Private sector settlement approved in ballot

During April 2004, the members of the trade unions affiliated to the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) voted on whether or not to accept an overall compromise settlement to conclude 2004's various sectoral collective bargaining rounds across the private sector. The members approved the deal by 57% to 43%. However, the turn-out was only 37%, and in some unions there were significantly more 'no' than 'yes' votes. Union leaders are thus concerned about a 'democratic deficit' that may have a negative impact on the legitimacy of collective agreements in the longer term.

On 21 March 2004, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and the Danish Employers’ Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) agreed to an overall compromise settlement to conclude 2004's various sectoral collective bargaining rounds across the major part of the private sector that they represent. The deal was drawn up by the Public Conciliation Service (Forligsinstitutionen), following two lengthy rounds of negotiations with the parties (DK0403103F). The settlement had to be put to a membership ballot.

Thus, in the course of April, the 650,000 members of the unions affiliated to LO had the opportunity to vote for or against the compromise deal. According to the results published by the Public Conciliation Service on 19 April., the turn-out was 37.2%. Of those voting, 57.6% were in favour of the deal and 42.4% against.

Parental leave costs and 'missed time' were key issues

The overall settlement is more or less along the same lines as the agreement concluded in February (DK0402104F) in the pace-setting industry sector - ie a three-year accord focusing mainly on improvements in areas such as occupational pensions, paid parental leave and sick pay, rather than on major pay increases.

One of the key issues in the bargaining round and the ballot deliberations was the establishment of a funding mechanism to finance additional parental leave and benefits, whereby the costs are equalised among the various sectors, regardless of the gender composition of their workforce. New provisions in this area were a major priority in the 2004 bargaining round for the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees in Denmark (Handels- og Kontorfunktionærernes Forbund, HK) and it was expected that the votes of this union's members would carry the proposal through in the ballot - HK is the second-largest LO union (with 137,609 members entitled to vote) and three-quarters of its members are women.

The second key issue was a provision in the overall compromise, inserted at the employers' insistence, concerning 'missed time'- ie extra hours worked when an enterprise has to catch up with production lost due to unofficial industrial action. The settlement provides that employees who work such overtime following an unlawful strike will no longer receive overtime pay. This proposal met with strong criticism from the members of several male-dominated unions - the General Workers' Union (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD) and the Danish Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Nærings- og Nydelsesmiddelforbundet, NNF) - which were also against the parental leave funding equalisation scheme. The outcome of the ballot was thus awaited with a certain interest, although most union leaders and industrial relations experts expected that it would produce a 'yes' vote.

Low overall turn-out

To the concern of trade union leaders, the turn-out in the ballot was low. Following a turn-out of 47% in the ballot over a similar overall settlement in 1998 (DK9804166N), the participation in 2004 fell back to 37.2%, similar to the levels witnessed in the mid-1990s. Hans Jensen, the president of LO, stated that it will be necessary to increase the turn-out if agreements are to maintain their legitimacy. He suggested that trade union representatives should visit workplaces at the time of ballots to explain to workers that collective agreements do not come automatically.

Opinions differ as to the causes of the low turn-out in April 2004. Some believe that members did not participate because they considered a 'yes' majority to be a formality, while others blame the fact that the Easter holidays fell during the ballotting period. Two researchers from the Employment Relations Research Centre (FAOS) at the University of Copenhagen have stated that a major reason for the lack of interest among union members, and for the traditionally low turn-out in connection with such ballots, is the often long and complex bargaining process. The bargaining process is extended over three to four months, and two months may pass from the first agreed compromise to the final ballot. This is such a long time that the interest that union members might initially have has time to wane.

High turn-out in some unions

In the ballot, the unions with the highest turn-out were also those with the highest rates of 'no' votes. Thus NNF had the highest turn-out, at 86% of its members (94.2% of whom voted 'no'), followed by the Plumbers’ Union (Blik og Rør) with a 57% turn-out (86% voted 'no'). In both cases, the unions' leaders recommended a 'no' vote. The highest turn-out among unions with a majority in favour of the agreement was at the National Union of Nursery and Child-care Assistants (Pædagogmedhjælperforbundet, PMF), where 52.4% of members voted (90.9% in favour). Although 84.4% of HK members voted in favour of the agreement, the turn-out was only 30.9%. SiD, the largest union (with 188,871 members entitled to vote), also had a low turn-out, at 35.2%, of whom 55.7% voted 'no'- much to the regret of the SiD leaders, who had recommended a 'yes', as they thought that the compromise proposal was favourable and featured many social improvements.

Commentary

A turn-out of 37.2% out of 650,000 members (ie 280,000 voting) is not high. If more HK members had voted, the total share of 'yes' votes would undoubtedly have been higher, but might have been offset by a larger share of SiD members among the votes cast. When the vote falls below 40%, the result of a ballot may become more or less haphazard. It seems that union members do not consider participation in a ballot on a proposed compromise settlement a 'democratic duty' in the same way as a political election. This means that the turn-out is generally low and this causes concern among union leaders. Are the unions losing their grip on the members? There may very well be good grounds for such concerns, but it is important to stress that ballots continue to be a strong instrument in the hands of the members. They are a form of democratic guarantee that allows members to reject a compromise which is too far from their expectations. This possibility has been used on several occasions in the past, and is a very effective instrument.

Critical voices among some union leaders and many members have claimed that the obligatory linking of the bargaining round's various sectoral agreements into a single final compromise proposal restricts participation in the vote and is not fair on critical members. One solution to this problem would be to have individual ballots on each proposed sectoral agreement. However, such a decentralised ballotting procedure is problematic, with a high risk of partial conflicts before a valid result could be reached.

Another criticism voiced by the members relates to the rules for such ballots. At present, if the participation rate is less than 40%, then 25% of all those entitled to vote must vote 'no' for the mediation proposal to be be rejected. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the rules mean that employees are actually voting on several agreements at the same time. This means that dissatisfied 'no' voters, for instance members of NNF in the current case, will be submerged by the many 'yes' votes from large unions such as HK. If the trend in the direction of low turn-outs is to be stemmed, one possibility could be to abolish the 25% rule. Members who are satisfied with the deal would then realise that rejection is a distinct possibility, because they can be sure that the dissatisfied members will turn out, and this would probably increase the participation rates among both satisfied and dissatisfied members. At the same time, it would put pressure on the unions to do more to improve dialogue with their members and increase the turn-out. The employers would not be happy with such a change, as a small minority of union members could thereby plunge the country into a large-scale industrial dispute. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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