EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Denmark: Mandate for trade unions to establish common ground for merger

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Delegates at the 2015 autumn congresses of the two union confederations LO and FTF agreed to find a basis for closer cooperation. A steering committee now has until the end of 2017 to formulate proposals for a partial or full merger to put before their members.

Background

In recent years, the two largest union confederations in Denmark, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Confederation of Professionals in Denmark (FTF) have cooperated on different labour market policy issues, joining forces and thereby being able to take up a stronger negotiating position with the government.

Created in 1899, LO is the oldest union confederation. In 1952 a group of its members (salaried employees and statutory civil servants) dissatisfied with the strong link between the unions, particularly LO, and the Social Democratic Party, broke away to create FTF – independent of political parties and representing only workers in the public sector. Today FTF is still dominated by salaried employees in the public sector, such as teachers, nurses and bank employees, but it now also has some private sector members.

Moves towards closer cooperation

In the autumn of 2013 LO and FTF began work to:

  • analyse the challenges and possibilities for the trade union movement in the period leading up to 2020;
  • examine the concrete possibilities for closer political and organisational cooperation;
  • consider perspectives and opinions within each federation, with a view to a possible merger into one new confederation.

The final option has been discussed every year for the past decade by the member unions of LO and FTF but was, until recently, dismissed.

The increased political cooperation, for example on education and working environments, in negotiations with the government and the employers has again stimulated talks about a merger. The leadership of FTF and LO has for some time pointed out the advantages, in various instances, of a bigger and stronger common confederation.

In November 2015 a steering committee of 14 members of the leadership of LO and FTF, (7 from each), was set up with the mandate to consider closer cooperation between the two organisations and to put forward proposals for the political and organisational foundation for a merger. Both LO and FTF held congresses in the autumn of 2015 and delegates at both events gave their mandate to the steering committee to continue this investigative work.

It was decided that by the end of 2017, at the latest, the steering committee would be in a position to clarify the foundation for a new joint confederation. If approved, the new organisation would encompass 85% of all agreements covering employees in the Danish labour market. The mandate requests that the committee create a framework that would include proposals for a new name for the joint confederation, its mission and visions, its political basis and structure, focus areas, regional and local structure, statute and economy.

Examining the possibilities

Before the LO and FTF general congresses last autumn, the steering committee issued a report, the LO–FTF 2020 project: Report from the political steering committee (PDF), which offered an overview of the work accomplished so far and presented three possible scenarios for cooperation.

A strategic alliance

This would mean that LO and FTF continue to act as independent confederations while systematically investigating the possibilities of cooperation on core tasks. The difference between this and the current issue-by-issue method of cooperation would be that the two organisations would agree on a common strategy for selected political areas, such as education and vocational training. The disadvantage of this scenario could be a lack of joint influence if, for instance, employers and governments were to negotiate separately with the confederations.

A new confederation

This scenario would replace LO and FTF with a new confederation under a new name. The new combined confederation would speak for 1.5 million active union members on the whole agreement-covered labour market ‘with one voice’. This would strengthen the legitimacy of unions in handling political interests at a time when the labour movement is losing members. A new confederation would also create opportunities for the development of the collective bargaining system and for a different kind of coordination between public and private sector negotiations. A new confederation would also be cheaper to run than the two current separate bodies.

However, it is not known how a merger would affect LO’s relationship with the main employer confederation, the Confederation of Danish Employers (DA). DA was created in the same year that LO was founded as its direct opponent and corresponding social partner. Together they concluded the first collective agreement in Denmark and have, over the years, acted as pace-setters for the whole Danish labour market. They set up a collective conflict resolution system; they are the signatories of the 'Basic Agreement’ which regulates the labour market, and of a cooperation agreement regarding daily work in Danish companies. However, DA has no dealings with FTF and does not have an obvious interest in a merger between LO and FTF, which could damage the position of DA if they were to be part of a marriage of unequal partnership.

A new common superstructure

LO and FTF would continue as independent confederations and create a formal superstructure with an independent secretariat. This would be expected to coordinate and maintain common interests in selected areas, such as further development of the Danish Labour Market Model or ‘Danish model’ (where, for example, collective agreements are determined by the unions and employer organisations without involvement by the state) to cover issue regarding the labour market, social partner cooperation, the national economy and analysis of areas of common political interest. This construct is inspired by the fact that LO, FTF and the third union confederation, the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (AC) already have a common political committee and collectively run the Danish Trade Union Office with a secretariat based in Brussels.

The advantage of this scenario is that in the selected areas, the independent secretariat will speak for all confederations members with one voice. A possible problem, however, is that negotiations could take place at two levels – in each of the organisations and then in the superstructure. This could slow down processes and risk diluting its political power.

Conclusion

At the first day of the LO Congress, retiring President Harald Børsting said that a merger represented a major challenge for many of its members. But he argued that it would give the trade union movement more ‘muscle power’ in times of declining membership and diminishing union legitimacy.

Despite the enthusiasm at both confederation congresses and the mandate given to the steering committee to put forward a framework for a merger, not all the top union secretaries on either side are happy with this idea. Some leading members of LO unions, particularly the skilled and unskilled workers in the United Federation of Danish Workers (3F), fear that the interests of the public sector will dominate day-to-day work in a new confederation. Some of the larger FTF unions have misgivings about the influence of the Social Democratic Party on the leadership of the LO unions, even though the historic bonds between LO and the Social Democrats were cut at LO’s 2003 congress. This could point towards a superstructure as their preferred model.

However, it seems that the supporters for a new confederation have momentum and it is more likely that LO and FTF will merge fully, which will be a landmark moment in the history of Danish industrial relations.

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