EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Role of union representatives in coping with the economic crisis

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In a study by the Employment Relations Research Centre at the University of Copenhagen, more than 90% of Danish union representatives said their workplace had been affected by the economic crisis in some way. The study also revealed that union representatives are often actively involved when companies lay off staff and take part in local negotiations on wage cuts or freezes. However, many union representatives felt they lack the competencies to handle such situations.

Workplaces affected by the economic crisis

The economic crisis has hit Europe hard and Denmark is no exception, with the majority of union representatives reporting that their workplace has been affected by the economic crisis in one way or another. These are the findings of a recent study by Trine Larsen, Steen Navrbjerg and Mikkel Møller Johansen from the Employment Relations Research Centre (FAOS) at the University of Copenhagen entitled Trade union representatives and the workplace in 2010.

The study is based on survey data from 7,877 trade union representatives of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). The survey was carried out between January and April 2010 and is a repeat of a larger study which took place in 1998.

One of the study’s main findings is that 68% of union representatives have experienced financial cutbacks and streamlining of work processes within the last year. One in two reported restructuring of the company, outsourcing of services and production, and their workplaces being forced to lay off staff. Moreover, one in five union representatives has negotiated a wage freeze and 7% have experienced cutbacks (see table).

Effects of the crisis in the Danish workplace

Within the last year, has your workplace experienced one or more of the following…?

 

Yes

Financial cutbacks and optimisation of work processes

68%

Restructuring of the company

50%

Redundancies

50%

Recruitment stop for new personnel

49%

Expansion of the workforce

41%

Wage freeze

21%

Company merger

19%

Threats of closure

16%

Wage cutbacks

7%

None of the above

5%

Source: Larsen et al (2010)

The experience of redundancies, wage freezes and reductions, as well as threats to close down a company, is particularly acute in the private sector. In the public sector, the union representatives have had fewer such experiences, probably because the economic crisis is affecting the public sector more slowly (if at all) and with a certain delay compared with the private sector. However, the differences are less pronounced in the areas of financial cutbacks and streamlining of work processes, outsourcing of services and production, merging of workplaces and stopping recruitment.

The study also reveals that workplaces with fewer than 10 employees have experienced more redundancies, threats of closures and wage cutbacks, while negotiation of wage freezes has been equally common in small and large companies.

Involvement of union representatives

Union representatives report varying degrees of wage freezes and cuts at their workplace. Some (4%) have even signed local agreements on wage freezes or cutbacks.

With regard to involvement with layoffs:

  • 90% of the union representatives whose workplaces had been affected by redundancies were in some way involved in the process of laying off staff;
  • 69% had been informed by management prior to the dismissal of employees;
  • 44% had been consulted by management in selecting those employees to be made redundant;
  • 15% had been part of the actual decision-making process;
  • 63% had provided some form of support to their dismissed colleagues, mostly in the form of moral support and advice about their situation.

When dealing with wage freezes, cutbacks and redundancies, the majority of union representatives had been in contact with the local unions to discuss how to handle specific situations. One in three had found the union helpful and cooperative, while 15% had not.

Active involvement of the union representatives in the redundancy process does not, however, appear to have affected their relationships with colleagues. Only 6% reported that their colleagues had criticised their involvement, while 45% stated that this did not pose a problem. The others were unable to judge their colleagues’ attitudes when asked whether their colleagues were critical of their involvement in managing redundancies.

Lack of adequate competencies

Although union representatives have been involved in the management of company layoffs or have signed local agreements on wage freezes or cutbacks, many feel that they lack the competencies to handle such situations. This sentiment is shared by one in four union representatives who have had to negotiate wage freezes or cutbacks, or been involved in mass redundancies. Likewise, in situations when their colleagues have approached them after having received a notice of dismissal, one in three union representatives felt that they were unable to provide the necessary help, lacking adequate tools to handle such situations.

On the other hand, 39% believe that they possess the requisite skills. It is particularly the younger and often newly elected union representatives who feel that they lack the competence to deal with wage freezes, cutbacks or redundancies, while their older and often more experienced colleagues are more likely to report that they have the requisite skills.

Commentary

The findings presented in this article are part of a larger study by the three FAOS researchers which involved five large quantitative surveys involving 7,877 trade union representatives and 3,117 health and safety representatives from LO, 1,618 randomly selected local managers, 1,475 randomly selected employees including union and non-union members, 225 local unions and interviews with 15 affiliates of LO. The study was funded and commissioned by LO.

The study findings are presented in six research reports, each dealing with different aspects of the trade union representatives’ daily working conditions and tasks (see also DK1010029I, DK1010039I). The first report concerns the union representatives’ working relations with management and work colleagues at company level, the second examines the relations between unions and the trade union representatives, the third analyses the competencies of union representatives, and the fourth examines the working conditions of Danish health and safety representatives. The fifth report presents an overview of data and methodology, and the last report summarises the main findings of the previous five reports. The research reports are available in Danish from the FAOS website.

Trine P. Larsen and Steen E. Navrbjerg, FAOS, University of Copenhagen

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