies there are generally more choices and the possibility of not achieving any specific trade union majority in elections increases with company size.

The findings show that trade union elections have taken place only in 9.4% of new companies, defined as those that did not exist before 2003 (16,728 companies out of a total of 177,946 new companies). Trade union presence in new companies is very modest, and the authors suggest this might be due to a lack of trade union tradition. The average size of new companies is also smaller than the average size of older companies. CCOO has achieved a presence in 5% of these companies and a trade union majority in 3.7%.

CCOO presence in Spanish companies

The SIC-CCOO database shows that in 2012, 11% of companies with six or more workers had at least one trade union delegate representing the CCOO. It is also interesting that 18.4% of the companies with six or more workers had at least one CCOO member. This percentage clearly varies with size of the company: the larger the company, the higher the probability of having CCOO trade union affiliates.


The findings of this study are important to the debate about the role played by trade unions in developed capitalist societies. Many experts argue that trade unionism is in crisis but that it is still crucial for ensuring good working conditions and building fairer societies. However, the report warns that powerful economic elites are leading an anti-union campaign in favour of a global neoliberal model.

The trade union membership rate in Spain increased progressively from the 1990s until 2009 and has since decreased. The main reasons behind recent falls in membership are linked to employment loss; fewer employees in the labour market as a consequence of the crisis have negatively affected membership rates. However, the lack of success of measures proposed by trade unions to fight unemployment and deteriorating working conditions have also contributed. CCOO representatives criticise themselves because they have not been able to represent and support the high proportion of workers who have the worst conditions, such as those in precarious employment, on temporary contracts, or in non-voluntary part-time work.


Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Neuen Kommentar schreiben