Trade union membership 1993-2003

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Employee representation,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Date of Publication: 20 May 2004

Mark Carley
SPIRE Associates

This report examines trade union membership trends in 23 EU Member States, two candidate countries and Norway over the 1993-2003 period. It looks at the number of trade union members, the relative size of the main organisations and the breakdown of membership by gender, as well as the problems of assessing union density.

The membership of trade unions - both in absolute terms and as a proportion of their potential constituency among workers - has always been an issue of major interest to industrial relations practitioners and researchers. The size and representativeness of trade unions are key factors in national industrial relations systems, as are the relative membership figures of different trade union organisations.

Despite the interest in them, membership figures for social partner organisations (employers’ organisations as well as trade unions - see TN0311101S) are arguably one of the most difficult and contentious areas of industrial relations data. Given the importance of the size of their membership in many aspects of their dealings with employers and public bodies, and in their treatment in comparison with other unions, trade unions are in some cases quite sensitive about their membership figures. This is also an area where methodological and conceptual problems abound - how trade unions and union membership are defined, how the data are gathered etc. Such problems make examination of national union membership figures problematic, and the difficulties are magnified when an international comparison is attempted.

The aim of this review is to provide data about trade union membership over the past decade in 23 EU Member States (excluding the Czech Republic and Lithuania), two candidate countries (Bulgaria and Romania) and Norway, looking where possible at the years 1993, 1998 and 2003. The membership figures provided are those made available from national sources - usually the trade union organisations themselves - and reported by the European Industrial Relations Observatory centres in each country. No attempt has been made to examine how these national data are calculated, to assess their accuracy or to harmonise them in any way - a major caveat which should be borne in mind when reading the information provided.

After looking at the overall membership figures and trends over 1993-2003, we move on to examine some aspects of the thorny issue of union density. As will be further stressed below, we do not attempt to provide any kind of definitive statistics on density, but focus particularly on some of the problems in calculation.

Membership figures

For each of the 26 countries examined, our approach to calculating total trade union membership has been to seek figures for the number of members under the umbrella of each of the largest top-level 'peak' union organisations - ie confederations, federations and other bodies (referred to as 'centres' below) to which lower-level union organisations (sectoral, occupational, regional, workplace etc) are affiliated, but which themselves are not affiliated to any higher-level organisation at national level. In addition to the affiliated memberships of these trade union centres (as they will be referred to below), we have also sought a combined membership figure for all 'other' unions outside the centres’ fold. The figures for the national centres and the 'other' unions have then been added to produce a total. All these data - for 1993, 1998 and 2003 - are provided in table 1 below. The full names of all union centres referred to in the table are provided in the annex to this article.

However, the variety of national situations and the patchy nature of data means that it has not always been possible to follow this methodology fully. For purpose of clarity, the notes on each country should read carefully. However, the key points to note are that in some countries, no figures or estimates are available for the membership of unions outside the main confederations/centres listed in the table. The total union membership figures given are thus likely to fall short of giving a complete picture. This problem is particularly significant in countries where these 'other' unions are thought to have a relatively substantial membership. This appears to be the case in Italy, Poland (especially prior to 2003), Spain and possibly Portugal. In Belgium and Germany, the 'other' unions not included in the total membership figures seem to be relatively minor, so the overall figure is probably not far short of the mark. The problem of the existence of unions for which no membership are available outside the main centres appears to be non-existent or negligible in Austria, Greece, Latvia and Luxembourg (at least for 2003) and total figures are probably quite reliable. The totals are also relatively reliable for those countries where membership figures or estimates are available for the 'other' unions outside the national centres - Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden. There is no figure available for the main centre or 'other' unions in Ireland, or for 'other' unions in the UK, but total figures are available from other sources in both countries, which can be regarded as fairly complete. Finally, no total figure is given for France, as membership data are lacking from the majority of confederations/centres.

The data provided in the table are in most cases directly self-reported by the unions themselves. In some cases, the information is from a central official register or authority, as in Cyprus, Malta, Portugal (1993) and the UK (total membership figure), while national statistical services are the source in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands and official censuses in Bulgaria (1998 and 2003). The data for Belgium, Italy, Norway and Portugal (2003) are based on the work of research centres. In some cases (see the notes to table 1), the figures given - especially for 'other' unions - are estimates by the EIRO national centres, while all Slovenian figures are estimates from the European Commission.

As table 1 indicates, unions have experienced mixed fortunes over the past decade. Total national membership figures are available for the 1993-2003 period for 19 countries out of 26. Of these 11 recorded an overall increase in membership and eight an overall decrease (these, of course, are not the same as increases or decreases in union density - see below). The largest percentage increases were recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Malta, Norway and Cyprus. The largest percentage decreases were recorded in Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia. Although more countries registered increases than decreases, aggregate union membership across the 19 countries fell by around a sixth over 1993-2003. There are several reasons for this. The countries where union membership rose were mostly smaller countries, and the absolute increase in union members was thus relatively low. By contrast, the loss of members across the countries experiencing decreases was high in absolute terms because of: massive membership losses in some central and eastern European countries; and significant losses in large countries with high absolute numbers of union members, such as Germany and the UK.

Where national figures are available for 1993, 1998 and 2003 (or the nearest years for which there are data), trends over the decade can be examined more closely. Of the relevant countries where union membership rose between 1993 and 2003, the upward trend slowed after 1998 in Belgium, Cyprus (very slightly), Denmark (where it reversed), Malta, the Netherlands and Norway, while it accelerated in Finland, Ireland, Italy and Luxembourg. Of the relevant countries where union membership fell between 1993 and 2003, the rate of decline slowed after 1998 in all cases - Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK - which may be encouraging for the unions in these countries. Indeed over the last two or three years, overall declines have levelled out in countries such as Sweden and the UK.

Data are available on membership changes over 1993-2003 for 68 out of the 89 confederations/centres or sets of 'other' unions examined. Membership increased in 34 cases, fell in 28 cases, and remained static in six cases. Among the organisations experiencing particularly high rates of increase (33% and over) were Spain’s CC.OO, France’s CFDT, Luxembourg’s OBG-L, Hungary’s ASZSZ, Finland’s AKAVA, Sweden’s SACO and Luxembourg’s CGFP. 'Other' unions grew notably in Slovakia and Sweden. Membership of Romania’s Meridian skyrocketed, but it should be noted that this is largely due to the inclusion in the 2003 figure of a large number of members who are not employees (see below under 'Issues related to union density').

