Privatisation and contracting-out causes inter-union conflict

The restructuring of the public sector in Denmark has affected the terms and conditions of employment for many employees as they switch from being covered by one collective agreement to another. This has caused much conflict between trade unions over organisational boundaries. This feature examines two current 1997 cases, and how the LO is attempting to mediate between the trade unions in dispute.

The restructuring of the public sector in Denmark has increasingly led to internal difficulties in the trade union movement. As terms and conditions of employment alter as a consequence of privatisation and contracting-out, disputes have arisen between unions, particularly between those affiliated to theDanish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). In early 1997, a bitter conflict on the question of organising bus drivers in Copenhagen broke out between two LO affiliates - the Danish Trade Union of Public Employees (FOA) and theGeneral Workers' Union in Denmark (SiD). In the summer of 1997, there was a similar dispute between SiD and the National Union of Postal Workers in Denmark (Dansk Postforbund ) on the question of which union should organise postal workers in future.

The conflict is very serious, and it is souring relations within LO. As a result, LO has intervened in the disputes and has sought to resolve the differences between its affiliated unions by setting up a committee to consider the issues that have arisen, and to propose a solution to the conflict. The committee is expected to report by the end of 1997. From the LO standpoint, the conflict is tarnishing the image of the Danish trade union movement, and as the president of LO,Hans Jensen, put it: "the public and the members may begin to believe that the trade union movement is putting the interest of the union organisations before that of the affiliated membership as a whole."

Contracting-out causes conflict over bus drivers' union membership

The contracting-out of bus services in Copenhagen has led to a conflict over organisational boundaries between the Bus Drivers' Union (Trafikfunktionærernes Fagforening), which is affiliated to FOA, and SiD. The bus drivers, who work for the public Copenhagen Transport Company (Hovedstadsområdets Trafikselskab, HT) are organised by FOA, which has signed a collective agreement with HT. Nearly all the private bus companies which have been successful in their tender to operate the bus services, are parties to a collective agreement with SiD. In principle, this means that members of FOA will have to become members of SiD should a private bus company win a tender for the bus services previously operated by HT. Similarly, members of SiD will have to become members of FOA, should HT win back the tender for the bus services from a private bus company. In sum, the constant moving back and forth of membership of FOA and SiD has exposed the problems of an organisational structure which is not geared up to handle a situation where public services are being put out to tender, and where both public and private companies are taking part.

SiD maintains that the collective agreement which is concluded by the parties that put in a successful tender bid should be the operative agreement, regardless of who wins the tender. Consequently, "it is the task of the trade union movement to safeguard the interest of its members, in the transition from public to private companies."

FOA argues that the interests of its members will be threatened if the principle proposed by SiD is adopted. Instead, FOA proposes that members should be covered by the collective agreement which offers the best terms and conditions. FOA has approximately 200,000 members, primarily within the regional and municipal sector, and is the largest trade union in the public sector and the third-largest affiliate of the LO. If contracting-out entails a reduction of FOA membership, this will, according to FOA, equally entail a worsening of the trade union movement as a whole. FOA therefore wants to retain its members and have the right to conclude collective agreements in areas where bus services are being contracted out on a temporary basis to private bus companies. Consequently, FOA is on a collision course with SiD. SiD, with more than 320,000 members, is the second-largest trade union affiliated to LO, and is the largest trade union representing blue-collar workers in the private sector.

Semi-privatisation of postal service leads to conflict over workers' union membership

The transformation of the national postal service from a traditional state service to a public limited company - Post Denmark- has led to an even more bitter inter-union conflict between trade unions affiliated to the LO. When Post Denmark was established in 1995, it was agreed that no new employees with civil servant status would be employed from 1 March 1997. As a consequence, the dominant group of civil servants, organised in Dansk Postforbund, will gradually be replaced by public employees who, according to present organisational boundaries, will be organised by SiD. By mid-1997 there were approximately 12,000 civil servants in Dansk Postforbund, while approximately 4,000 of the postal workers who were public employees were organised by SiD.

Both Dansk Postforbund and SiD are members of the cartel, theAssociation of Danish State Employee Organisations (StK), which is affiliated to LO, and which negotiates collective agreements on behalf of its members. Neither StK nor LO have succeeded in resolving the problems between the two trade unions. The most obvious solution would be to merge the two trade unions. So just as the bus drivers organised by the FOA were ready to resolve their dispute by recommending that those organised by SiD should become members of the purely public sector trade union, FOA, so too was Dansk Postforbund prepared to become a unit within an amalgamated trade union, SiD. Although the negotiations on the merger were well underway, the plan fell apart due to internal disagreements within Dansk Postforbund.

The inability to settle the matter has sharpened the conflict considerably. Dansk Postforbund refuses to accept the organisational boundaries which have existed until now, since acceptance of any kind would simply eliminate its membership level rapidly.

Instead Dansk Postforbund is demanding its own collective agreement, which would apply to those new public employees who are replacing its own civil servant members. On the basis of existing labour law practice, it is very doubtful that Dansk Postforbund will succeed in securing an agreement in an area which is already covered by an existing collective agreement signed by SiD. Neither of the parties has called for a judicial inquiry into the matter. Both are awaiting the outcome of the work undertaken by the committee established by LO.

Discontent with new rules on working time have, in parallel to this dispute, resulted in around 40 short unofficial strikes at Post Denmark. The management of Post Denmark believes that these strikes are not really about the new rules on working time but are largely connected with the continuing inter-union dispute over membership, and consequently order can be restored only by officials from the trade unions in question.

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment