Danish LO celebrates 100 years of existence

Denmark's LO trade union confederation celebrates a century of existence in 1998. The anniversary, on the brink of the new millennium, marks a challenging period in the organisation's history, and this feature looks at LO's continuing organisational changes, its relationship with its members and its new relationship with the political system.

The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) celebrates the 100th anniversary of its creation in 1998. The celebration will be most noticeable through a wide range of cultural and union activities unfolding throughout the year (which will be reported in subsequent EIRO records), and here we take the opportunity to look at recent developments in LO's organisation, membership and political links.

LO and its affiliates

LO is the largest organisation representing workers in Denmark - where the unionisation rate is approximately 80%, though varying from one sector to another - and indeed the dominant organisation. It represents 23 affiliated trade unions with a total membership of 1.5 million skilled, unskilled and salaried employees and public servants, employed in both the public and private sector. LO is an aggregation of sovereign trade unions and should thus be characterised as a coalition of independent entities, rather than as a national confederation with a clearly defined hierarchical structure.

Over the last decade or so, increased decentralisation and a greater workplace orientation, along with reorganisation on the employers' side, have forced trade unions to merge and form more efficient trade unions: from 1980 to 1997 the number of LO-affiliated trade unions decreased from 35 to 23. The development of larger and stronger trade unions has paved the way for a shift in tasks and responsibilities between the affiliated trade unions and LO.

On 28 October 1997, the latest structural adjustments were agreed upon, spelling out the future balance between the various elements in the threefold structure of the LO - the national confederation, the 23 affiliated trade unions and the six sector-oriented cartels of unions (covering: industry; building, construction and wood; trade, transport and services; graphical and media sector; municipal sector; and state sector). The future role of LO will be to renew the general political, economic and social framework for the development of working life. Concrete tasks in relation to union members and workplaces are to be dealt with by the unions and via cooperation in the cartels.

As a part of the restructuring, LO aims to improve its ability to undertake issues of a cross-union nature and to establish a strategic platform which can ensure both a "holistic" way of thinking and long-term policy formulation on key issues such as full employment, more and better vocational training, democracy and workers' influence, and a better work environment.

With regard to collective bargaining and related issues, LO will ensure services and analysis, and coordination between the trade unions and the cartels. Unlike its employers' counterpart, the Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA), LO does not have a veto regarding the approval of collective agreements, although it does play a role when mediation is carried out by the Public Conciliator.

With regard to general economic and political questions, LO will continue to be the spokesperson ensuring formulation of long-term initiatives on behalf of its affiliated trade unions, directed at Government, Parliament and international organisations. . With regard to EU and international organisations, LO is responsible for coordination and the formulation of political initiatives. Depending upon the development of the cartels, and thus their wish and ability to engage in European matters, LO will remain the key player. However, if or when the social dialogue at European sector level develops from its present state of affairs, both the trade unions and the cartels will have to upgrade in this area.

LO and union members

In 1998, the position of shop stewards - the backbone of the trade union movement - will be in focus. The role of shop stewards - of whom there are approximately 25,000 within the LO area - in the collective bargaining system has undergone vital changes over the last decade. New work organisation, a decentralisation of wage settlements and the extensive use of framework agreements covering an increasing number of new issues, has increased the focus on the challenges to, and future role of, shop stewards. LO has announced that 1998 is the "year of the shop stewards" and a major research project has been launched, to be carried out by FAOS (the Danish national centre of EIRO). The results will be presented in September 1998.

Another vital task in the coming period is for LO and its affiliates to be in accordance with the changing views and demand of their members. The views of LO's members are by no means static and membership surveys suggest new and multi-faceted demands among them. Traditionally, it could be expected that the primary role of the trade unions - to improve wages - would be reflected in the views of LO members, but this is far from reality in 1998. In a recent Gallup survey of trade union members' priorities for 1998, conducted in December 1997/January 1998 on behalf of LO, wages were ranked at number six from a list of 12 issues: LO members rate improvement of the work environment, pensions, further vocational training, fighting unemployment and creating jobs for people with a reduced ability to work higher. Although LO and its affiliates enjoy a high degree of legitimacy among members, who support the current organisational decentralisation (according to a 1993 APL survey of union members), these members also call for a better dialogue. It is especially the age group from 21-30 years which is the most critical, and it is recognised that LO will have to find ways to make it more attractive for the younger generation of members to engage in trade union work. LO has recently set aside DKK 18 million for a project entitled "Mindscope", in an attempt to create an interest in the union movement among young people.

Historical ties with the Social Democrats

The historical close ties between the Social Democratic Party and LO, with direct representation of each in the other's competent organs, were abolished following a decision at the 1995 LO congress. As part of LO's successful expansion, its members became more differentiated in terms of both educational background and workplace, as well as cultural and political values. This differentiation meant that it was no longer evident that LO should have formalised ties with the Social Democratic Party, or that the two organisations' views on a range of issues were naturally the same. The exclusive nature of the ties between LO and the Social Democrats equally made it difficult for both parties to interact with the three other main union organisations - the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF), the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC) and the executives' union, Ledernes Hovedorganisation (LH) - which are politically neutral and between then represent one-third of all employees. Although the formal LO-Social Democrat ties have been abolished, a contact group remains with a view to maintaining a close dialogue.

The 1997 amendment of the Work Environment Act is a recent example of the emerging departure from the historical political coalition between LO and the Social Democratic Party, which heads the present Government in Denmark. In this case, both LO and DA criticised the Government for what they saw as a lack of consultation of the social partners (DK9706116N).

Commentary

It can be argued that the need for a central mediator and coordinator, voicing the demands and viewpoint on behalf of LO's 23 affiliated trade unions, is unquestionable. While trade union pluralism does safeguard fundamental values - such as democracy and the right to represent different interests and voice union-specific opinions - it may be questioned whether such pluralism offers real influence and the ability to settle differences and diffuse conflicts, in relation to both the national and European political system. Both political systems are in need of a small number of legitimate industrial relations actors which can transmit, coordinate and mediate viewpoints, avoid and dismantle conflicts and act as co-producers of consensus, and thus be participants in setting the agenda. (Kåre FV Petersen, FAOS)

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