Massive falls in membership, of 50% and more, were registered by many of the major centres in central and eastern European countries notably CITUB and CL Podkrepa in Bulgaria, EAKL in Estonia, OPZZ and NSZZ Solidarność in Poland and KOZ SR in Slovakia. Indeed, of the 22 centres or sets of 'other' unions in central and eastern European countries for which data are available, all but six lost members over 1993-2003 (with overall total membership falling by around a half). In western Europe, falls in membership were less dramatic, but exceeded 10% for major organisations such as Austria’s ÖGB, Germany’s DGB, Greece’s GSEE, Sweden’s LO and the UK’s TUC.

Overall membership for all 68 centres and sets of 'other' unions for which data are available fell by around 15% over the 1993-2003 period. In the old EU Member States and Norway the fall was nearly 5%, while in the new Member States and candidate countries, it was nearly 50%.

The general picture can be summarised as follows. Membership of all centres/sets of 'other' unions and overall national membership levels seem to be rising in Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Spain and, probably, Portugal. In Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands and Norway, overall union membership is increasing but some organisations are losing members (in the case of Norway, much of the change in the membership of some organisations over the past decade can be attributed to changes in union structures and the affiliations of individual unions). Membership of all centres/sets of 'other' unions and overall national membership levels seem to be falling in Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Poland and the UK. In Germany, Slovakia and Sweden, overall union membership is falling, but some organisations (generally smaller ones) are bucking the trend.

Table 1. Trade union membership figures, 1993-2003
Country Confederation /centre 1993* 1998** 2003*** Change 1993-2003
Austria ÖGB 1,616,000 1,480,000 1,407,000 -12.9%
Total 1,616,000 1,480,000 1,407,000 -12.9%
Belgium CSC/ACV 1,541,000 1,609,000 1,637,000 6.2%
FGTB/ABVV 1,109,000 1,187,000 1,201,000 8.3%
CGSLB/ACLVB 215,000 217,000 223,000 3.7%
Total 2,865,000 3,013,000 3,061,000 6.8%
Bulgaria CITUB 1,426,000 608,000 390,000 -72.7%
CL Podkrepa 500,000 155,000 109,000 -78.2%
Promiana - 8,000 5,000 -37.5%****
ADTU 30,000 2,000 4,000 -86.7%
NTU 30,000 0 4,000 -86.7%
Others 206,000 5,000 3,000 -98.5%
Total 2,192,000 778,000 515,000 -76.5%
Cyprus SEK 55,000 61,000 65,000 18.2%
PEO 66,000 64,000 64,000 -3.0%
DEOK 6,000 6,000 7,000 16.7%
Others 32,000 36,000 39,000 21.9%
Total 159,000 167,000 175,000 10.1%
Denmark LO 1,471,000 1,478,000 1,433,000 -2.6%
FTF 338,000 347,000 356,000 5.3%
AC 117,000 146,000 161,000 13.8%
LH 65,000 79,000 76,000 6.9%
Others 125,000 120,000 125,000 0
Total 2,116,000 2,170,000 2,151,000 1.7%
Estonia EAKL 342,000 65,000 48,000 -86.0%
TALO 55,000 40,000 35,000 -36.4%
Others nd nd 10,000 -
Total - - 93,000 -
Finland SAK 1,136,000 1,084,000 1,062,000 -6.5%
STTK 619,000 651,000 634,000 2.4%
AKAVA 312,000 347,000 424,000 35.9%
Others 2,000 2,000 2,000 0
Total 2,069,000 2,084,000 2,122,000 2.6%
France CGT 639,000 668,000 nd 4.5%*****
CFDT 617,000 757,000 889,000 44.0%
Germany DGB 10,290,000 8,311,000 7,363,000 -28.4%
DBB 1,079,000 1,184,000 1,224,000 13.4%
CGB 311,000 303,000 307,000 -1.3%
Total 11,680,000 9,798,000 8,894,000 -23.9%
Greece GSEE 485,000 416,000 422,000 -13.0%
ADEDY 236,000 240,000 217,000 -8.1%
Total 721,000 656,000 639,000 -11.4%
Hungary SZEF 270,000 230,000 270,000 0
MSZOSZ nd nd 240,000 -
ASZSZ 110,000 140,000 150,000 36.4%
LIGA 100,000 100,000 100,000 0
ÉSZT 100,000 105,000 85,000 -15.0%
MOSZ 65,000 60,000 56,000 -13.8%
Others 35,000 35,000 35,000 0
Total - - 936,000 -
Ireland ICTU nd nd nd -
Total 432,000 463,000 515,000 19.2%
Italy Cgil 5,237,000 5,249,000 5,461,000 4.3%
Cisl 3,769,000 3,910,000 4,153,000 10.2%
Uil 1,588,000 1,604,000 1,652,000 4.0%
Total 10,594,000 10,763,000 11,266,000 6.3%
Latvia LBAS nd 252,000 180,000 -28.6%****
Total nd 252,000 180,000 -28.6%****
Luxembourg OGB-L 39,000 46,000 55,000 41.0%
LCGB 32,000 36,000 40,000 25.0%
CGFP 18,000 20,000 24,000 33.3%
ALEBA/UEP-NGL-SNEP 8,000 10,000 20,000 - (see note)
Total 97,000 112,000 139,000 43.3%
Malta CMTU 30,000 33,000 36,000 20.0%
Others 44,000 49,000 51,000 16.0%
Total 74,000 82,000 87,000 17.6%
Netherlands FNV 1,092,000 1,233,000 1,226,000 12.3%
CNV 327,000 361,000 355,000 8.6%
MHP 146,000 219,000 169,000 15.8%
Others 245,000 123,000 191,000 -22.0%
Total 1,810,000 1,936,000 1,941,000 7.2%
Norway LO 765,000 839,000 800,000 4.6%
UHO - - 223,000 -
YS 203,000 238,000 200,000 -1.5%
Akademikerne - 111,000 128,000 15.3%****
AF 232,000 161,000 - -
Others 125,000 140,000 147,000 17.6%
Total 1,325,000 1,489,000 1,498,000 13.1%
Poland OPZZ 4,500,000 2,000,000 800,000 -82.2%
NSZZ Solidarność 2,000,000 1,200,000 780,000 -61.0%
FZZ - - 320,000 -
Total 6,500,000 3,200,000 1,900,000 -70.8%
Portugal CGTP nd nd 652,000 -
UGT nd nd 400,000 -
Others nd nd 113,000 -
Total 1,150,000 - 1,165,000 1.3%
Romania Meridian 40,000 450,000 1,500,000 3,650.0%
Cartel Alfa 1,200,000 1,100,000 1,000,000 -16.7%
CNSLR 1,284,000 856,000 798,000 -37.9%
CSDR 650,000 650,000 650,000 0
BNS nd nd 421,000 -
Others 150,000 40,000 30,000 -80.0%
Total - - 4,399,000 -
Slovakia KOZ SR 1,574,000 831,000 554,000 -64.8%
Others 9,000 23,000 22,000 144.4%
Total 1,583,000 854,000 576,000 -63.6%
Slovenia ZSSS nd nd 180,000 -
KNSS nd nd 15,000 -
Pergam nd nd 15,000 -
Konfederacija '90 nd nd 10,000 -
Others nd nd 140,000 -
Total nd nd 360,000 -
Spain CC.OO 654,000 713,000 958,000 46.9%
UGT 740,000 796,000 944,000 27.6%
USO nd 72,000 106,000 47.2%****
CGT nd nd 100,000 -
Total - - 2,108,000 -
Sweden LO 2,254,000 2,093,000 1,919,000 -14.9%
TCO 1,148,000 1,051,000 1,065,000 -7.2%
SACO 289,000 341,000 386,000 33.6%
Others 21,000 77,000 76,000 261.9%
Total 3,712,000 3,562,000 3,446,000 -7.2%
UK TUC 7,647,000 6,639,000 6,685,000 -12.6%
Total 8,804,000 7,852,000 7,751,000 -12.0%

* Except for: Hungary (SZEF) and Portugal - 1995; Ireland - 1994.

** Except for: Ireland - 1997; Netherlands - 1999; Spain (USO) - 2000.

*** Except for: Belgium - 2000; Cyprus and Slovenia - 2001; Austria, Denmark, Estonia, France (CFDT), Germany (DBB and CGB), Italy and Sweden - 2002.

**** Change from 1998 to 2003.

***** Change from 1993 to 1998.

Source: EIRO.

Table 1 should be read in conjunction with the following notes.

  • Austria. ÖGB is the sole union centre in the country and virtually all union members belong to its affiliated organisations. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are from ÖGB.
  • Belgium. The great majority of union members belong to the affiliates of the three centres listed. However, there are some relatively small organisations outside these three centres - such as the National Confederation of Managerial Staff, (Confédération Nationale des Cadres/Nationale Confederatie voor Kaderleden, CNC/NCK) - for which no membership information is available. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be close to being complete, but may be slightly low. The data are from the Centre for Socio-Political Research and Information (Centre de recherche et d'information socio-politique, CRISP).
  • Bulgaria. As well as the five centres listed by name, an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. Promiana did not exist in 1993. The 1993 data are self-reported by unions, and the 1998 and 2003 figures are from official censuses.
  • Cyprus. As well as the three centres listed by name, an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions - these notably include trade unions representing governmental employees (23,000 in 1993, 25,000 in 1998 and 26,000 in 2001), of which the largest is the Pancyprian Public Employees Trade Union (PASYDY). The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are from the Department of Social Insurance, Ministry of Labour.
  • Denmark. As well as the four centres listed by name, an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are from Statistics Denmark.
  • Estonia. As well as the two centres listed by name, an overall estimated membership figure is available for the 'other' unions, though only for 2003. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are self-reported by unions. However, there are no accurate data on the membership of 'other' unions, and the figure given for 2003 is an estimate based on trade union sources.
  • Finland. As well as the three centres listed by name, an overall estimated membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are self-reported by unions. However, there are no accurate data on the membership of 'other' unions, and the figure given is an estimate (relating to minor independent unions representing groups such as journalists and air-traffic controllers).
  • France. Data are available - self-reported - for only two out of five of the nationally representative union confederations. No figures are available for the other three representative confederations - the General Confederation of Labour-Force Ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force Ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff-General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l'encadrement-Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC) and the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) - or for other relatively substantial centres such as the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA), the Unitary Union Federation (Fédération syndicale unitaire, FSU) and the Group of 10 (Union syndicale Groupe des Dix, G10). No attempt is thus made to give a total figure.
  • Germany. The great majority of union members belong to the affiliates of the three centres listed. However, there are some relatively small organisations outside these three centres - such as the German Federation of Journalists (Deutscher Journalisten-Verband, DJV) - for which no combined membership information is available. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be close to being complete, but may be slightly low. The data for DGB and DBB are self-reported by unions, and the CGB data are from IW Köln.
  • Greece. The great majority of union members belong to the affiliates of the two centres listed. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are self-reported by unions.
  • Hungary. As well as the six centres listed by name, an overall estimated membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The figures are self-reported by unions (surveys and reports from Tax and Financial Control Administration [Adó- és Pénzügyi Ellenőrzési Hivatal, APEH] find considerably lower figures - HU0206102N). However, there are no accurate data on the membership of 'other' unions, and the figure given is an estimate. All figures do not include pensioners (see below under 'Issues related to union density').
  • Ireland. No membership figures are available for the sole union centre, ICTU, or unaffiliated unions. The 'total' figure is from Central Statistics Office (CSO) surveys and can be assumed to be reasonably complete.
  • Italy. As well as the three centres listed by name, which are the largest, there are a number of other relatively substantial organisations - such as the Italian Confederation of Autonomous Workers’ Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Autonomi Lavoratori, Cisal) and the General Union of Labour (Unione generale del lavoro, Ugl) - for which no membership information is available. The 'total' figure can thus not be assumed to be complete. The data are from the Cisl national library (Sindacato oh sindacato!, A Bianco and E Giacinto, Biblioteca nazionale Cisl).
  • Latvia. LBAS is the sole union centre in the country and the great majority of union members belong to its affiliated organisations - while there are several other minor unions (with an estimated membership of 5,000-10,000), these are not reported to be active. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete, though may be very slightly low. The data are from LBAS.
  • Luxembourg. The great majority of union members belong to the affiliates of the four centres listed. The 'total' figure for 2003 can be assumed to be reasonably complete, but the ALEBA-UEP-NGL-SNEP federation had not been created in 1993 and 1998, and the total for 1993 excludes UEP, NGL and SNEP members, while the total for 1998 excludes NGL and SNEP members (data unavailable). The data are self-reported by unions.
  • Malta. As well as the centre listed by name (Malta’s only confederation), an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions - principally the General Workers’ Union (GWU), whose membership exceeds that of CMTU. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are from the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations.
  • Netherlands. As well as the three centres listed by name, an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The General Trade Union Federation (Algemene Vakcentrale), included in 'other' unions in 1993, joined FNV and is included in its figures from 1998. The data are from the Central Statistical Office (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, CBS).
  • Norway. As well as the five centres listed by name, an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. AF does not appear in 2003 figures as it had been disbanded. Akademikerne is included only from 1998 as it did not exist previously and UHO is included only from 2003 as it did not exist previously. The data for 1993 and 1998 are from the FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science (Organisasjonsgrader i norsk arbeidsliv 1945-1998, Torgeir Aarvaag Stokke, Fafo-notat 643, 2000), and the data for 2003 from Torgeir Aarvaag Stokke (unpublished research) and Statistics Norway.
  • Poland. The great majority of union members belong to the affiliates of the three centres listed. However, there are, or have been, a number of other, smaller centres, for which no figures are available. In 1993, there was Solidarność ’80, with around 150,000 members, plus several other centres - such as Sierpień 80, Kadra and Kontra- for which no membership figures are available. In 1998, Solidarność 80 had some 80,000 members, while there were at least seven other significant union organisations. By 2003, FZZ had been formed, bringing together most of the organisations not affiliated to OPZZ and NSZZ Solidarność. Thus the 'total' figures given for 1993 and 1998 are clearly incomplete, while the 2003 figure is nearer being complete, though still somewhat short. The data are self-reported by unions.
  • Portugal. No self-reported data seem to be available from trade unions, and no figures for the two named centres - the largest - and 'other' unions are given in the table for 1993 and 1998. The 'total' figure given for 1993 is from the Ministry of Labour (referring to 1995) and can probably be regarded as being reasonably complete. The 2003 figures for CGTP, UGT and 'others' are based on estimates from the Partenaires sociaux en Europe project of the Institute des Sciences du Travail, Catholic University of Louvain. 'Others' refers only to the CGTP-linked (but not affiliated) Movimento Sindical Unitário (MSU), and there are likely to be some further unions. The 2003 'total' is thus likely to be incomplete.
  • Romania. As well as the five centres listed by name, an overall estimated membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure (for 2003, no data are available for BNS for 1993 and 1998) can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are self-reported by unions. However, there are no accurate data on the membership of 'other' unions, and the figure given is an estimate.
  • Slovakia. As well as the centre listed by name (Slovakia’s sole significant confederation), an overall estimated membership figure is available for the 'other' unions. The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data for KOZ SR are self-reported. The figure for 'others' includes self-reported data for the Independent Christian Trade Union of Slovakia (Nezávislé krestanské odbory Slovenska, NKOS), plus estimates for other unions.
  • Slovenia. No reliable data are available from trade unions or from national sources. The figures given in the 2003 column are based on estimates from the European Commission for 2001 (mid-range used when range given). The data are presented as 'indicative'.
  • Spain. The great majority of union members belong to the affiliates of the four centres listed. However, there are some other relatively significant organisations outside these four centres - such as a number of regional union organisations and the Independent Trade Union Confederation of Public Servants (Confederación Sindical Independiente de Funcionarios, CSIF) - for which no membership information is available. The 'total' figure (for 2003) can be assumed to fall short of being complete. The data are self-reported by unions.
  • Sweden. As well as the three centres listed by name, an overall membership figure is available for the 'other' unions - which include the Swedish Workers’ Central Organisation (Svenska Arbetares Centralorganisation, SAC) and the Swedish Engine Drivers’ Union (Svensk Lokförarförening). The 'total' figure can be assumed to be reasonably complete. The data are self-reported by unions. The figures for TCO and SACO exclude non-active members.
  • UK. Data - self reported - are available from the TUC. No overall figures are available for unions not affiliated to the TUC. The 'total' figure given is for the membership of unions listed with the Certification Officer - it can be assumed to be reasonably complete, but it should be noted that not all unions are listed.

