Labour market trends force Swedish trade unions to review their organisation

New developments in the labour market are forcing Sweden's trade unions to review their organisation. In June 1997, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) decided to work for a merger with the other confederation for salaried employees. At the same time it decided to expel one of its own member unions . This article describes Swedish trade union structure and the forces that are bringing about change.

A traditional characteristic of Sweden's trade union movement has been that, with rare exceptions, the unions do not compete with each other for members. It is true that there is a revolutionary syndicalist union that organises all categories of workers, but it is no real competitor to the others. So if a worker wants to join a union, it has often been more or less self-evident which organisation he or she should belong to. For example a blue-collar worker in the paper industry would apply for membership of thePaper Workers' Union, a non-graduate white-collar worker in the same enterprise would join the Union for Clerical and Technical Employees in Industry (SIF) while the company's graduate engineers would belong to the Association of Graduate Engineers (CF). The employer is thus bound by different collective agreements for different categories of employees.

The three confederations

The absence of competition is partly explained by the fact that membership of the established unions is based exclusively on the employees' profession or in which sector they work, and not at all on their political or religious affiliation.

The largest and oldest confederation is that for blue-collar unions, the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen, LO) with a little less than 2.2 million members, which covers the entire labour market. The LO unions are vertically organised - that is, each union organises all blue-collar workers in its sector, irrespective of their occupation. Thus both electricians and cleaners as well as metalworkers in the metal industry belong to the Metal Workers' Union, while electricians and cleaners in the paper industry are members of the Paper Workers' Union together with those workers who handle the actual paper production. Although political affiliation is not the basis of organisation, the LO unions have strong links with the Social Democrat Party, but that does not seem to deter persons of other convictions from joining the unions. This is evidenced by the high rate of unionisation among blue-collar workers, around 85%.

The second largest confederation is the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO), representing 1.3 million white-collar workers. Some of the TCO unions are vertically organised, which means that salaried employees at all levels in the sector in question can be members. Examples are SIF and the Union of Local Government Officers (SKTF). Others, like the Teachers' Union, base their membership on professions or occupations.

Finally, a little more than 400,000 graduate white-collar workers belong to the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO). All its unions are horizontally organised, ie only persons with a certain university degree can join a certain organisation.

Both TCO and SACO are politically independent, but they act in social policy matters that are vital for their members.

Changing patterns

There is room for competition, especially between the horizontally-organised SACO unions like the CF on the one hand, and vertically-organised TCO unions like the SIF or SKTF on the other. However, all three confederations have striven to prevent conflict, realising that such conflicts could rebound on themselves. If unions compete to organise the same categories of workers they will also expect different collective agreements for the same kind of work, ultimately by means of industrial action. The employers think it unfair that they may be hit by strikes when they are already bound by an agreement, and have called for restrictions on the right to strike. In order to avoid this problem, the confederations have made agreements on how to recruit members and how to settle demarcation disputes relating to the organisations' boundaries. LO and TCO also have strict internal rules which delineate the boundaries between their member unions.

However changes in the labour market are now forcing the trade union movement to review their old principles of organisation. One of these changes is that more and more jobs require a higher level of education. Today most new members of the TCO-affiliated unions are graduates from colleges or universities, which means that they increasingly resemble SACO members. Thus, at the beginning of June 1997 the TCO congress commissioned the organisation's committee to work out proposals for new forms of organising salaried employees, with the aim of forming one single confederation embracing TCO and SACO. The alternative, as TCO sees it, may result in conflict between them in the future.

Another trend is the restructuring and privatisation of public activities. In many cases this means that, according to the confederations' own internal rules, another union could organise the employees in question, despite the fact that the employees themselves would prefer to stay in their old union. This has caused conflict for example within LO - conflicts that LO's committee has resolved on a case-by-case basis.

So far the LO unions have complied with these decisions. This is not the case with theLEDARNA union within TCO. Having been the union for supervisors in the private sector, it changed to its current name (the literal translation of which is THE LEADERS) and declared its intention to organise managers at all levels across the labour market in competition with four other TCO unions. It refused to respect the internal rules and also declined the other unions' invitations to work out agreements on new rules. LEDARNA argued that individuals should be free to join any union they choose. The TCO committee responded that trade union organisation is based on respect for the individuals' choice, but that the union's strength is dependent on unity and solidarity between workers. Promoting the interest of the individual should not, according to TCO, supercede the need to avoid unions competing for the same members. Joining a union is not comparable with the choice of a ready-made product or service on a market.

The committee did its utmost to find a compromise that all the unions concerned could accept, but did not succeed. Consequently the congress voted to expel LEDARNA by 73 votes to 64. Those who voted against feared that the expulsion would make it even more difficult to renew and develop union structure.


A merger between TCO and SACO is a long-term project, if it is ever realised at all. It takes "two to tango", and the question is whether SACO will accept TCO's invitation. At the SACO congress, its chair, Anders Milton, stressed that the two confederations must continue their cooperation in social policy matters, but he also pointed out that differences in opinions between them still existed.

The effects of the expulsion of LEDARNA are hard to estimate. The union has left TCO twice before, though voluntarily, due to its dissatisfaction with TCO policy. On both occasions it subsequently re-affiliated to the confederation after some years. In any case the conflict between the two organisations has made TCO aware of the necessity of finding new forms of organisation. (Kerstin Ahlberg, NIWL)

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

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment