Danish unions out of step with European trade union movement?

It appears that Danish trade union confederations are following a path which differs partly from that which was determined at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) congress in July 1999. The differences relate both to procedural and substantive issues. While many of the prominent union confederations in ETUC, notably from the UK and Germany, prefer to promote the interests of the employees by means of EU legislation, Danish unions prefer an agreement-based model. Furthermore, although a large majority in the ETUC is in favour of a 32-hour working week as a major employment-promoting demand, this is regarded as an obsolete demand in Denmark, which is currently experiencing almost a shortage of labour.

The ninth European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Congress held in Helsinki from 29 June to 2 July 1999 (EU9907182F) arguably indicated the European trade union movement's wish for far-reaching harmonisation in the area of social and employment policy. In the eyes of Danish public debate, the Congress presented an emerging picture of a trade union movement which wants to head a process towards, if not the "United Nations of Europe", then at least a strengthening of the federal features of the European Union. Even though the Danish public's attitude towards the EU has grown more positive (DK9906127F), there is general scepticism about an extensive process of integration. This became evident at the European Parliament elections in June 1999, at which the Danish parties and movements which are directly opposed to, or strongly sceptical towards, the EU maintained their support.

It has been noted in Denmark that at the ETUC Congress the Danish delegation - headed by the largest confederation, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) - was outvoted in decisive areas. The Danish delegates proposed a total of 20 amendments to the proposed resolutions, and all of these amendments were rejected either by being withdrawn or by being outvoted by a large majority. Alongside LO, the two other ETUC-affiliated Danish confederations - 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) - supported the "Danish attitude", which was defined by opposition to closer European union, industrial relations legislation and shorter working hours.

Accordingly, the Danish trade union movement seems in the essential areas to be somewhat out of step with the attitude of the large majority of the European trade union movement. Only the Swedish trade unions share the principal aspects of the Danish point of view.

The Danish model

The regulation of pay and employment conditions in Denmark is characterised by a model based on the principle of voluntary agreements between the labour market organisations (trade unions and employers' associations/employers) (DK9708122F). This voluntary "agreement model" is combined with a decisive influence by social partner organisations on legislation relating to employment. The agreement model is cherished by representatives of both employees and employers. One of the hesitations in connection to Denmark's original accession to the Common Market in 1972 was the fact that it would become influenced by the more legislation-oriented models of continental Europe.

The possibility introduced by the Maastricht social policy Agreement (and now enshrined in the Amsterdam Treaty's "social chapter") of concluding agreements at European level has increased Danish interest in the development of the EU's social dimension. Furthermore, the possibility of implementing Directives at national level by means of collective agreements, as an alternative to national legislation, has also contributed to a change of attitude.

However, the way the EU-level system has functioned so far has clearly been with political regulation as the basis. This means that individual rights are emphasised, instead of the collective rights which are characteristic of the Danish agreement system. Thus, the Danish agreement model is already under pressure. It appears that it will be difficult to implement EU Directives solely via the agreement system, and that additional legislation is required. The problem is that although Danish union density is more than 80% among employees, the coverage of collective agreements is not so extensive, due to a relatively large number of non-unionised employers in the private sector. Consequently, according to the parties' own calculations, almost 25% of the private sector labour market is not directly covered by an agreement.

Working time case coming up?

It is the abovementioned gap in Danish collective bargaining coverage which has led the European Commission, in relation to Denmark's implementation of the the EU Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time (93/104/EC) through collective agreements (DK9710133F), to cast doubt on the country's ability to respect the rule that all employees must be guaranteed a working week of no more than 48 hours.

It will cut little ice that it will be asserted in Denmark - presumably with a certain justice - that protection through the collective agreement system is actually more effective than in most countries where implementation has taken place through legislation. Formally considered, in Denmark there is a large group of employees who have not received guarantees of their individual rights in the area of working hours. Thus, it is possible that the Commission will take proceedings against Denmark for violation of its obligations under the EU Treaty.