Relative size of organisations

In Austria and Latvia, there is a single trade union centre which represents all, or virtually all, union members. Otherwise, in all countries considered, there are multiple organisations, and their relative size is an important issue. Table 2 below indicates the proportion of total union members represented by each centre considered and by 'other' unions, where data are available - as noted above, information on some or all 'other' unions is not available for some countries, and the proportions given are of totals that exclude their members (this is notably significant in Italy, Poland [especially prior to 2003], Spain and possibly Portugal).

Apart from Austria and Latvia, there is a single national centre/confederation in Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and the UK, though in these cases there are a number of 'other' unions. The great majority of union members are represented by the sole centre in Slovakia (96.2% in 2003) and the UK (86.2%) - this is presumably also the case in Ireland, but no figures are available for ICTU. Malta is different, in that the only confederation (CMTU) represents just 41.4% of union members, with an unaffiliated union (the General Workers’ Union) having more members than CMTU and representing over half of the overall total.

The 20 other countries examined have multiple union centres, plus in many cases a number of 'other' unions. There are so many different configurations of trade unions in these countries that it is almost impossible to categorise them. In some countries, there are two or more centres that each essentially seek to organise all (or almost all) categories of employees, and the divisions between them are - or at least were originally - mainly on political and religious grounds (in many central and eastern European countries, the main 'political' division is between new unions created after or during the fall of the old state-socialist system in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and former state-dominated unions that have reformed themselves in the new context). Another basic approach is for union centres to organise different categories of workers - blue-collar, white-collar, professional/academic or managerial - rather than compete for the same ones (though the demarcation lines may become blurred). Similarly, in some countries there may be a distinction between separate centres organising the private and public sectors (or private law employees and civil servants).

A fairly clear 'competitive' situation between trade union centres of differing ideological backgrounds (though these original divisions may no longer be relevant in some cases) exists in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain - though there are also specific centres focusing on public sector workers (eg in Hungary and Spain), white-collar staff (eg in Luxembourg) or managerial staff (eg in France and the Netherlands) in some cases. There is one centre that is clearly larger than the others in the cases of Bulgaria (where the largest centre represented 75.7% of all union members in 2003) and the Netherlands (63.1%). One centre also represents a majority of all union members (53.5%) in Belgium, but the second-largest is also very substantial (39.2%). In Slovenia, the largest centre represents half of all members, but no other single centre represents more than 5%. In the other countries in this category, there is less difference in size between the main centres, and none is in a majority. In Cyprus, Hungary, Poland and Spain the two largest centres are closely matched (within 5 percentage points of each other) and relatively far ahead of their rivals. In Italy, Luxembourg and Romania, the largest centre (while still not in a majority) is somewhat further ahead of its nearest rival (over 10 percentage points). The greatest spread of union membership is found in Hungary and Romania, where no single organisation represents more than around a third of all union members, but four centres represent more than 10%.

Germany is a variant of this model, with two competing confederations for most workers and one restricted to civil servants. However, the larger general centre (DGB) is 25 times larger than its rival (CGB) and Germany probably fits more naturally in the 'one dominant centre' group alongside Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and the UK.

In the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, unions essentially divide along occupational grounds, with separate centres for blue-collar, white-collar and professional/academic workers (plus managerial staff in Denmark) - though the demarcation lines may vary between countries. In all cases, the largely blue-collar centre currently represents at least half of all union members, varying between 66.6% (in 2003) in Denmark (LO) and 50% in Finland (SAK). The second-largest centre is that for white-collar workers in Denmark (16.6%), Finland (29.9%) and Sweden (30.9%). Professional/academic centres are in second place in Norway (where there are two such organisations, representing 23.4% of union members between them in 2003) and in third place in Denmark (7.5%), Finland (20.0%) and Sweden (11.2%). In all four cases, there are also a number of 'other' unions. The basic divide between Estonia’s two main centres seems to be one blue-collar/white-collar-lines, with the former (EAKL) about half as large again as the latter (TALO).

