Childcare workers' unions plan merger

At its congress in December 2000, the Danish Federation of Early Childhood Teachers and Youth Educators (BUPL) considered a possible merger with the National Union of Nursery and Childcare Assistants (PMF) to create a single trade union for childcare workers, which would be the sixth-largest union in Denmark. The two unions currently belong to different confederations - LO in the case of BUPL and FTF in the case of PMF - and a merged union would have to decide between the two. If it were to choose LO, this might have negative consequence for FTF, which groups salaried employees' unions, if other major unions followed BUPL's example. However, the merger will be faced by opposition within BUPL.

Since the autumn of 1999, the trade unions representing skilled and unskilled childcare workers - the Danish Federation of Early Childhood Teachers and Youth Educators (Forbundet for pædagoger og klubfolk, BUPL) and the National Union of Nursery and Childcare Assistants (Pædagogmedhjælpernes Forbund, PMF) respectively - have been discussing a merger into a single union. This was the major theme at the BUPL congress in December 2000, to which representatives of PMF were invited. A merged childcare workers' union would have 80,000 members (50,000 from BUPL and 30,000 from PMF) and would be the sixth-largest union in Denmark. Such a union, according to those behind the merger proposal in the two unions, would obtain more influence on pay, labour market conditions and training policy and would administer a larger unemployment insurance fund.

Which confederation?

Before the idea of a merged union can become a reality, there are some important obstacles which have to be carefully considered. PMF is currently a member of Denmark's largest union confederation, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO), which has 1.46 million members. BUPL is a member of the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF), which has 350,000 members. The merger would require the new union to choose either LO or FTF, and at its December congress BUPL itself suggested that it should switch to LO. This would mean that FTF would lose one of its four largest unions - the others being those for school teachers, police officers and nurses - and this would weaken it considerably in political (and also economic) terms. In addition to the four big unions, FTF groups a number of small unions, many of which have under 100 members. FTF is thus not in such a strong position as LO and a further weakening could mean the start of the dissolution of FTF, if the possible transfer of BUPL to LO had any knock-on effects. The FTF-affiliated Danish Nurses' Organisation (Dansk Sygeplejeråd, DSR) has stated that it might consider a transfer as it does not believe that its relationship with FTF is functioning satisfactorily, and also because it finds itself isolated professionally when grouped with school teachers and childcare workers.

Greater influence in LO

There would be some obvious advantages for BUPL and PMF in merging and joining LO as a single union of 80,000 members. The chair of BUPL, Bente Sorgenfrey, has compared unions with private enterprises, in that they can only survive if a sufficient number of people are willing to pay for the services offered. Ms Sorgenfrey is in favour of the merged union joining LO. A further merger with some smaller LO unions in the field of childcare, care for mentally ill people, care for elderly people and other care services could result in a major care workers' union with some 140,000 member. Such a union would be the same size as the Union of Danish Metalworkers (Dansk Metalarbejderforbund, Dansk Metal), which is one of the most influential LO unions. It could also influence the political debate on teaching and care. LO already has much more influence than FTF, which participates only rarely in tripartite cooperation. It is LO which sets the agenda, together with the Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA). Finally, the supporters of a merged care workers' union in LO believe that Denmark is too small a country to have three union confederations - the third being the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC). From this point of view, Danish employees would be in a considerably stronger position with a single confederation, if the trade union movement is to develop in line with labour market structures.

Sceptics stress professional arguments

Not all members of BUPL are enthusiastic about the idea of a merger with the unskilled childcare workers' union. The sceptics are many and well-organised. Their attitude is that there should, in a longer-term perspective, be no unskilled childcare workers and this has created bad feelings between them and PMF. It is estimated that only 55% of BUPL members are in favour of continuing the merger discussions, With regard to the question of which confederation to join, many merger sceptics are afraid of becoming a "small piece in a big game", rather than a "big piece in a small game", as at present. The sceptics put issues of professionalism highest, both in relation to the unskilled careworkers and in relation to FTF, where they are grouped with many other professional groups. Nor are the sceptics too keen about having to pay much higher union dues in LO, or the prospect of LO's close attachment to the Social Democratic Party.

Naturally, LO is in favour of the idea of a merged union joining LO, while FTF is against. The managing director of FTF, Jens Kragh, has warned against believing that the merged union would have greater influence in LO: "LO has 1.4 million members. 50,000 more or less makes no difference. It is the big unions such as the General Workers Union in Denmark (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD), the National Union of Female Workers (Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund, KAD) and the National Union of Metalworkers which determine the line in LO. And they are primarily thinking about the private labour market. No doubt about that," said Mr Kragh. He does not think that LO would change if the merged childcare workers' union (with a different conception of professionalism) joined. As long as employees have such different interests it is quite natural to have three union confederations in Denmark, he argues.

Much is still undecided. The merger discussions will go on for another year and, according to BUPL's statutes, a two-thirds majority vote is required for such a decision.

Commentary

A merger of BUPL and PMF might have far-reaching implications if it were decided that the new organisation was to become a member of LO. This is not so much due to the 50,000 BUPL members, as to the "snowball effect" which may be created. LO would also have as an affiliate a large union of childcare workers, which could contribute to strengthening LO's involvement in the public sector, and put more weight behind LO's attempts to become more involved in wider welfare policy issues (DK9911155N). At the same time, other important member organisations of FTF may perhaps consider their position. Both nurses and school teachers are working to upgrade their education, which will be at degree level under a new structure which is being introduced for intermediate-level education. It is possible that their organisations, DSR and the Danish Teachers' Union (Danmarks Lærerforening, DLF), will at some point apply for membership of AC in the same way as the librarians' union has already done.

In 10 years time, the result may be that ideas about a formation of single confederation for all Danish unions may become a reality. Recently, Poul Winckler, the chair of the largest LO union in the public sector, the Danish Trade Union of Public Employees (Foreningen af Offentligt Ansatte, FOA) - who is at the same time the chair of KTO, the joint bargaining cartel for employees in the municipal/county sector - has been advocating such a merger of LO, FTF and AC. In his vision, the unified confederation would be organised into sector groups, so that for instance all employees in the municipal/county sector would be united under the same organisation and work jointly for both collective bargaining and political interests. This would change the picture of LO as a confederation whose affiliates mainly have members in the private sector. The biggest barrier to such a merger is still LO's ties - although now only formal - to the Social Democrats (DK9801148F). Generally, the member organisations of FTF and AC have no wish to commit themselves in terms of party politics, but they have nothing against a strong political involvement, which is seen as a precondition for effective representation of their members' interests. It is thus not unlikely that this barrier may be overcome. A sign of whether this is the way in which the trade union movement will develop will be what happens if the merger of BUPL and PMF becomes a reality. Will it be possible for LO to find solutions which will make it attractive for the childcare workers to join LO? Or will LO stick to positions which means that the new union will instead be affiliated to FTF? The answers to these questions will be decisive for the development of the overall structure of the trade union movement in the 21st century. (Jørgen Steen Madsen, FAOS)

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