Decline of the Danish shop steward

A new study reveals that only one in two Danish workplaces now have a shop steward, and private sector workplaces are even less likely to have an official union representative. Many explanations are offered for this, but one in five local managers say it is impossible to find a willing candidate. Shop stewards themselves believe it will be difficult to find a replacement if and when they leave the post. These difficulties may challenge the sustainability of the collective bargaining model.

Number of Danish workplaces with a union representative

According to a recent study by Trine P. Larsen, Steen E. Navrbjerg and Mikkel Møller Johansen at the Employment Relations Research Centre ( FAOS), University of Copenhagen, only one in two Danish workplaces have a shop steward (workplace union members’ representative). The study Shop stewards and the workplace 2010 (Fokus på tillidsrepræsentanterne 2010) draws on a number of surveys, including one conducted among managers from 1,618 randomly selected Danish workplaces, 1,465 randomly selected employees and 7,877 union representatives. The surveys were conducted in spring 2010. The study also reveals that the share of workplaces with a shop steward is considerably lower in the private sector, where only one in three workplaces has a shop steward, although this rises to just over one in two in private sector workplaces covered by a collective agreement. In the public sector, 91% of workplaces have a shop steward.

The workplaces which are least likely to have a shop steward are those with less than nine employees and in the private sector – regardless of whether the workplace is covered by a collective agreement or not. While 18% of workplaces with between five and nine employees in the private sector have one or more shop steward(s), this is the case in 91% of workplaces with more than 250 employees. In the public sector, the coverage rate of shop stewards is comparatively higher; even in small workplaces with fewer than nine employees, 82% of workplaces have a union representative.

Variations also exist across sectors. Only 10% of workplaces within the information technology (IT), design and technology sector have a shop steward. In the commerce sector and hospitality and food services sector, the coverage rate is also relatively low (27%), while one in two workplaces in the manufacturing sector and all workplaces within public administration have a shop steward.

Among Danish workplaces with no shop steward, only one in 10 has previously had a shop steward. In fact, the vast majority of such workplaces have no tradition of union representation, and among this group few managers see the need for a shop steward (7%).

Employers’ arguments for not having a shop steward

Managers often give a wide range of reasons for not having a shop steward, with 45% citing the size of the workplace and saying that if a workplace is too small the employees are not entitled to elect one. Another 41% state that the employees have not requested a shop steward, while one in five managers argues that it has been impossible to find a willing candidate. In addition, 17% of employers oppose the idea of a shop steward, and another 15% state that they are not covered by a collective agreement (see Table 1).

Table 1: Managers’ explanations of absence of union representative in their workplace (%)

The size of the workplace does not entitle the employees to elect a shop steward


The employees have not requested a shop steward


No-one among the employees wants to be elected shop steward


In principle we as management do not find the presence of a shop steward necessary – employees should be able to contact management directly


The workplace is not covered by a collective agreement


The presence of a shop steward is a barrier to the development of the workplace


The presence of a shop steward is a barrier to my work as a manager


The management has opposed the elected candidate




Don’t know


Note: Multiple answers possible.

Source: Larsen, T.P., Navrbjerg, S.E. and Johansen, M.M., Shop stewards and the workplace, FAOS, Research report, 2010

It is not only managers who say it can be difficult, if not impossible, to find a willing candidate. The shop stewards themselves state that it will be difficult to find a replacement when and if they decide to step down, with 45% of them foreseeing difficulties. Only one in 10 shop stewards report that there will not be a problem.

The potential difficulties in recruiting new candidates for the position of ‘workplace trade union representative’ and the lack of willingness among the employees to be elected for such a post may, in the long-term, challenge the sustainability of the Danish bargaining model.

  • Without a union representative, employees’ interests are not represented collectively in the workplace, which may affect the power balance between management and labour in favour of the former group.
  • In workplaces without a shop steward, employers cannot negotiate with a ‘sparring partner’ within the company, which is one of the corner stones of the Danish bargaining model. It is also a crucial precondition for greater decentralisation of the bargaining competencies from the central level towards company level.

The Danish collective bargaining system has been developing in this direction for a while, with local negotiation bodies at the company level developing alongside greater decentralisation of bargaining competencies. These bodies replicate the structures and procedures of higher-level negotiations, as well as the bargaining culture, and have been spreading in the private and public sectors alike. However, the fact that only half of Danish workplaces have a shop steward – with considerably fewer in the private sector – suggests that the main pillar of the Danish bargaining model is under pressure.


The FAOS study involves five large quantitative surveys with 7,877 trade union representatives, 3,117 health and safety representatives from the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), 1,618 randomly selected local managers, 1,475 randomly selected employees including union and non-union members, 225 local unions and interviews with 15 LO affiliates. The study is funded and commissioned by LO. It comprises six research reports, each dealing with different aspects of the trade union representatives’ daily working conditions and tasks. The first report concerns the union representatives’ working relations with management and work colleagues at company level, the second examines the relations between unions and the trade union representatives, the third analyses the competencies of union representatives, and the fourth examines the working conditions of Danish health and safety representatives. The fifth report presents an overview of data and methodology, and the last report summarises the main findings of the previous five reports.

Trine P. Larsen and Steen E. Navrbjerg, FAOS, University of Copenhagen

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