In Greece, there are two centres, with one (GSEE) organising in the private and broad public sector and the other (ADEDY) among public servants. The former is about twice the size of the latter.

As noted above, 'other' unions exist outside the main centres in most countries. Where data are available, they represent (in 2003): under 1% of all union members in Bulgaria Finland and Romania; 1%-5% in Sweden, Hungary and Slovakia; 5%-10% in Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway; 10%-20% in Estonia and the UK; and over 20% in Cyprus, Slovenia and Malta.

Looking at changes in the relative membership of unions over 1993-2003, these were rarely dramatic. Clear changes of five percentage points or over (not accounted for by statistical changes) occurred only in: Bulgaria, where the largest centre became increasingly dominant; Poland, where the second-largest centre almost caught up with the largest; and Sweden where the largest centre, the blue-collar, lost out, mainly to the professional/academic centre (however, this does not mean that former LO members joined SACO, just that LO losses owing to falling membership in industry coincided with increasing recruitment by SACO). Indeed this latter phenomenon occurred, if less markedly, in the three other Nordic countries where unions are divided along occupational lines: Denmark, Finland and Norway witnessed a decreasing share for the blue-collar centre and corresponding increases for white-collar and/or professional centres (especially the latter). Elsewhere, the largest centres lost varying amounts of ground in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Slovakia and the UK (where the loss has slowed recently), but gained slightly in Malta and the Netherlands.

Table 2. % of total national union membership represented by national confederations/centres and other unions, 1993-2003
Country Confederation /centre 1993 1998* 2003** Change 1993-2003
Austria ÖGB 100% 100% 100% 0
Belgium CSC/ACV 53.8% . 53.4% 53.5% -0.3
FGTB/ABVV 38.7% . 39.4% 39.2% 0.5
CGSLB/ACLVB 7.5% . 7.2% 7.3% -0.2
Bulgaria CITUB 65.1% 78.1% 75.7% 10.6
CL Podkrepa 22.8% 19.9% 21.1% -1.7
Promiana - 1.0% 1.0% 0***
ADTU 1.4% 0.3% 0.8% -0.6
NTU 1.4% 0.0% 0.8% -0.6
Others 9.4% 0.6% 0.6% -8.8
Cyprus SEK 34.6% 36.5% 37.1% 2.5
PEO 41.5% 38.3% 36.6% -4.9
DEOK 3.8% 3.6% 4.0% 0.2
Others 20.1% 21.6% 22.3% 2.2
Denmark LO 69.5% 68.1% 66.6% -2.9
FTF 16.0% 16.0% 16.6% 0.6
AC 5.5% 6.7% 7.5% 2.0
LH 3.1% 3.6% 3.5% 0.4
Others 5.9% 5.5% 5.8% -0.1
Estonia EAKL nd nd 51.6% -
TALO nd nd 37.6% -
Others nd nd 10.8% -
Finland SAK 54.9% 52.0% 50.0% -4.9
STTK 29.9% 31.2% 29.9% 0
AKAVA 15.1% 16.7% 20.0% 4.9
Others 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0
Germany DGB 88.1% 84.8% 83.4% -4.7
DBB 9.2% 12.1% 13.3% 4.1
CGB 2.7% 3.1% 3.3% 0.6
Greece GSEE 67.3% 63.4% 66.0% -1.3
ADEDY 32.7% 36.6% 34.0% 1.3
Hungary SZEF nd nd 28.8% -
MSZOSZ nd nd 25.6% -
ASZSZ nd nd 16.0% -
LIGA nd nd 10.7% -
ÉSZT nd nd 9.1% -
MOSZ nd nd 6.0% -
Others nd nd 3.8% -
Italy Cgil 49.4% 48.8% 48.5% -0.9
Cisl 35.6% 36.3% 36.9% 1.3
Uil 15.0% 14.9% 14.7% -0.3
Latvia LBAS 100% 100% 100% 0
Luxembourg OGB-L 40.2% 41.1% 39.6% -0.6
LCGB 33.0% 32.1% 28.8% -4.2
CGFP 18.6% 17.9% 17.3% -1.3
ALEBA/UEP-NGL-SNEP 8.2% 8.9% 14.4% 6.2 (see note to table 1)
Malta CMTU 40.5% 40.2% 41.4% 0.9
Others 59.5% 59.8% 58.6% -0.9
Netherlands FNV 60.3% 63.7% 63.1% 2.8
CNV 18.1% 18.6% 18.3% 0.2
MHP 8.1% 11.3% 8.7% 0.6
Others 13.5% 6.4% 9.8% -3.7
Norway LO 57.7% 56.3% 53.4% -4.3
UHO - - 14.9% -
YS 15.3% 16.0% 13.4% -1.9
Akademikerne - 7.5% 8.5% 1.0***
AF 17.5% 10.8% - -
Others 9.4% 9.4% 9.8% 0.4
Poland OPZZ 67.7% 61.0% 42.1% -25.6
NSZZ Solidarność 30.1% 36.6% 41.1% 11.0
FZZ - - 16.8% -
Others 2.3% 2.4% nd -
Portugal CGTP nd nd 56.0% -
UGT nd nd 34.3% -
Others nd nd 9.7% -
Romania Meridian 1.2% 14.5% 34.1% 32.9
Cartel Alfa 36.1% 35.5% 22.7% -13.4
CNSLR 38.6% 27.6% 18.1% -20.5
CSDR 19.6% 21.0% 14.8% -4.8
BNS - - 9.6% -
Others 4.5% 1.3% 0.7% -3.8
Slovakia KOZ SR 99.4% 97.3% 96.2% -3.2
Others 0.6% 2.7% 3.8% 3.2
Slovenia ZSSS nd nd 50.0% -
KNSS nd nd 4.2% -
Pergam nd nd 4.2% -
Konfederacija '90 nd nd 2.8% -
Others nd nd 38.9% -
Spain CC.OO nd nd 45.4% -
UGT nd nd 44.8% -
USO nd nd 5.0% -
CGT nd nd 4.7% -
Sweden LO 60.7% 58.8% 55.7% -5.0
TCO 30.9% 29.5% 30.9% 0
SACO 7.8% 9.6% 11.2% 3.4
Others 0.6% 2.2% 2.2% 1.6
UK TUC 86.9% 84.6% 86.2% -0.7

* Except for: Netherlands - 1999.