In summer 1999, the Danish government tried to avoid such proceedings by once again documenting Denmark's goodwill to the Commission, in the form of a promise that Denmark side will try to abide by the working time Directive. However, the question is whether such a declaration of intent will satisfy the Commission. The outcome may be a demand for supplementary legislation as a condition for dropping the possible proceedings.

New pressure for legislation in ETUC

In the light of the above developments, both the Danish government and social partners feel under a great deal of pressure in the sphere of EU social policy, and the recent ETUC Congress seemed to indicate that this pressure will increase in future. The May 1997 change in the British government, with Labour coming to power (UK9704125F), and the UK's subsequent endorsement of the EU social dimension have brought another participant to the battlefield who will work for increased social regulation through EU-level legislation - the British Trades Union Congress (TUC). During the many years of conservative government from 1979 to 1997, the British trade union movement was greatly weakened, and it arguably developed in those years a strategy of retrieving its domestic losses through an external strengthening in the form of European social legislation. This is the strategy which the TUC now has the possibility to try to implement.

Seen from the Danish social partners' point of view, a commitment to strengthen ETUC's work for a more federal Europe in areas including social and employment policy appears to be developing between the German and the British trade union movements. It is in this context that both employers and unions in Denmark fear that it is the legislation-orientated model which will become dominant, even though the possibilities of concluding agreements at European level has set the stage for the conceivable development of a European agreement model.

However, the question of legislation versus agreement is not fully settled yet. As a result, LO reportedly managed on this issue to obtain its only victory at the ETUC Congress by persuading delegates to accept a formulation which emphasises that the agreement route should be attempted before resort to legislation. Thus the resolution Towards a European system of industrial relations states that "for the ETUC, the legislative approach and the negotiating approach are complementary and both are needed in order to develop the social acquis. In fact the two are closely linked, and particularly in the light of the new Treaty, analysis is needed case by case regarding which of the two approaches should be followed. However it, should be underlined, that the ETUC will in the fields of industrial relations whenever appropriate give priority to European framework agreements."

Disagreement about working time cuts

On the substantive issue of working time, Danish trade unions ran counter to the great majority of ETUC affiliates on the issue of a reduction of weekly working hours to 32 hours as a means of promoting employment. Danish unions are not fundamentally opposed to improvements in this area, but simply perceive that the implementation of the 32-hour week will not have any real effect in terms of combating unemployment. They believe that experience in Denmark, where unemployment has been reduced during the second half of the 1990s, shows that economic policy and labour market policy are essential tools in fighting unemployment, but that reduction of working time has only little effect in this area. If the demand for a 32-hour week was motivated by concern for unemployment, neither the Danish nor Swedish unions would vote in favour of the proposal. The general trade union policy resolution adopted at the Congress states (under the heading "top priority for employment") that "the priority demand for many workers is the establishment of the 35-hour working week through negotiations at the appropriate level, though trade unions will continue to pursue more ambitious working time policy goals (eg 32-hour/four-day week), taking account of specific regional and sectoral conditions."


Behind the Danish trade union movement's solitary approach at the ETUC Congress is the principal question of the maintenance of the Danish model, and the influence of the EU's social dimension on this agreement-based model. As events develop, there are signs that it is rather the legislative approach which will become dominant. Consequently, Denmark may relatively soon be forced to implement EU Directives through legislation, or at least to adopt supplementary legislation on top of implementation through collective agreements. The Danish social partners fear that this will cause an erosion of the Danish agreement model's strengths, which are high membership levels among trade unions and employers' organisations, the effective execution of agreements, and the observation of their provisions. When rights begin, to a serious extent, to be laid down by legislation, what is the point of being a member of a collective organisation, if the advantages are obtained anyway?

Furthermore, Danish trade unions' attitudes also seem to be shaped by results primarily obtained in Denmark where, contrary to most other EU countries, something close to full employment has been achieved. This creates a different approach to policy matters and maybe a greater receptiveness to innovations as well. Trade union movements in some of the countries with a higher unemployment rate still seem to be characterised by a traditional way of thinking. This may be behind the demand for reduced working hours and the criticism from the German and British trade unions of the reform-seeking Social Democrat/Labour governments in these countries. (Jørgen Steen Madsen, FAOS)

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