Closed-shop agreements to be banned

Denmark's Liberal-Conservative coalition government is due to propose legislation prohibiting closed-shop agreements in autumn 2002. According to a government-commissioned report drawn up by civil servants, published in July 2002, there is nothing to hinder the abolition of closed-shop agreements. However, existing closed shops will still be permitted in the liberal professions, such as those operated by the professional associations for doctors and lawyers. The trade unions see this as victimisation of the trade union movement and oppose the government's plans.

The programme of the coalition government of the Liberal Party (Venstre) and Conservative People's Party (Konservative Folkeparti), which came to office in November 2001, included the right to free choice of trade union membership, including the right not to be a member of a union, as part of a 'freedom package' (DK0112147F). Proposed legislation to prohibit closed-shop agreements (DK9907137N and DK9802153F), stipulating membership of a certain union as a requirement for employment, has thus been awaited since. However, there have been delays as, following some unexpected setbacks for other elements of the government's 'freedom package' (DK0206102N), the Minister for Employment wished to be better prepared this time. The entire 'freedom package', based on the concept of personal choice, is widely considered to be a challenge to the trade union movement, albeit not in the most vital areas.

The problem of the professions

Plans to abolish closed-shop agreements have run up against the problem that it is not only trade unions that operate closed shops, but also the liberal professions. New doctors have to be members of the Organisation of General Practitioners (Praktiserende Lægers Organisation, PLO) and lawyers members of the Association of Lawyers (Advokatsamfundet), in order to open a practice. The stated reasons are liability in relation to the health insurance system, and general liability and self-regulation within these professions.

The Minister of Employment set up a committee of civil servants to look into this problem. The conclusion of the committee, which reported in July 2002, was that there was no reason to abolish the obligation on doctors and lawyers to be members of specific organisations, but at the same time that there was no reason to maintain such obligations in the areas covered by collective agreements. Although it concluded that there was no legal problem with closed-shop agreements and that they were not in conflict with the provisions of international conventions and treaties, the committee nevertheless proposed a legislative initiative to abolish them in the fields covered by collective agreements. The parties affected will be consulted before a bill is tabled in parliament (Folketing) in autumn 2002.

LO feels victimised

The Danish Employers’ Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) was satisfied with the proposal drawn up for the new legislation, which follows most of the recommendations in the committee's report. DA has long wanted a prohibition of closed-shop agreements.

The Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO), on the other hand, was furious and argued that the government had commissioned an unbalanced report and is planning to deprive ordinary employees of their protection against underpayment and poor working conditions, while the best-off workers such as doctors and lawyers can keep their privileges. LO strongly criticised the Minister, who had in advance of the report expressed the view that 'it is not up to the social partners to agree anything on behalf of the individual as regards organisations that the individual has to be a member of. Closed-shop agreements are a punitive expedition against a small group of employees.' The Minister has also proposed abolishing the trade unions’ right to picket enterprises which have not concluded a collective agreement.

Influx from new Member States

LO’s indignation should also be seen in the light of another topical issue. In connection with the enlargement of the European Union, there is planned to be less restricted access to the EU labour markets for workers from the candidate countries from 2003. According to the trade unions – which refer to 'German figures'– this means that about 900,000 people will be ready to enter the labour markets of the present EU Member States. A few researchers have stated that banning closed-shop agreements may lead to downward wage pressure on the labour market when more people from Central and Eastern Europe obtain legal access to the sectors where they can already be found, notably agriculture and building/construction. Most closed-shop agreements are found in these sectors because of the large number of unorganised employers. About 220,000 employees in Denmark are covered by a closed-shop agreement; this corresponds to less than 10% of the labour force.

Commentary

The Minister for Employment has called the speculations about an 'invasion' from Central and Eastern Europe as nonsense and pure invention on the part of the researchers concerned. When the EU's enlargement towards the south took place, there were many people who raised the alarm about an expected 'invasion' of workers from Portugal, Spain and Greece. The Minister and others argue that there was no such influx.

However, this earlier situation is arguably not comparable with the EU's eastern enlargement. The social and economic conditions in the southern Member States at the time of joining the EU were quite different from the present conditions in Central and Eastern Europe, where there is a extreme poverty and widespread unemployment. The southern countries were not in the midst of an economic and social upheaval of the kind currently occurring in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, there is already a large number of workers from the Baltic countries, Poland and Russia who are working more or less legally in Western Europe. There are many examples of illegal work in Denmark in agriculture/horticulture and in the building industries - exactly those sectors where closed-shop agreements exist today. It would be natural to imagine that unorganised employers will continue to recruit labour from Central and Eastern Europe - at the least, this possibility cannot be discounted.

It must also give cause for reflection that there is an openly recognised problem of numerous workers from Central and Eastern Europe performing illegal work in a country as far away as Portugal (PT0006199F). All over Europe, there is a network of illegal work with fixed routes followed by the workers from the East, including to the regions with the lowest pay in Southern Europe. This does not necessarily mean an 'invasion' with huge consequences, but nor should it be categorically denied that it might be a good idea to reconsider the issue of closed-shop agreements in the perspective of enlargement towards the east.

From the employer side, it has been argued that if the trade unions cannot live without closed-shop agreements, they should examine the services they offer. If the services provided are satisfactory, then members will stay without the compulsion of closed-shop agreements. Furthermore, if trade unions are on the alert it should not be too difficult to trace the sectors with illegal labour. This is true, but will be of no use if the unions are at the same time deprived of their right to picket, which is one of the forms of industrial action which has been used in connection with closed-shop agreements. There seems to be a lack of reflection over the link between closed-shop agreements and the weapon of picketing. In this way, the government's proposal starts to look like the other elements of the 'freedom package'. They mainly serve as ideological 'pinpricks' against 'collective coercion' and in favour of 'personal freedom'. The government's proposals also raise a number of concrete problems which must necessarily be resolved before the legislation is adopted. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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