LO presents concept for a broader union organisation

In September 2002, the executive committee of the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (LO) presented a plan for a radical reform of the organisation. The withdrawal of financial support from the Social Democratic Party is an important element of LO's attempt to create a unified trade union movement (including unions currently outside LO) with broader political influence.

On 20 September 2002, the executive committee of the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) proposed a historic reform of the organisation. Just one week earlier, LO had announced that the confederation would end its financial support to the Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet). This will mean the end of political 'marriage' which has lasted for more than a century between the party and the trade union movement. The first step towards separation was taken in 1995 when the two organisations decided no longer to be represented in one another's executive committees, thus bringing an end to their formal ties.

The LO executive committee's new plan should form the foundation for a quite new central trade union organisation in Denmark. The withdrawal of financial support to the Social Democratic Party is only one element, but a very important one, in the efforts to strengthen solidarity among the member organisations of the 'LO family' and, not least, to increase the political influence of LO. This should also change the public image of an old-fashioned and onerous state of dependency between the Social Democratic Party and the trade union movement. LO has been working on this reform for about a year. A survey of the views of member organisations showed widespread dissatisfaction and, in some cases, even a direct mistrust of the current LO system. The reform is intended to change this perception.

New concept for a broader central organisation

With their planned new trade union policy and independent ideological platform (see below), LO and its member organisations aim to take a major step in the direction of a renewal of the trade union movement. The changes should also remove the historical foundation for the existence of the present three trade union confederations in Denmark - LO, the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants(Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF) and the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations(Akademikernes Centralorganisastion, AC) - which is largely based on the latter two organisations' political neutrality. The paper entitled 'A new concept for a broader central organisation' discussed at the meeting of the LO executive committee on 20 September clearly indicates that one of the main purposes of cutting the last ties between the Social Democratic Party and LO is to pave the way for a merger of the major Danish union confederations. On this basis, the executive committee of LO – which comprises representatives of its 20 member unions – has drawn up four proposals for reforms which are to be presented at an extraordinary LO congress on 8 February 2003. The proposals are set out below.

New ideological platform and new 'objects' clause

As a part of the labour movement, the ideological platform of the Social Democratic Party enshrined in its programme has, since the end of the 19th century, been identical with that of the trade union movement. According to LO’s reform proposal, this shared ideological platform 'is no longer appropriate'. This is not because the trade union movement wishes to abandon the basic values of the labour movement related to solidarity and social justice, but because the union movement needs to have its own ideological platform. This new ideological platform will have to address a number of major changes in the labour market, notably the trend in the direction of individualisation and increasing polarisation between strong 'core' groups and more exposed groups in society. LO wishes to formulate values which can unite all employees. A new 'objects' clause for LO will be drafted on the basis of the ideological platform.

New trade union policy platform

There has been an increasing need for the trade union movement to be able to take broader political action, it is stated. The paper submitted to the executive committee of LO stresses that the union movement has produced many results in close cooperation with the Social Democratic Party, but that the time has now come to widen the trade union movement's cooperative relations. According to the paper, financial support for the Social Democratic Party has contributed 'to setting up barriers in relation to the room for manoeuvre of the trade union movement'. The present union policy platform of LO is split into two elements: its relationship with the employers and the Basic Agreement (DK9908140F) with them; and its relationship to the political level and the Social Democratic Party. The union movement, it is argued, needs to enter into a broader political cooperation than it can do today. In order to be able to do so, LO will stop its financial support to the Social Democratic Party. This will require amendments to the constitution of LO. It will also remove the raison d’être of the separation between the present three main union confederations – LO, FTF and AC - and enable LO to pursue its objective of merging the central union organisations in Denmark.

New decision-making structure

A new decision-making structure is an important element of the reform. Such a new structure has to be adopted and implemented in order to create a higher degree of transparency and commitment in relation to the decisions made by LO. The recent study of member organisations showed that there is often a lack of cohesion between the decisions made at LO level and at the level of the individual member unions. According to the proposed reform, the executive committee – which is the supreme decision-making authority during the period between LO conferences – would, in the future, meet once a month. The executive board would be abolished and replaced by a new management board composed of representatives of LO, the major trade union cartels and other unions.

Settlement of demarcation disputes.

Demarcation disputes about which union is to organise specific groups of employees are often the cause of conflict between LO member organisations (DK9909146N). The LO paper proposes that principles should be adopted on the handling of such disputes in future. The main principle should be that the unions involved should find a solution between them. If no solution can be found between the unions, the central organisation should take a decision on the basis of a set of recognised principles.

Commentary

In some quarters, the LO proposal will seem to be a fatal blow to the labour movement, which would be replaced by narrower interest organisations. However, most people will probably welcome the split between the party and the trade union movement – even if they are essentially Social Democrats. Reality shows that all members of the trade unions – which experienced a marked increase in membership after the Second World War – no longer vote for the Social Democratic Party. Some have expressed annoyance with the fact that a part of their (substantial) union dues go to a party they do not vote for. LO therefore in the past made contributions to the party optional, resulting in a drastic fall in contributions. However, it was still difficult to get a clear picture of the financial support for the party.

This financial support has now been completely abolished - something that should probably have been done in 1995 when the first steps were taken in the direction of a 'divorce'. During the same period, there has been a significant increase in the financial support from companies and employers for the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the Conservative People's Party (Det Konservative Folkeparti). This is somewhat ironic, as the system of financial support for political parties has always been considered to be an anachronism related to the labour movement. With the removal of financial support from the Social Democratic Party, LO will reap an instant political benefit as the organisation can now convincingly argue that all financial support to political parties should be abolished.

Politically, LO is thus in a stronger position in relation to the Liberal-Conservative People's Party government that came to office in November 2001 (DK0112147F). LO can now act without any suspicion on the part of the government of being instructed by the Social Democratic Party. There is also a tradition of good cooperation with non-social democrat governments. It was under a conservative government in the 1980s that LO and other central organisations committed themselves to a wage moderation policy in the 'joint declaration of 1987'. Furthermore, the cooperation with the Social Democrat-led government from 1993-2001 was not without problems. When the government introduced a labour market reform in 1994, the social partners had not even been consulted. It was only in the field of health ad safety at work that LO benefited notably from the alliance with the Social Democratic Party over this period, but the new measures in this field were immediately abolished by the new government (DK0202103F).

Its ties to the Social Democratic Party have also meant a loss of members for LO. The relationship was the major cause of the establishment of the partly-competing central union organisations – FTF and AC – which are both explicitly based on party political neutrality. Maybe there is a too great a gap between the interests of the highly educated professionals represented by AC and the traditional LO workers to make a merger a natural option. However, FTF – which organises professional groups with an intermediate level of education – would hardly have been set up if LO had to a greater extent be seen as an organisation independent from the Social Democratic Party. As developments in the labour force have increased the size of the groups represented by AC and FTF, there has been a relative decline in LO’s share of organised employees. Over the past couple of years, there has even been a decline in LO membership in absolute terms. This is the reason why LO wishes to see a merger with at least FTF, and here the financial link to the Social Democratic Party has so far been the biggest obstacle. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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