Trade unions take action to counter membership decline

An ongoing trend since the early 1990s in several European countries is the decline in trade union membership. This development was accentuated in Sweden in 2006. According to the national-level trade unions, it is partly a result of recent changes in the Swedish unemployment insurance system. The trade unions are now taking action to stop the decline in membership. The Swedish labour market model could be at risk if trade union density declines further.

Continuing decline in trade union density

Most trade unions in Sweden are experiencing a decline in membership. This development is an ongoing trend since the beginning of the 1990s (see table below). Trade union density peaked in 1993, both for blue-collar and white-collar trade unions in the private and public sectors. The economic crises of the early 1990s contributed to a relative increase in membership from 1990 to 1993, reaching a total trade union density of 85% of workers in 1993. This growth was in the context of an already very high union density compared with other European countries.

Although trade union membership has continued to decline over a long period, this trend was accentuated in 2006 and 2007. Union density dropped by five percentage points from 77% in 2006 to 72% in 2007. The Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Sverige, LO) alone lost about 130,000 members in 2007 across all sectors of the economy.

Trade union density in Sweden, by sector and year (%)
  1990 1993 2000 2003 2004 2005 2006 October 2006 October 2007
A. Blue-collar workers                  
Private sector 81 82 79 77 75 74 74 74 70
Public sector 87 93 90 89 88 86 87 87 84
Both sectors 82 86 83 80 79 77 77 77 73
B. White-collar workers                  
Private sector 70 74 70 71 70 70 69 68.5 64
Public sector 94 94 93 91 90 90 89 88.5 85
Both sectors 81 83 79 79 78 78 77 76 72
C. All workers                  
Private sector 75 78 75 74 73 72 71 71 67
Public sector 91 94 92 90 89 89 88 88 85
Both sectors 81 85 81 80 79 78 77 77 72

Source: Kjellberg, A., Department of Sociology, Lund University, Sweden

Possible reasons for decline

According to the trade unions, the substantial fall in membership registered since October 2006 is the result of recent amendments to the unemployment insurance system introduced by the new government (SE0702029I). One of the outcomes of these changes is an increase in insurance fees, which explains why many workers left both the unemployment funds (SE0706039I) and their trade unions; the latter are responsible for managing these funds. However, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) states that this is only partly the explanation because a person can be a trade union member without being a member of an unemployment insurance fund.

Particularly among blue-collar and white-collar trade unions, the trend of declining membership is a problem. Conversely, the number of members in the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO) has been increasing since the 1990s, by about 120,000 members over the last 10 years, although the confederation experienced a 1% decline in 2007. This overall increase in SACO’s membership could be partly explained by the higher number of graduate professionals in the labour force.

Almost one third of the total workforce are not members of a trade union. Furthermore, only 52% of younger workers, aged 16–24 years, are trade union members. A possible reason for this situation, according to an LO statement in January 2008, is that younger workers hold a larger proportion of part-time employment or temporary employment contracts.

It is also being debated whether the strong link between LO and the Swedish Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokraterna) might discourage blue-collar workers with other political views from becoming members. LO has been criticised by its members for financially supporting the Social Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the recent LO assembly clearly emphasised the confederation’s strong association to the political party, since both are part of the original labour movement.

Decline threatens Swedish labour market model

The trade unions LO and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) are now taking action to counter the declining union density. LO blames the government for its policies which hurt trade unions, but is also aware that the confederation itself should make an effort to attract new members instead of trying to hold on to older ones. This will mainly be done by promoting the advantages of the trade union, particularly among younger workers. At its latest annual assembly, LO declared that the recruitment of members is a priority. Since June 2007, LO has conducted a campaign entitled ‘Higher union density’, with the aim of attracting new members. For its part, TCO has initiated the project ‘Union transformation’ (FacketFörändras.nu), which is a virtual online platform that allows members to propose changes.

If trade union density continues to fall, the Swedish labour market model may be at risk, as the legitimacy of the model is based on equal strong social partners with high organisation density, giving them a clear mandate to negotiate collective agreements. TCO Chair Sture Nordh concludes that if the trade unions are ‘lacking representativeness without a critical mass of members in several occupations and sectors, it could be hard to reach agreements with the employers in negotiations’.

The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise comments that trade union density is mainly an internal problem among trade unions. However, mutual representation could be a dilemma for the collective agreement model in some economic sectors, if the density among the negotiating partners declines to about 50% or less.

Paul Andersson and Thomas Brunk, Oxford Research

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