Survey finds employer doubts over future of trade unions

Many Danish employers believe that trade unions think too much about employees' interests and too little about competitiveness, according to the findings of a survey of top managers in 264 enterprises, published in January 2005. Employers seem very sceptical about trade unions’ capacity to change themselves from 'old-fashioned militant' organisations to 'modern knowledge-based' ones. However, the vast majority of respondents are in favour of the Danish model of collective bargaining.

In spite of overwhelming support for the 'Danish model' of industrial relations and general recognition of its historical role, many employers have fundamental doubts when it comes to the importance and role of the trade unions today and in the future. A substantial proportion see trade unions as reactionary, narrow-minded and out of step with their members. Furthermore, a little over half of employers believe that it would be a good thing for Danish society if the unions lost some of their influence. These are among the key findings of a major study on 'how business managers see the trade unions' conducted towards the end of 2004 by Rambøll Management for the newsletter A4, which is published by the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO). The results of the study were published in January 2005 (Erhvervslivets syn på fagbevægelsen, in A4, 17 January 2005).

The study is based on a survey of top managers in 264 large and medium-sized enterprises and in-depth interviews with managers in 10 of the largest enterprises in Denmark. Some 80% of the enterprises involved were members of an employers' organisation. The enterprises represent a broad sample of Danish business - from knowledge-based enterprises to production companies. Some are major exporters while others operate only on the domestic market.

Main findings

The study found a number of general areas - such as the importance of the trade unions for the development of the welfare state and the Danish collective bargaining model - that meet with sympathy from employers. However, there are more specific issues concerning the present and future activities of the trade unions where employers' views are less positive.

With regard to trade unions’ historic role and the Danish model, the survey finds that:

  • 88% of employers prefer (and 39% prefer 'very much') the Danish model of trade unions and employers concluding their own agreements on pay and employment conditions, rather than a system of politicians regulating the labour market through legislation;
  • 78% agree that trade unions have in general played a positive role in the development of the Danish welfare state;
  • 56% believe that, overall, trade unions are contributing positively to the development of the welfare state; and
  • 45% fear (while 46% do not) that the Danish bargaining model will in the long term undermine the welfare state because it forces production costs to increase.

In terms of the current image of trade unions:

  • 71% of employers and/or managers think that trade unions today are focusing too narrowly on employees’ interests instead of thinking of the future of the welfare state;
  • 53% believe (and 6% do so 'very much') that it would have a positive impact on society if trade unions lost some of their influence; and
  • 78% state that they do not think that trade unions will have a strong position in future.

As for what employers believe should be the future core issues for trade union activity, the most popular are competence development/education (identified by 82%), the working environment (79%) and integration (75%). They are less enthusiastic about themes such as working time, although 43% of employers see this as a core issue for unions.

Views

The attitude of some managers, expressed in A4 by Lars Aagaard, a manager at Grundfos (engineering), is that the trade unions should 'wake up' and realise that business and unions are in the same boat, and should consequently contribute to ensuring and supporting jobs and economic growth. There is a more or less general view among managers of trade unions as old fashioned. They see unions as having some difficulties in abandoning the old 'class struggle rhetoric', and as still making 'antiquated' demands concerning pay and working hours. Especially as regards working hours, many managers interviewed that that this is a question over which the unions should have no influence. In terms of the parameters concerning the flexibility and development of trade unions, managers' replies are more or less the same: that the unions should give up their traditional role of being 'watchdogs' and instead assume a more creative and visionary role.

'The fall in membership reflects the fact that there are no more battles to fight or that the trade unions are fighting for the wrong issues. Labour market structures are changing and in the future employees with special knowledge and expertise will constitute the majority and the employers will realise the importance of retaining employees by offering attractive working conditions and creating good framework conditions. So where is the battlefield for the trade unions and the big sector agreements?' asked Henriette Fenger Ellekrog, a staff manager at TDC (telecommunications).

If the perspectives are bleak in terms of trust in future cooperation, this is a surprise to Thorkil Jensen, president of the Central Organisation for Industrial Employees (CO-industri) trade union cartel. 'It is rather alarming that a big majority of business managers, on the one hand, praise the Danish model, but, on the other hand, clearly announce that they wish their counterpart to become weaker in the time ahead. It is a paradox that the party you will be negotiating with does not wish to have an equal and strong fellow player. This expresses a lack of understanding of and respect for the Danish model,' he said in connection with the publication of the study.

Commentary

It is not news that managers see trade unions as reactionary and inflexible. They have always done so. The interesting point is that it is only business managers and not their organisations that participated in the new study. The Confederation of Danish Employers (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) is currently struggling with internal problems (DK0501103N) and its largest affiliate, the Confederation of Danish Industries (Dansk Industri, DI), is arguably more or less functioning as a government think-tank. Furthermore, there is no tradition of asking members of employers' organisations for their views in this way - unlike members of trade unions. The study gives an insight into the opinions that managers in individual enterprises actually hold about trade unions and as to whether they actually see a role for the unions in the future. The fact that they believe that unions should drop their wage demands and stop their attempts to exert influence on working time is not a novelty, but rather traditional thinking.

It may come as surprise that there is so little confidence among managers in the trade unions as important institutions in the future and it would have been interesting if supervisors at the workplace had been asked been asked the same questions about the role of employers' organisations. It 'takes two to tango' and if one party loses some of its strength this may undermine the basis of the Danish collective bargaining model, which implies equal partners. On the other hand, the study shows overwhelming support (88%) in favour of the Danish collective bargaining model. Only 21% of managers are in favour or more national legislation, while 34% wish to have more influence through EU legislation. These conflicting views leave the impression that the study bears the stamp of at least some of the traditional attitudes to trade unions - for better or for worse. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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