Decline in union membership continues

According to a paper drawn up by the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) in summer 2005, the decline in trade union membership in Denmark continues, with overall union density falling from 83.1% in 1996 to 78.5% in 2005. LO, the largest confederation, has experienced a continuous fall in membership over the past decade, while the other two confederations have seen their membership stagnate. Much of the drop in LO membership is explained by changes in the composition of the population and employment.

An internal paper drawn up by the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) in summer 2005 examines general features of the development of Danish trade union membership with a particular focus on LO. It finds that the fall in membership continues - see the table below. The membership of LO, Denmark's largest union confederation has now declined for 10 successive years (DK0201159N).

Decline in LO membership

According to the internal paper, quoted in the LO magazine Agitator, LO membership peaked in 1994 at 1,510,000 members. Since then, membership has fallen by about 140,000 to the present level of 1,369,198 (on 1 January 2005). What is most alarming for LO is that the steady fall over the last decade has accelerated over the past three years, with a decline in membership of 64,000 members over 2003-5. The largest member organisation of LO, the United Federation of Workers (Fagligt Fælles Forbund, 3F), accounts for a major share of this decline. In 2004 alone, the General Workers’ Union in Denmark (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD) and the National Union of Female Workers (Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund, KAD) - which have now merged to form 3F (DK0410103N) - lost 12, 802 members.

Over much of the period from 1996 to the present, there was a steady increase in the membership of the other main union confederation, the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF) and the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC). However, there has been a stagnation in their membership during the past three years. Indeed FTF has experienced a small decline in membership. In 2003, its membership peaked at 363,086. In the following year, the number of members fell for the first time in 10 years to 358,959 but then increased again to the present 361,003 (1 January 2005), below the 2003 figure. On the other hand, FTF has in total over the past 10 years experienced an increase of about 29,000 members. The membership of AC has been increasing gradually. As of 1 January 2005, 163,426 members were recorded, an increase of 13,000 since 2000.

So far, the fall in membership of the LO member organisations has largely been explained by an increasing average level of education in the workforce, which has meant that some members have, so to speak, 'educated themselves out of their membership of LO' which mainly organises unskilled and skilled workers. Until the end of the 1990s, the same explanation was given for the increase in membership of FTF and AC. However, as mentioned, FTF has experienced a stagnation during the past three or four years. This indicates that the trend can no longer be seen only as a redistribution of employees among the confederations according to their level of education. An increasing number of employees are simply no longer members of trade unions.

Active membership of trade union confederations 1996-2005
Year LO FTF AC Total
2005 1,369,198 361,003 163,426 1,893,627
2004 1,386,370 358,989 160,104 1,905,463
2003 1,413,210 363,086 158,513 1,934,809
2002 1,433,064 356,058 154,705 1,943,827
2001 1,449,298 351,981 152,422 1,953,701
2000 1,449,348 350,255 150,060 1,949,663
1999 1,458,742 347,244 146,270 1,952,256
1998 1,478,440 344,360 143,420 1,966,220
1997 1,483,828 340,991 141,170 1,965,989
1996 1,495,850 338,372 137,231 1,971,453

Source: Reports from LO, FTF and AC, 2005 (figures as of 1 January each year).

Overall density

Measured in terms of density, there has been an overall decline in Danish union membership. The peak was in 1996, when union density among Danish employees was 83.1% according to the calculations in the new LO paper. In 2005, union density has fallen to 78.5% - a drop of 4.6 percentage points - and there is nothing that seems to indicate that there will not be a continued fall. LO density peaked in 1996 at 57.6%, compared with 51.3% in 2004. During the same period, both AC and FTF have experienced a slight increase in membership, but - surprisingly according to the article in Agitator- the largest relative increase has taken place in organisations outside the three confederations, such as the specific unions for journalists, maritime engineers, salespeople and prison officers, as well as the Christian Trade Union (Kristelig Fagforening, KF) and organisations sometimes described for historical reasons as 'yellow unions'. The Christian Trade Union Movement (Kristelig Fagbevægelse), ie the union and its unemployment insurance fund together, covers 159,230 members, according to KF. Statistics Denmark states that KF alone has 61,729 active members, which is an increase of 38% since 1996. The 13 unions currently outside the three confederations now organise 151,082 active employees (according to Statistics Denmark), which is more or less the same figure as the membership of AC.

Young people not joining unions

The article in Agitator focuses, in particular, on developments among union members under 30 years of age. In 1993, when the number of young members was recorded for the first time, there were about 471,000 union members in this group. In 2005, this figure has fallen to 284,000, a drop of 40% over 12 years. Part of the explanation for this significant fall can be found in some general development trends, such as the smaller cohorts of young people in recent years and the higher general level of education - both of these factors mean that there are fewer young people on the labour market. However, according to LO calculations there is still a 'deficit' of 79,000 young persons who in a 'perfect world' have been members of a trade union today.


There are at least two factors of importance that emerge from the above data for the current LO campaign to recruit new members - the challenge from the unaffiliated trade unions that offer their members separate services at a lower fee, and the challenge of attracting young people. The trade unions still have an image problem that they must continue to tackle in spite of the great efforts in recent years. However, slogans such as 'united we are strong' are not appealing in the new era of individualism. The unaffiliated trade unions, with their broad range of services, are counting on the growing individualism instead of collectivism, with a view to recruiting members. What we have been seeing in recent years is thus a trade union movement that has to adapt to today’s market conditions.

An important point is that bargaining powers are only vested in the 'old' traditional organisations and this is the reason why the campaign that LO is currently conducting focuses on making young people aware of the cohesion of the Danish collective bargaining system. LO's trade union secretary, Harald Børsting, is optimistic. In his point of view 60% of the decline in membership is due to structural changes, eg changes in educational levels. The remaining 40% is to be found among potential young members, but special efforts from the LO unions and an increasing awareness about working conditions among the young will turn the trend in the right direction, he says. Industrial relations researchers do not think it will be easy to change the trend. The large age cohorts working in manufacturing are leaving the labour market at present, and developments in the services sector, featuring fewer collective agreements and more individual contracts, do not support the optimism of the LO secretary. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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