Women workers contribute to an all-time high in trade union density

Trade union density in Sweden started to decline from the mid-1980s onwards but has since recovered to its former level of 83% in early 1997, according to a recently published report. The increase is particularly significant among women and employees in the private service sector. However, the numbers of white-collar workers, who traditionally have been organised almost to the same degree as blue-collar workers, have fallen.

By international standards, trade union density in Sweden has always been exceptionally high. Nevertheless, just as in most western European countries, it began to decline in the mid-1980s from its all-time high. Since the beginning of the 1990s however, Swedish workers have again begun to join trade unions in increasing numbers, according to a report published in May 1997 by the blue-collar Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen i Sverige, LO).

The report ("Facklig organisationsgrad 1997", Sven Nelander and Viveka Lindgrenis, LO, Ett faktamaterial om förhållandena vid 1990-talets mitt No. 33) is based on surveys undertaken on LO's behalf by the National Statistics Office of Sweden. It deals with all categories of workers - salaried employees as well as blue-collar workers. Unemployed people, who as a rule remain members of their trade unions, are not included in the statistics.

The report shows that, during the first quarter of 1997, 83% of all Swedish workers were trade union members, which represents an increase of 2.1 percentage points from 1990. This means that the unions have regained the losses of the late 1980s.

Significant increase among women

The increase is especially significant among women. Trade union density among female blue-collar workers increased by 6.1 percentage points, compared with an increase of 2.2 points for their male colleagues. This means that today almost half the membership of the LO-affiliated unions are women. Women salaried employees were also more inclined to join trade unions than men, and in the unions affiliated to the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) women have outnumbered men for several years. Trade union density among women workers as a whole is 85.7%, compared with 80.3% for men.

There has also been a larger increase in trade union density in certain sectors; above all in the private service sector (including commerce) where trade union density has always been comparatively low. It still constitutes less than 70% for salaried employees and a little more for manual workers, compared with roughly 94% of municipal workers (who are the most organised category). But overall, the differences between density between different sectors have been reduced.

Decrease among male salaried employees

On the other hand, the difference in union density between blue-collar and white-collar workers has increased. In 1990, 81.0% of the former and 80.7% of the latter were union members, ie a difference of only 0.3 percentage points. Although trade union density among blue-collar workers began to increase from 1990 onwards, it started to decline among salaried employees in 1994. It is a fact that male salaried employees are less inclined to organise today than they were in 1990. As a consequence, the difference in union density between blue-collar and white-collar workers has increased to 3.8 points.

Nevertheless, by international comparisons, it is still true that Swedish workers of all categories and in all sectors are exceptionally well organised. Researchers account for this by pointing out that the trade union movement in Sweden is both centralised and decentralised. Blue-collar workers organised at the beginning of the century in company union branches and elected local representatives who bargained and concluded collective agreements with individual employers. Salaried employees followed in the 1930s. Ever since, company union branches have maintained their important role as negotiating agents, and parallel worker's representative bodies such as the German Betriebsräteor the French comités d'entreprisedo not exist in Sweden. At the same time, workers in different companies and sectors are able to coordinate their activities and demands through strong central trade unions and confederations when they consider that it is appropriate.

It is generally presumed that one contributory factor to the high union density, at least in a historic sense, is the fact that unemployment insurance funds are administered by the trade unions themselves. It is hard to judge how significant this is today. It is not at all necessary to join a union in order to be a member of an unemployment insurance fund, and more and more people are aware of that. The number of workers who are directly affiliated to these funds has also increased in the last few years.


In its report, LO stresses that trade union density at the beginning of 1997 reached the record level recorded in the mid-1980s. But it is also worth noting that it reached new record levels in 1993-4, and that it has taken a downward trend since then, mainly due to the changed organisational pattern of male salaried employees. The only truly unequivocal trend during the 1990s is a continuous increase in trade union density among female blue-collar workers.

The "classic" trade unionist was a male industrial worker. Researchers have sought to explain the last decades' stagnation and even decline in trade union membership in many countries by pointing out that male industrial workers represent a smaller part of the workforce each year. The Swedish experience referred to above does not support this explanation. Women and workers in the private service sector (who are often synonymous) feel the same need to organise. This is not surprising, since on the whole they have comparatively low wages and more insecure employment conditions. By joining trade unions they have taken the first step towards improving their conditions of employment. Their next step must be to capture positions as trade union representatives and negotiators in proportion to their share of trade union membership. In this respect they still have a long way to go. (Kerstin Ahlberg, NIWL)

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