** Except for: Belgium and Germany (CGB) - 2000; Cyprus and Slovenia - 2001; Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Germany (DGB and DBB), Italy and Sweden - 2002.

*** Change from 1998 to 2003.

Note: the data in table 2 are based on those in table 1, and the same notes apply.

Source. EIRO.

Membership broken down by gender

By no means all trade unions or other sources of union membership information (see above) provide information on the number of union members who are women and men respectively. No such data seem to be available from Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia, while figures are available for only some organisations in Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK. What information is available is presented in table 3 below. No data are available for some years in some cases. For some countries, total national figures are given which exclude some organisations for which no data are available, if these organisations are relatively minor.

Looking at 2003, data are available on the gender composition of 49 union centres or sets of 'other' unions (out of 89). In only 10 cases do women outnumber men. This occurs most frequently in the Nordic countries, where union centres are based on occupational categories. Thus, women make up a majority of members of Denmark’s white-collar FTF, Finland’s white-collar STTK and professional/academic AKAVA, Norway’s professional/academic UHO (the most female-dominated centre of all those for which information is available, at 75.8%) and white-collar YS, and Sweden’s white-collar SACO. Another notable feature is that women are in the majority in all union centres in the two new Baltic EU Member States examined, Estonia and Latvia. The other case is Hungary’s public sector SZEF.

In the other 38 cases, men make up a majority of union members: 50%-55% in eight cases; 56%-60% in six cases; 61%-65% in eight cases; 66%-70% in eight cases; and 71% and over in nine cases. The most male-dominated union organisations, with over 75% male membership, are Denmark’s managerial LH (81.6%), followed by 'other' unions (made up principally of GWU) in Malta and the Netherlands’ managerial MHP (indeed all three Dutch centres have over 70% male membership). Outside the Baltic countries, all general union centres seeking to organise all or most categories of employee have a majority of male members.

Averaging all the centres and sets of 'other' unions for which data is available in 2003, women make up approximately 41.5% of all members and men around 58.5%. The average share of women in unions in the 'old' EU, plus Norway, is very slightly greater, while it is slightly lower (by around one percentage point) in the new Member States and candidate countries.

Approximate total figures for national gender breakdown of union membership are available for 14 out of the 26 countries for 2003. Women are in the majority in Estonia (59.0%), Latvia (57.2%), Sweden (51.6%) and Norway (51.1%). There is near gender parity (though with men in a slight majority) in Hungary and Denmark. However, men make up two-thirds or more of all union members in Austria, Germany, Malta and the Netherlands.

Looking at the period 1993-2003, it is clear that women are making up an increasing proportion of union members in most centres and countries, thought the patchy nature of the data makes this difficult to quantify. In the great majority of cases where data are available for two or more of the years 1993, 1998 and 2003, the trend is for women to represent a larger share. Particularly notable increases include Denmark’s AC (up 8.9 points between 1993 and 2003), France’s CFDT (up 8.0 points), Luxembourg’s OGB-L (up 7.1 points) and the UK’s TUC (up 7.0 points) (the large increase in women’s share of the membership of Norway’s now defunct AF between 1993 and 1998 was mainly due to a largely female nurses’ union joining). For the countries where overall national gender breakdowns of union membership are available, women’s share has increased in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden.

However, there are exceptions to this overall upward trend in women’s share of union membership, almost all of which in the central and eastern European countries. A falling proportion of female members seems to be the rule among the union organisations for which information is available in Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania.

Taking all the centres and sets of 'other' unions considered for which information is available in each year (29 in 1993, 36 in 1998 and 48 in 2003), women’s average share of membership rose from around 39% in 1993 to 40.5% in 1998 and 41.5% in 2003.

Women’s generally increasing share of union membership would suggest that their membership is holding up better than men’s in union organisations that are decreasing in size, and that they are making up a greater share of growth in organisations that are expanding. Looking at those organisations for which the relevant data are available that have lost members over 1993-2003 (or 1993-8/1998-2003 where full data are absent), the fall in male membership in absolute numerical terms has far outstripped the fall in female membership at, for example, Austria’s ÖGB, Finland’s SAK, Germany’s DGB and Sweden’s LO. Within a general context of falling membership, the number of women members has increased at Germany’s CGB and the UK’s TUC. In growing organisations such as Denmark’s FTF and AC, Finland’s STTK and AKAVA, France’s CFDT, the Netherlands’ CNV, Norway’s LO and Akademikerne, and Sweden’s SACO, it is women who have accounted for a clear majority (or in cases such as STTK and LO, all) of this growth.

This trend is not, however, universal. Female and male contributions (in absolute terms) to growth or decline have been more even in cases such as Cyprus’s SEK and PEO, Denmark’s LH and Luxembourg’s OGB-L. Falls in female membership have exceeded falls in male membership in a number of central and eastern European centres, such as Bulgaria’s CITUB, Estonia’s TALO, Latvia’s LBAS and Romania’s CNSLR. Male members have contributed more to growth than female members in Germany’s DBB, Spain’s UGT and Sweden’s TCO.

