Extraordinary congress seeks to create 'New LO'

At an extraordinary congress held in February 2003, the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (LO) adopted a new set of basic values and a new decision-making structure, aimed at creating a 'New LO'. This includes an end to financial support for the Social Democratic Party, thus removing barriers to merger with other union confederations. However, LO did not completely succeed in finding a solution to the problem of demarcation disputes among its member unions. Furthermore, it has been questioned whether the foundation for the 'New LO' is sufficiently strong to prevent tensions among unions or between the confederation's leadership and member unions.

The slogan and main theme of an extraordinary congress of the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) held on 8 February 2003 was a 'New LO' (Nyt LO). This seemed to set the scene for important innovations and changes as regards the confederation’s external image and internal structure. In the event, the congress was seem by observers as neither a total success, nor a total failure. The most drastic changes - ie the abolition of financial support to the Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet) (DK0210101F) and a solution to the problem of demarcation disputes between member unions (DK0212104F) - were adopted, but not with the enthusiasm which the LO top leadership had wished. The result was seen as a number of good compromises, but with some loose ends.

New values and more flexible decision-making structure

The congress was to discuss four main issues:

  • a new set of basic values;
  • a new foundation for trade union policy;
  • a new decision-making structure; and
  • principles for dealing with demarcation disputes between LO member unions.

The first two issues should be seen in the context of LO’s formal rupture with the Social Democratic Party. For more than a century, there was no need for LO to formulate a set of basic values, for these implicitly followed from its cooperation with the party. The new set of basic values adopted at the congress takes the form of general principles and has a broad scope, but is not very voluminous. The basic values of the trade union movement are thus described in only three pages. This means that the values do not deal with politically important issues such as terms of employment, health and safety and benefit rules. The document instead lists fundamental values under the heading Unity – the way to new possibilities. The first principle of the set of values is that: 'Individuals can take care of themselves – but together we can do more. The trade union movement should be a community for employees which will contribute to ensuring that individuals will have the possibility and freedom to act on their own. This shall be ensured through collective action which will ensure the rights of the individual in working life.'

The congress also adopted a more flexible decision-making process, which should enhance the possibilities of LO's member organisations to manoeuvre politically as interest organisations. The executive committee has been abolished and replaced by a day-to-day management body which will hold weekly meetings. The management body is composed of the president and vice-president of LO, two LO secretaries and eight union leaders elected by the congress from among the 20 member unions. In the first election, all the leaders of the largest unions were elected to the new body.

The new values, structure and political foundation may be seen as a signal to the effect that LO will, in the longer-term perspective, work for a merger with the other main union 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). With the cutting of LO's formal ties to the Social Democrats, the barriers to a merger have been removed.

Demarcation disputes not resolved

One of the main problems for the 'LO family' has been the resolution of long-running demarcation disputes over which union should organise which members in cases of doubt. This has, in particular, been relevant in connection with the outsourcing of tasks in the public sector (DK9709129F). Members who used to be public employees have now become private sector employees and are thus covered by a different collective agreement, which may not be quite as favourable as the former agreement. The question is whether the private sector employees can still be members of a trade union which organises public employees, or whether they have to join the union which organises private employees with the same job functions, such as bus drivers (DK9909146N). Another question is which collective agreement should apply. Some of these disputes have been running for 25 years, which is mainly due to LO's ponderous dispute settlement procedures.

In connection with the preparations for the February congress, LO proposed that such disputes should, ultimately, be solved by the union members themselves, if no agreement could be reached by the organisations. The members should decide in a ballot which union they wish to join. During the period leading up to the congress, disagreements on this issue seemed to grow sharper and one of the largest affiliates, the Danish Trade Union of Public Employees (Forbundet af Offentligt Ansatte, FOA) threatened to leave LO if it were not given the possibility to retain its members. The General Workers’ Union (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD), a majority of whose members are in the private sector, could not accept membership ballots to decide on which union to join.

Two days before the congress, a compromise was reached and subsequently adopted. The idea of members making a free decision through a ballot has been shelved and instead it is left to the unions involved to find a solution through constructive negotiations based on the position that the unions should fight for the members, and not about the members. Forward-looking demarcation agreements which will, in advance, determine the organisation of a specific sector, are one of the methods to be used. The executive board of LO will be involved in disputes only if the organisations involved fail to reach agreement. However, before this takes place, other possibilities should be considered. In practice, the new system offers the following procedure:

  • a union which becomes aware of a possible demarcation dispute has a duty to make a request for negotiations with the other union involved, which then has a duty to attend a meeting for the purpose of negotiations within one month; and
  • if the negotiations fail to find a solution, the parties have a duty to seek mediation within a period of three months after the breakdown of the talks. LO will find a competent mediator, if the unions involved are unable to do so. This may a legally qualified person, but could also be a researcher or any other person with a thorough knowledge of industrial relations. If the parties fail to reach agreement about the mediator, the mediator will be appointed by the day-to-day management body of LO.

With this new system, the intervention of LO should not be necessary. However, if the dispute ends up in a deadlock, the LO demarcation committee, which is headed by a judge, will take a binding decision on the basis of a number of specified criteria. If a union fails to comply with the decision, the demarcation committee may, as a last resort, impose a financial sanction upon the union. The system agreed at the congress does not mention the possibility of expelling unions from LO – this was, in theory, a possible solution under the old system, but was never used.

Commentary

The decisions adopted at the February 2003 extraordinary congress followed a long negotiating process between LO's management, headed by the president, Hans Jensen, and the major member unions during the period from the presentation of the management's proposals until the last compromises were reached in the executive committee and executive board two days before the congress. During the process, there was a certain 'watering down' of both the new independent set of basic values and the new rules for the resolution of demarcation disputes between member unions – and the latter especially may turn out to be a problem.

The evaluation after the congress is therefore that it is relevant to describe it as historic landmark that LO – with its decision to stop financial support to the Social Democrats and its adoption of a new set of basic values – has created the foundation for independent political action and thus the establishment of a proper unified trade union movement through a merger between LO and FTF, and maybe also AC. However, the general foundation for a 'New LO' has been watered down to such an extent that it seems uncertain whether the decisions of the congress will turn out to have historic consequences. The outcome may be a continued deadlock characterised by internal disputes – not least about battles over members – among the member unions and between the unions and LO. In any event, it is in real life that LO's renewal will be put to the test. (Carsten Jørgensen, Jørgen Steen Madsen, FAOS)

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