Sweden: Fall in union density

Sweden has a tradition of high trade union density rates, but the share of Swedish workers who are members of a trade union has dropped in the last decade from 80% to 70%. This might seem high from a global perspective, but Sweden is also one of the countries where unionisation is declining most rapidly.

The great membership decline

Sweden usually comes out top when union density rates are internationally ranked, but it is also one of the countries where unionisation is declining most rapidly. According to a 2015 report by the Swedish National Mediation Office on wage bargaining and wage formation, the share of workers who were members of a trade union dropped by more than 10 percentage points (in Swedish) between 2003 and 2013.

This drop could be due to measures by the centre-right government, which raised the fees for union unemployment funds in 2007 and then, in 2008, differentiated fund fees between different groups of employees. This meant that people employed in sectors with high unemployment rates, mostly blue-collar workers, had to pay more for their unemployment insurance. Since the economic crisis hit private sector blue-collar workers harder than other employees, the differentiation of fees was widened even further. As reported in a 2011 study by Anders Kjellberg on the decline in Swedish union density since 2007 (187 KB PDF), the decrease in density rate that followed was unprecedented, and over the years that followed, union membership dropped by six percentage points (from 77% in 2006 to 71% in 2008) (see also Kjellberg's report on collective bargaining coverage and level of organisation, in Swedish, 2 MB PDF)).

Diverging trends

The Swedish National Mediation Office collects annual data on union density rates. Its 2015 report shows that during 2013 white-collar unions affiliated to the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Saco) experienced a net gain in members, while blue-collar unions belonging to the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) suffered a net loss. However, 2013 was the second year in a row that union membership density rose, an increase of 12,000 union members. The rate has now stabilised around 70%.

However, despite this overall increase, different sectors are developing in different directions. Swedish industrial relations in 2008 reached an important turning point as, for the first time, membership rates for TCO and Saco surpassed that of LO. Since then, the gap between white-collar workers and blue-collar workers has widened and, by the end of 2013, TCO and Saco had 1.5 million members compared with LO’s 1.3 million. According to the Swedish National Mediation Office’s report, the rate of unionisation for white-collar workers is nine percentage points higher than that of blue-collar workers’ (73% and 64% respectively).

Struggle to reach young Swedes

Unions have also experienced difficulties in recruiting members in certain groups, such as temporary workers. Only about 40% of these are union members compared with 70% of the permanently employed. Recruitment is also more of a challenge in bigger cities such as Stockholm, according to union magazine Dagens Arbete. The capital has the lowest union density rate in the country; only around half of its workers are unionised (in Swedish).

Dagens Arbete also reveals that unions struggle to reach young people. Only 36% of workers aged 16–24 are union members – compared with 56% of workers aged 25–29; 71% of workers aged 30–44; and 80% of workers aged 45–64. This low number is exacerbated by the fact that young people are overrepresented among blue-collar workers, especially in the service sector where the unionisation rate is lower than in manufacturing or the public sector. White-collar unions, however, report growing numbers of young members, especially students. One example is Vision, the Swedish union of local government officers, which increased its new student members by 50% (in Swedish) last year.

Swedish model promotes unionisation

The density rate of employers' organisations, however, has remained stable over the past decade. If measured as a share of employees in companies and organisations affiliated to an employers’ association, employers have a rate of organisation of about 87% (which also has the effect of making the coverage of the collective agreements very high, around 90%). According to the latest update to the report by Anders Kjellberg on collective bargaining coverage, the density rate for employers, both in the private sector and in total, is significantly higher than for the unions.

From a global perspective, Sweden's union density rate is still quite high, and there are several reasons for this. Although, as mentioned, the government weakened the links between the unions and the unemployment funds through the 2007 and 2008 reforms, the connection is still considered strong enough to influence the union density. Certain features of Swedish industrial relations, such as the bipartite bargaining model, have prevented union coverage from becoming fragmented and promoted a high coverage of collective agreements. The existence of this self-regulating system, as opposed to state regulation, has traditionally made unions appear essential to workers. Sweden also has a high proportion of public sector employees, which usually have a higher rate of unionisation than private sector workers.

The existence of separate national unions for blue-collar workers (LO), university-graduates (Saco) and other white-collar workers (TCO) is, says Anders Kjellberg, another contributing factor. The relatively homogeneous social composition of each union has helped membership recruitment.


Union density seems to have stabilised in Sweden after the crisis years of 2007 and 2008, but it is interesting to speculate what would happen if density rates continued to decline. Representatives from peak-level unions and employers' associations seem to agree that there is a risk that the unions could eventually lose their legitimacy. The Swedish model of collective bargaining and pay-setting relies on a high union density rate. A Saco representative has reasoned that if union membership continues to drop, Sweden could be forced to introduce minimum wages (in Swedish). However, the stabilisation of union density in recent years and a modest increase in the most recent figures suggest that these concerns are unlikely to become reality any time soon.

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