Table 3. Women and men as % of trade union members, 1993-2003
Country Confederation /centre 1993 1998* 2003*
Women Men Women Men Women Men
Austria ÖGB nd nd 31.8% 68.2% 32.8% 67.2%
Total nd nd 31.8% 68.2% 32.8% 67.2%
Belgium CSC/ACV nd nd nd nd 42.0% 58.0%
FGTB/ABVV nd nd nd nd 35.0% 65.0%
CGSLB/ACLVB nd nd nd nd 40.0% 60.0%
Total nd nd nd nd 39.1% 60.9%
Bulgaria CITUB nd nd 51.0% 49.0% 48.0% 52.0%
Cyprus SEK 32.7% 67.3% 34.4% 65.6% nd nd
PEO 34.8% 65.2% 32.8% 67.2% nd nd
DEOK 16.7% 83.3% 16.7% 83.3% nd nd
Others 42.7% 57.3% 47.4% 52.6% nd nd
Total 34.8% 65.2% 35.9% 64.1% nd nd
Denmark LO 48.6% 51.4% 47.5% 52.5% 48.6% 51.4%
FTF 66.0% 34.0% 66.0% 34.0% 66.9% 33.1%
AC 28.4% 71.6% 34.2% 65.8% 37.3% 62.7%
LH 13.8% 86.2% 15.2% 84.8% 18.4% 81.6%
Others 36.8% 63.2% 39.2% 60.8% 39.7% 60.3%
Total 48.5% 51.5% 47.9% 52.1% 49.2% 50.8%
Estonia EAKL nd nd nd nd 58.3% 41.7%
TALO 60.0% 40.0% 60.0% 40.0% 60.0% 40.0%
Total (excl. others) nd nd nd nd 59.0% 41.0%
Finland SAK 45.6% 54.4% 46.0% 54.0% 46.0% 54.0%
STTK 64.0% 36.0% 66.0% 34.0% 68.0% 32.0%
AKAVA 47.4% 52.6% 44.1% 55.9% 50.7% 49.3%
Total (excl. others) 51.4% 48.6% 52.0% 48.0% 53.5% 46.5%
France CFDT 36.0% 64.0% 46.0% 54.0% 44.0% 56.0%
Germany DGB 31.4% 68.6% 30.5% 69.5% 31.8% 68.2%
DBB 29.7% 70.3% 29.7% 70.3% 29.9% 70.1%
CGB 24.1% 75.9% 25.1% 74.9% 25.2% 74.8%
Total 31.1% 68.9% 30.2% 69.8% 31.3% 68.7%
Hungary SZEF nd nd nd nd 70.0% 30.0%
MSZOSZ nd nd nd nd 47.9% 52.1%
ASZSZ nd nd nd nd 35.0% 65.0%
LIGA nd nd nd nd 30.0% 70.0%
MOSZ nd nd nd nd 35.0% 65.0%
Total (excl. ÉSZT and others) nd nd nd nd 49.8% 50.2%
Ireland Total nd nd nd nd 44.0% 56.0%
Latvia LBAS nd nd 60.7% 39.3% 57.2% 42.8%
Total nd nd 60.7% 39.3% 57.2% 42.8%
Luxembourg OGB-L 25.6% 74.4% 30.4% 69.6% 32.7% 67.3%
CGFP nd nd nd nd 41.7% 58.3%
Malta CMTU nd nd nd nd 36.1% 63.9%
Others nd nd 18.4% 81.6% 21.6% 78.4%
Total nd nd nd nd 27.6% 72.4%
Netherlands FNV nd nd 27.3% 72.7% 28.7% 71.3%
CNV 23.9% 76.1% 25.2% 74.8% 27.0% 73.0%
MHP nd nd nd nd 21.9% 78.1%
Others nd nd nd nd 39.3% 60.7%
Total nd nd nd nd 28.9% 71.1%
Norway LO 42.5% 57.5% 44.6% 55.4% 45.6% 54.4%
UHO - - - - 75.8% 24.2%
YS 67.0% 33.0% 66.7% 33.3% 57.5% 42.5%
Akademikerne - - 28.2% 71.8% 32.8% 67.2%
AF 42.2% 57.8% 58.4% 41.6% - -
Total (excl. others) 46.6% 53.4% 48.8% 51.2% 51.1% 48.9%
Romania Cartel Alfa 45.4% 54.6% 45.0% 55.0% 45.0% 55.0%
CNSLR 45.0% 55.0% 34.0% 66.0% 27.0% 73.0%
CSDR 30.8% 69.2% 30.8% 69.2% 30.8% 69.2%
BNS nd nd nd nd 29.9% 70.1%
Slovakia KOZ SR nd nd nd nd 42.2% 57.8%
Others nd nd nd nd 38.1% 61.9%
Total nd nd nd nd 42.0% 58.0%
Spain CC.OO nd nd nd nd 34.7% 65.3%
UGT 27.1% 72.9% 28.6% 71.4% 31.0% 69.0%
Sweden LO 45.5% 54.5% 46.0% 54.0% 46.0% 54.0%
TCO nd nd 63.0% 37.0% 62.4% 37.6%
SACO 44.3% 55.7% 46.3% 53.7% 49.2% 50.8%
Total (excl. others) nd nd 51.2% 48.8% 51.6% 48.4%
UK TUC 35.0% 65.0% 38.7% 61.3% 41.0% 59.0%

* Except for: France (CFDT) - 1997; Netherlands - 1999.

** Except for: Germany (CGB) - 2000; Austria, Belgium (CSC/ACV, Denmark, Estonia, France (CFDT), Germany (DGB and DBB) and Sweden - 2002.

Source: EIRO.

The sources of the data, and the accompanying notes, are as for table 1, except as follows:

  • Belgium. Figures are from unions concerned.
  • Bulgaria. Figures are from unions concerned.
  • Cyprus. Figures are estimates from the Department of Social Insurance, Ministry of Labour.
  • Denmark. 1993 figure for FTF is an estimate.
  • Norway. Some of the 1998 figures are incomplete, and the percentages given are based on the data for 1999.
  • Slovakia. Figures for 'other' unions are estimates.
  • Sweden. Figures for TCO and SACO exclude non-active members.

Issues related to union density

The data above relate to absolute numbers of trade union members. In order to gain a greater understanding of the meaning of such union membership levels in their national contexts (eg how representative or well supported unions are), and to make international comparisons, calculations of 'union density' are widely used. However, this is a particularly thorny issue in labour statistics, and we do not attempt here to produce a set of density figures for the 26 countries considered. The comprehensive data required are lacking and there are well-known problems with calculating union density that cannot be resolved in a report such as this one.

Union density is generally said to express 'union membership as a proportion of the eligible workforce' (see Technical notes. Industrial relations indicators, World Labour Report 1997-8, International Labour Organisation). There are thus two sides of the equation - union membership and the eligible workforce. If union membership is taken to be the total number of members and the eligible workforce is taken to be the total number of employees, then a very basic and crude density figure can be produced.

'Crude' density figures

Using the total membership figures given in table 1 above and the number of employees as defined in national labour force surveys enables crude density figures to be produced for all but one (France) of the 26 countries in 2003, or the most recent year for which data are available, as follows (the figures given are intentionally approximate):

  • over 90% in Romania;
  • 80%-89% in Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden;
  • 70%-79% in Italy and Norway;
  • 60%-69% in Cyprus and Malta;
  • 50%-59% in Luxembourg;
  • 40%-49% in Austria and Slovenia;
  • 30%-39% in Hungary, Ireland and Portugal;
  • 20%-29% in Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Slovakia and the UK; and
  • 10%-19% in Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Spain.

Where there are sufficient data for 1993 and 1998 to apply to this crude calculation method to these years as well, it is clear that the trend in union density is downward across Europe. Of the 20 countries for which the relevant information is available, all but one - Malta - experienced a fall in density over 1993-2003. This was most notable in the central and eastern European new Member States and candidate countries, with falls of around 60 percentage points in Bulgaria, 50 points in Slovakia, 40 points in Estonia and 30 points in Poland. In the other countries, density declined by no more than 15 percentage points, with falls of: below five percentage points in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway; from five to 10 points in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Portugal and the UK; and 10-15 points in Cyprus, Finland, Ireland and Sweden.

