Employees 'support free choice' in collective agreements

Research unveiled in autumn 2004 indicates that majority of Danish employees want to have a higher degree of freedom of choice within the framework set by collective agreements. This would involve individuals choosing how to use a specific proportion of the total agreed paybill, for example for higher wages, higher pension contributions or more time off. Such schemes already exist under a number of collective agreements.

Nearly three out four Danish employees believe that in future there should be more room in collective agreements for individual prioritisation between more time off, higher pension contributions or higher wages. This is a key finding of a recent study carried out by Professor Steen Scheuer of Roskilde University Centre (Roskilde Universitetscenter, RUC) in connection with a major research project entitled 'Working life and politics 2', conducted by researchers from the Universities of Aalborg and Roskilde. The study has not yet been published. Its key findings on free choice within collective agreements and a number of other issues are summarised below.

Organisation and participation

The respondents to the study (2,270 people surveyed by a questionnaire study and subsequent interview) were asked about their trade union affiliation and whether they participate in trade union activities in the form of meetings of various kinds at the workplace. The study confirms that union density remains high in Denmark, with 82% of the respondents stating that they were members of a trade union. Some 87% stated that they were members of a (trade union-run) unemployment insurance fund, and 42% indicated that they had participated in one or more workplace meetings. The unionisation and participation rates were slightly higher for women than for men. The figure for active participation in workplace activities is seen by the study as rather positive, especially in the light of what it refers to as the 'public mythology' of lack of involvement. However, compared with earlier studies (DK0201159N) participation in unions, insurance funds and meeting activities shows a slight fall. Furthermore, there is a slight downward trend among young people. Participation in meetings increases with age, but among those aged up to 40 years the percentage is under 36% and slightly falling. The study states that an alarming factor in this area could be that if young people remain unorganised for a long time, then they tend to continue not to be members of trade unions. It is thus important for the unions to establish contacts that are as wide-ranging as possible with younger age groups.

Significant majority for freedom of choice

The union members surveyed were asked how they see collective agreements in the future. The basic question was whether there should be common rules concerning wages, working time, overtime pay etc for all employees, or whether future collective agreements should to a greater extent be based on giving the individual more possibilities for freedom of choice - though guaranteed collectively, as this choice would form an integral part of collective agreements and thus be guaranteed by a trade union. The table below summarises the respondents' preferences when asked this question.

Employees' preferences for the future orientation of collective agreements
Age Common rules More freedom of choice
20 years or younger 30% 70%
21-25 years 22% 79%
26-30 years 18% 82%
31-40 years 22% 78%
41-50 years 29% 71%
51-60 years 34% 66%
61 years or more 29% 71%
Total 27% 73%

Source: Survey entitled Members and opinions 2, 'What are the members to do? Members, participation and wishes for trade unions in the 21st century', Steen Scheuer, 2004.

Three out of four employees (73%) said 'yes' to a higher degree of individual freedom of choice with the framework of the collective agreement, with support more or less equal among women and men. However, there are differences when it comes to different age groups. A strong wish for a higher degree of freedom of choice is mainly found in the age groups up to 40 years, while the tendency is less strong in the 40-60 age group. Overall, it can be said that that the issue of freedom of choice in collective agreements has strong support from the members, and that the wish is strongest among the younger groups.

There are some variations in the views of employees on this issue depending on the type of trade union they belong to. Support for freedom of choice is not just a phenomenon found among academically-qualified staff, although support is highest among members of affiliates of the Organisation of Managerial and Executive Staff in Denmark (Ledernes Hovedorganisation, LH) and the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC), at 92% and 81% respectively. Among members of unions affiliated to the (blue-collar) Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærerne og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF) the corresponding shares are 68% and 60% respectively .

Free choice has consequences

Among office staff in the central state sector, 72% believe that their trade union should put forward a demand for a higher degree of freedom of choice in connection with the forthcoming renewal of the collective agreements covering more than 800,000 public employees (DK0204103F). However, the leadership of HK/Stat, the state employees' branch of the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark (Handels- og Kontorfunktionærernes Forbund, HK), does not share this view. 'Freedom of choice has its consequences. By way of example, experience from Sweden shows that women choose more leisure time and men higher wages. So there are problems in relation to equal opportunities in connection with this matter. As a trade union we take the liberty of resuming the responsibility for thinking longer ahead than the individual person perhaps always does', says the president of HK/Stat, Peter Waldoff, who is also the leading negotiator in the bargaining cartel for central government employees, the Danish Central Federation of State Employees (Centralorganisationernes Fællesudvalg, CFU).

Commentary

Freedom of choice already exists in many collective agreements. In addition to the general facility for possible conversion into additional wages of five extra days' leave per year gained in the 2000 collective bargaining rounds (DK0002167F) (see below), it is possible under the current collective agreements concluded between the Danish Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Nærings- og Nydelsesmiddelforbundet, NNF) and Confederation of Danish Industries (Dansk Industri, DI), and those in the financial sector (DK0302102F), for employees either to have higher wages, or to trade them for more time off or higher occupational pension contributions. A recent study conducted among workers at meat factories found that the majority had chosen more time off (DK0305101N). Furthermore, individual choice is implicit in LO’s new platform of values formulated at its extraordinary congress in February 2003 (DK0302103F). Here it is stated that individuals should be given possibilities to assume responsibility for their own situation while sharing in collective responsibility.

The renewal of the collective agreements in 2004 in the main parts of the private sector (DK0403103F) did not introduce higher freedom of choice for individual employees. This could be interpreted as a showing that the strong wish among union members for free choice on how to use part of the total wage sum available has not really sunk in among trade union leaders and negotiators. Professor Scheuer, who conducted the study outlined above, finds this 'amazing'. It should be noted that is already possible within private sector agreements to choose between taking five extra days leave a year or converting the days off into higher wages or higher occupational pension contributions. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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