Denmark: Latest working life developments – Q1 2018

The risk of nationwide industrial conflict over the renewal of the public sector collective agreement is the main topic of this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Denmark in the first quarter of 2018.

Labour dispute raises fears of nationwide strikes and lockouts

Negotiations between the main public sector unions and employers over the renewal of the collective bargaining agreement (2015–2018) reached a stalemate in the first quarter, raising concerns of potential conflict. 

On 2 March the unions issued notice of planned strikes by 100,000 employees to be held after the agreement expires on 1 April. Public sector employer representatives responded by announcing a lock-out affecting around 120,000 public sector employees in administrative, university and secondary school jobs, while the municipal and regional authorities announced a lock-out of 320,000 employees. State Mediator Mette Christensen has so far stepped in twice to postpone actions on both sides by 28 days in total (the maximum period permitted).

The first point of disagreement is a working time agreement for primary-school teachers, dating back to the 2013–2015 bargaining round (teachers’ working time was settled by law after a two-week lockout by the municipalities). Employers have rejected teachers’ calls to renegotiate working time rules and to turn the law into a collective agreement.
The second issue is the unions’ collective bargaining cartel, the Danish Central Federation of State Employees' Organisations (CFU, has called for an 8.4% public sector pay increase (2018–2021), greater than the 6.7% increase offered by employers.

The final issue concerns plans to change the current status of the paid 30-minute lunch break in the public sector (the break is unpaid in the private sector). This means public sector employees work 2.5 hours less per week than private sector workers. However, state employers claim lunch breaks are the subject of an informal agreement and are not part of the collective agreement. Therefore, the different ministries and institutions are free to change this arrangement.

The employees’ organisations at national, municipal and regional levels are united in their demand to resolve all three issues before taking other discussions any further.

Potential for extended conflict

If the State Mediator is not able to put forward a settlement proposal that both parties accept, the conflict is liable to spread in the second quarter. This would mean that state administration personnel, university staff, primary and secondary school teachers, hospital doctors and nurses, and kindergarten workers would stay at home. The occupational groups affected by the strike and lockouts are similar, although the lockout involves far larger groups of employees. If mediation ended without a result, labour freezes would begin and it is likely that the government would intervene soon after, to limit the damage.  

Similar strikes have happened before. In 2008, health and education sector staff held strikes in protest at what they saw as unacceptably low wage increases. The strike lasted several weeks before the government stopped the conflict by incorporating the State Mediator’s settlement proposal into law. The result had a considerable impact on – in particular – the nursing union, which had exhausted its funds to support strike action; in contrast, the state had saved wage payments during the conflict. Furthermore, in 2013, municipal authorities held lockouts against primary school teachers (without prior strike notice from the teachers, which is the normal procedure). This lasted 25 days before the government intervened.

What is different this time around is the sheer number of employees involved. A drawn-out conflict would have serious consequences for workers, society and the economy.

Commentary

Opinion is split over how events will unfold, but experienced industrial relations experts are overall optimistic that mediation will succeed. Too much is at stake, and negotiating positions by both sides are not in fact very far apart, particularly on the key issue of public sector pay increases.

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