Danish Union of Graphical Workers dissolves

The Danish trade union movement lost yet another union when members of the Danish Union of Graphical Workers decided to dissolve the organisation in a ballot held in June 1999. This is the latest example of a union merger as a consequence of technological change. After the dissolution, the union's various member groups are being distributed between a number of organisations, with most of them going to the industrial division of the HK/Industri commercial and clerical workers' union and to the SiD general workers' union. Although it has been difficult to overhaul the structure of trade unions in Denmark, recent decades have seen an acceleration of change. During the past 25 years, the number of unions affiliated to the LO confederation has been halved, from 42 to 21.

The Danish trade union movement lost another union when a substantial majority of the members of the Danish Union of Graphical Workers (Grafisk Forbund) - an affiliate of the Danish Federation of Trade Unions, (Landorganisationen i Danmark, LO) - voted to dissolve the organisation in a ballot held on 9 June 1999. There was an unusually large turnout for a trade union ballot, with 82% of the union's 23,000 members voting, and of these 62% voted to dissolve the union, which had existed in its current form for only six years. General secretaryTom Durbing and the union leadership had recommended this course of action, and the general secretary was relieved at the clear decision.

The dissolution of the Union of Graphical Workers is the latest example of a union merger as a consequence of technological change. The union had lost the collective bargaining rights for workers using new technology - desk-top publishing - to the industrial division of the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark (HK/Industri). In practice, this meant that the Union of Graphical Workers was able to organise only those graphical workers and typographers that still used the old technology, and not many of them are left. Since 1992, some 4,000 members have gone over to HK/Industri, and this meant that the financial basis for maintaining the union in the long term was no longer adequate. After the June 1999 ballot, the union's members were distributed between three different unions: 16,177 typographers, lithographers, commercial artists and bookbinders have gone to the industrial division of HK/Industri; 4,789 cardboard product workers have gone to the General Workers' Union (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD); and the union's 700 organised photographers have moved to the National Union of Journalists (Dansk Journalistforbund). A minority of the the large group of commercial artists and graphical workers within the Union of Graphical Workers had wanted to join the National Union of Journalists rather than HK/Industri, as was eventually decided. The Union of Graphical Workers members will retain their existing agreements, rights and obligations in their new unions. The former union's assets of DKK 145 million will be distributed proportionately.

Powerful and influential history

Typographers occupy a special place in the history of Danish trade unions. The Union of Typographical Workers (Dansk Typografforbund) was one of the first organised unions in Denmark and dominated the trade unions from the 1860s. Typographers were called the "aristocrats" of the labour movement because they had achieved a higher level of "enlightenment" than the average. Through their typesetting work they had arrived at a different relationship to reading, writing and opinion forming, and many of the trade union movement's agitators were typographers. With regard to party politics, typographers generally stood to the left of most other members of LO throughout their union's lifetime. Many of the shop stewards were organised in the Danish Communist Party (Danmarks Kommunistiske Parti), which naturally gave rise to conflicts with the management of the large-circulation middle-class newspapers in Denmark, but also led to endless discussions with the trade union movement's other members on ends and means in the trade union struggle, and not least on party political affiliations. Together with another graphical workers' union, the lithographers, typographers have been of great significance for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (Det Socialdemokratiske Parti) and thereby Danish politics. A Social Democratic Prime Minister, Hans Hedtoft, was a lithographer, while his successor to the post, and also a Social Democrat, HC Hansen, was a typographer.

Typographers succeeded in obtaining an eight-hour day as early as 1910. Their fighting spirit was always considerable and they were responsible for some of the longest conflicts in Danish industrial relations. Copenhagen's typographers went on an 18-week long strike in 1947 and they are remembered for their 141-day strike during the 1970s on the major middle-class newspapers, Berlingske Tidende and BT.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Union of Typographical Worker was one of the flagships of the Danish trade union movement. It fought to obtain full pay during further training, introduced special supplementary support schemes for members in difficulties, and brought employers to their knees on several occasions. However, technological developments improved the hand of the latter. Typographers were initially reluctant to familiarise themselves with the new computer technology, which also appealed to other trade groups. The large-circulation newspapers had a goal-oriented commitment to the new technology on financial grounds. The fact that this meant a gradual weakening of the typographers' influence was a very welcome additional gain for the employers. The new technology soon replaced manual typesetting and the typographers' power as a "wage leader" among unions disappeared. In 1993, the Union of Typographical Workers merged with the Union of Graphical Workers, together with three other unions.

A tendency towards larger units

The dissolution of the Union of Graphical Workers can be seen as part of a tendency. Other examples of union mergers in recent years have been the transfers of the Bricklayers' Union and the Danish Clothing and Textile Workers' Union's to SiD. Although it has been difficult to change trade union structures in Denmark, recent decades have seen an acceleration in this area. From 1975 to 1999 the number of unions affiliated to LO has been halved, from 42 to 21 organisations (DK9801148F).

The general secretary of SiD, Poul Erik Skov Christensen, sees the decision of the Union of Graphical Workers' members to merge with larger unions as a sign that SiD's view of a new structure for the trade union movement - the so-called "Third Way" - is correct. A precondition for the "Third Way" is that small trade unions will merge with larger unions, and the general secretary predicts that there will be only between five and 10 large unions remaining in Denmark in 10-15 years. Among other factors in this development is the fact that the financial demands of providing services for members, relative to the dues that they pay, are so high today that only the big unions can manage them. Mr Christensen believes that in the future larger groups of unions which resemble each other in attitude, politically, or with regard to the training of their members, will combine in a new form of collaboration. However, for the time being the dissolution of the Union of Graphical Workers is the final step on the road away from the 20th century's organisation of trade unions in relatively small, but often powerful, units.


Since the establishment of SiD, its goal has been to change the structure of the Danish trade unions from being predominantly built on occupational lines determined on the basis of training, to follow an industrial line. However, even though there have been many general discussions over the years and attempts to make decisions at SiD congresses, the transformation into industrial unions has never come to anything. The tendency to maintain organisation in individual trade unions has been too great. An intermediate course in the latest decade has been to build up a smaller number of larger cartels, which correspond to the organisational changes carried out on the part of employers, and a tendency in the direction of large framework collective agreements which cover entire sectors. However, it has been only within the industry sector, with the establishment of the Confederation of Danish Industries, (Dansk Industri, DI) and the Central Organisation of Industrial Employees in Denmark (Centralorganisationen af Industriansatte i Danmark, CO-Industri), that anything decidedly new has occurred.

The dissolution of the Union of Graphical Workers illustrates the fact that in spite of opposition to change, the inertia of organisational structure can still be overcome because the processes of change, not least as far as technological developments are concerned, force organisational changes through. The general secretary of SiD, Poul Erik Skov Christensen, therefore probably draws a realistic picture of the future: that the number of unions in LO will be reduced from just over 20 to five to 10 large unions over a 10-year period - and conceivably closer to five unions than 10 (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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