Unions must 'adjust or die' says leader

In October 2005, Dennis Kristensen, the president of Denmark's FOA public employees' trade union and a member of the leadership of the LO union confederation, criticised LO’s debate and decision culture. LO's break from the Social Democratic Party in 2003 is not visible in its practical work, he claims, and if the unions want continuing influence, then change and innovation are urgent. Mr Kristensen's opponents claim that he is planning for FOA to leave LO and join the white-collar FTF confederation.

The Danish trade union movement must adjust or die. These are the words of the controversial trade union leader, president of union of public employees Trade and Labour (Fag og Arbejde, FOA) Dennis Kristensen. In an open interview in the weekly magazine Ugebrevet Mandag Morgen 17 October 2005 Mr Kristensen expresses his fear that lacking innovation in the trade union movement headed by the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) will lead to the decline of the movement. Not a complete dissolution but a union density as in Southern Europe, he says, which will seriously diminish the influence on the structure of the Danish labour market.

It is not the first time Mr Kristensen is openly critical towards the leadership of LO. As president of the third largest union in Denmark representing 215,000 public employees he entered the daily leadership of LO three years ago. Since then he has at several occasions opposed the established authority of the confederation. As when he for instance made an agreement with the traditional enemies in the Christian Union (Kristelig Fagforening, KF) because his members and KF‘s members were working the same places (DK0402103F).

The problem, from his point of view, is that the image of LO, the largest confederation in Denmark, as trade union 'dinosaurs' will never change as long as the daily leadership follow in the same steps as always. Old men dominate the daily leadership (consisting of 12 members), he states. The discussion and decision culture is closed and it is still valued to be member of the Social Democrats even if LO formally broke the last bonds to the party in 2003 by cutting the economic support (DK0302103F). The aim was to stand forward as an independent trade union movement and thus attract especially young people who did not want to join a union that publicly supported one party. For many trade unionists personally this break hurt considerably, but it was seen as necessary. Now three years later Mr Kristensen claims that nothing new has happened in this direction. The personal feelings for the party are blocking real innovations, he says. Mr Kristensen gives an example from his own rank and file. Karen Stæhr, union secretary of FOA, was put up as candidate to the post as one of two LO secretaries, and she was backed from both the president and vice-president of LO. But in the end she withdrew her candidature because she was asked to join the Social Democrats, which she rejected. LO's culture is that of the old strong male unionist, it is claimed, and if the members differ from this perspective, they are forced into line. 'These old fashioned ways to act that no longer exist in other places have hibernated in the structures and self-perception of the trade union movement. It is a little like Jurassic Park', Mr Kristensen says.

Both industrial relations researchers and his opponents within LO have seen Mr Kristensen's heavy criticisms as possibly forming part of another strategy. Prior to the publication of the interview, the second largest union confederation, the Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF), had announced that they had cancelled a demarcation agreement with LO, dating from 1973, relating to the division of members - much to the surprise of LO. FTF was created in 1952 as an alternative to LO because of the latter's economic support of and close political bonds to the Social Democrats. Most unions in FTF belong to the public sector and the members are working in the same places as the members of FOA. This could mean that FOA in the not so far future might change confederation to FTF, taking the heavy criticisms of LO into consideration. Mr Kristensen denies this, as he points out that the interview was made long before the announcement by FTF. He furthermore underlines that he rather sees a future merger between the confederations. This would bring new blood to the labour movement, but so far FTF is hesitant and prefers to sign a new cooperation agreement with LO.

This information is made available through the European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO), as a service to users of the EIROnline database. EIRO is a project of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. However, this information has been neither edited nor approved by the Foundation, which means that it is not responsible for its content and accuracy. This is the responsibility of the EIRO national centre that originated/provided the information. For details see the "About this record" information in this record.

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