Shift in power balance among trade union confederations

Danish trade unions have started to experience decreased levels of representation coverage, after enjoying increasing membership rates until the mid 1990s. However, the declining membership has primarily affected unions belonging to the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, which mainly represents blue-collar and white-collar workers. Unions representing professionals and clerical workers – as well as independent trade unions – report increased membership and density. If this trend continues, it may eventually change the power relations between the confederations.

Danish trade unions are no longer immune to the general tendency of decline in representation coverage among European trade union movements. Since 1994 – when trade union density in Denmark peaked at 82.7% of all workers – trade unions belonging to the largest of the confederations, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO), have lost a total of 141,000 members or 9% of LO’s base, whereas the two other employee confederations and the independent trade unions have experienced an increase in membership rates. The Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF) has grown from 267,000 to 332,000 members and the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC) has nearly doubled its membership, with an increase from 70,000 to 132,000 members. In actual numbers, trade union membership has only decreased by 50,000 since 1995 but, because the labour force has increased substantially in the same period, overall trade union density has declined to 77%.

Consequences for trade union power balance

A new research paper published in August 2006 by Professor Steen Scheuer of Roskilde University Centre brings this situation to light. He argues that this development could have important consequences for power relations in the Danish trade union movement. Some of the larger LO federations have already started a streamlining process that will lead to diminishing organisational capacity. If the tendency to lose members continues, Professor Scheuer has calculated that only half the number of all trade union members will be affiliated to LO trade unions in 2024, compared with a proportion of 65% today.

Currently, LO controls the majority of the trade union representatives in the tripartite and multipartite bodies found in policy areas relating to employment, continuing training, education, and health and safety. Professor Scheuer predicts that LO will not be able to keep the majority of the representatives if its relative share of all trade union members continues to decline.

Reaction of trade unions

However, the LO President, Hans Jensen, does not consider that the power relations between the trade unions will change. In his opinion, the major problem is the declining organisational density of the trade union movement as a whole. He calls for cooperation among the confederations to meet future challenges. ‘The overall union density is declining. This means that FTF and AC do not collect what LO loses. And that is a problem,’ Mr Jensen stated to the LO weekly magazine A4. He does not believe that LO will lose representativeness or authority in relation to the other confederations but underlines that all three confederations will have to intensify their cooperation, especially in relation to development at EU level.

The FTF President, Bente Sorgenfry, is satisfied with the increase in the number of trade union members under the FTF umbrella, and finds that her organisation is already taking part in consultations more than it has done a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, she agrees with Mr Jensen that cooperation between the confederations is necessary.

Commentary

Several possible explanations exist for the decline in trade union members. It seems that the decrease in the actual number of members has mostly taken place among people aged under 30 years. The main reason for this is the dwindling number of young workers, but the higher educational levels of young people and the larger proportion of ethnic minorities in the labour force have also contributed to the decline. These factors – which are not in LO’s control – account for more than 80% of the loss of members under the age of 30 years, according to LO (DK0508103F).

Notwithstanding, Professor Scheuer recommends that the LO-affiliated trade unions should be more active in attracting new members. They have been used to a situation where active recruitment efforts have not been necessary. However, there is no obligation in Denmark to be a member of a trade union and this means that the confederations must reconsider their strategy.

According to Professor Scheuer, other factors, such as the current low level of unemployment, have also contributed to the decline in union density, because some groups of employees find it unnecessary to seek representation as they do not fear unemployment. Moreover, the government has loosened the traditional ties between the trade unions and the trade union administrated unemployment funds by introducing free choice of unemployment fund. Thus, there is no doubt that the trade union movement – and especially LO – will have to work hard to reverse the current decline in organisational density.

Mikkel Mailand, FAOS

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