In countries (apart from Malta) where absolute union membership rose over 1993-2003, density declined because the absolute number of employees rose by more - as in Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal. Union membership fell while employee numbers grew in Austria, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK. In a number of central and eastern European countries, falls in union membership coincided with reductions in the number of employees - as in Bulgaria, Estonia and Poland - but the decline in the former exceeded the decline in the latter and density fell. The same was true, if less dramatically, in Germany.

Still using our crude calculation method, sufficient data are available to produce separate union density rates for women and men for a number of countries. In 2003 (or the nearest year for which data are available), density among women was higher than among men in half of the 14 countries for which a calculation can be made - Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden. The greatest differentials (over 10 percentage points) were found in Finland and Sweden. Male density exceeded female density in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands and Slovakia. The greatest differentials (over 10 percentage points) were found in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

The above density figures are given purely as a very rough indication. Below we highlight the problems in the calculation on the two sides of the density equation - the 'eligible workforce' and union membership.

'Eligible workforce'

The crude density figures given above are based on figures for the total number of employees, as given in national labour force surveys. There are no guarantees that they are calculated in the same way in every country, or include the same categories of people. Unfortunately, no single source of harmonised data (Eurostat, for example) could be find covering all the countries considered over the whole period examined. This is a first area of uncertainty.

A further problem is of defining what is the relevant constituency for trade unions. In the report cited above, the ILO refers to 'all people who earn their living on wages or salaries', which we have approximated above with 'employees'. However, it is arguable that wage and salary earners can no longer be regarded as the only constituency of trade unions. The boundary between dependent employment and self-employment is blurring in many countries, in a context of changing labour markets and the spread of practices such as outsourcing and contracting-out. This has led to growing interest in 'economically dependent workers'- workers who are formally self-employed but depend on a single employer for their income (TN0205101S). This phenomenon is relatively small-scale in most countries - though significant in Italy, for example - but growing. In this context, trade unions in many countries (notably in western Europe) are taking an increasing interest in recruiting economically dependent workers, the self-employed without employees in general, freelancers etc. Some unions organise such workers to varying degrees in countries such as Austria, Denmark (DK0308102F), Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands (NL9908157F), Norway, Spain (ES0002277F), Sweden (SE9907178F) and the UK. It may thus be the case that using only wage and salary earners as the basis for calculating union density is no longer fully appropriate.

A final issue is that the workers making up the 'eligible workforce' should only be those who are entitled to join a trade union. In some countries, certain categories of employees are not allowed by law to be union members. There appear to be no such restrictions in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. However groups excluded from potential union membership in other countries include the following:

  • Bulgaria - the military on regular service and police officers working for the Ministry of the Interior;
  • Estonia -members of the armed forces on active service;
  • Italy - members of military forces (navy, airforce, carabinieri, army etc);
  • Latvia - members of the police and armed forces and some civil servants;
  • Portugal - members of the armed forces;
  • Romania - managers, public officials, magistrates, the military personnel employed by various ministries, the intelligence services and other special services;
  • Slovenia - managers;
  • Spain - members of the armed forces, judges, magistrates and public prosecutors; and
  • the UK - serving members of the armed forces.

Where information is available on the number of such excluded employees, the unions’ potential constituency is reduced slightly (by under 1%) in Portugal, Slovakia and the UK, by a little more in Malta (around 2%), Estonia and Romania (both around 7%), and quite considerably in Poland. Union density in these countries is thus likely to be somewhat higher (taking into account only this factor) than in our crude estimates in these countries. However, similar information is not available for all countries where some employees are excluded from union membership, making it impossible to correct all density figures in this way.

Union membership

Turning to the union membership side of the density equation, a first problem is that (as noted above) the total national union membership figures given in table 1 and used in our crude density calculations are not always complete, as data for some smaller organisations are missing in some countries (eg in Italy and Spain). The ILO report cited above highlights the difficulties of 'locating and identifying the existence of small, new unions. This constitutes a problem in the case of unaffiliated unions as well as in countries where there is no obligation for a union to register'. Thus union membership (and the density) may be higher than indicated in some countries.

Second, most of the membership figures we have used are (directly or indirectly) self-reported by the unions themselves, which brings problems. These are summed up clearly by the ILO: 'Self-reporting of membership reflects different administrative and political practices and may yield incomparable and unreliable results. Unions may have reasons to overstate or understate their membership figures in reports to the press, public agencies, political parties, employers or competitors. They may apply different norms regarding who is to be considered as a member in good standing and may be slow to remove those who have left or no longer pay their contributions. Unions may include people who no longer consider themselves as members. Comparison with survey data suggests that some overstatement in reported membership is general but, in most cases, small.'

The third and most serious problem relates to the status of trade union members. If union density is measured against the number of employees, then logically only those members who are employees should be included in the union membership side of the equation. However, many unions include in their membership - and membership figures - people who are retired, unemployed, students or not active in some other way. (Self-employed members present another problem. They are often excluded when calculating union membership figures by researchers - eg the ILO - but the issue, discussed above, of whether or not some self-employed workers should be included in the unions’ constituency makes this a difficult area.)

Table 4 gives what information is available on this point, No data are available for Cyprus, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the UK, while only partial data or estimates are available in many cases. However, it is clear that a substantial proportion of many unions’ members are not in employment: 20% and upwards in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia, plus France’s CGT, the Netherlands’ MHP, Romania’s Meridian and Sweden’s SACO; and 10%-20% in Belgium, Luxembourg and Malta, plus Estonia’s EAKL, the Netherlands’ CNV and Sweden’s LO and TCO. Italy is a particularly notable case, with nearly half of the total membership of the three main union confederations being made up of retired members.

Table 4. Data on union members who are not in employment
Country Proportion of union members who are not in employment - eg retired, unemployed, students etc
Austria No official data available. Estimated (for ÖGB) at between 15% and 20% in the 1990s and around 20% in 2003.
Belgium Put at 17.5% (all unions) in 2000 (in Het belang van overleg. CAO -onderhandelingen in Belgïe, J Van Ruysseveldt, Acco, Leuven, 2000).
Bulgaria No data available, but only a few retired people are thought to remain members of enterprise union organisations.
Denmark Information from all union confederations indicates that 14%-15% of members are 'resting', or not directly active. Furthermore, there is a close link between union membership and membership of an unemployment insurance fund, and the overall union membership figures can be further reduced by the proportion of the unemployment funds’ members who are full-time unemployed (13.8% in 1993, 7.0% in 1998 and 5.9% in 2003). This produces rough estimates of non-active members of 29% in 1993, 22% in 1998 and 21% in 2003. However, though the total number of insured employees is not identical with number of union members (and part-time unemployed fund members are excluded from the calculation).
Estonia According to the confederations, 14.7% of EAKL members and 6% of TALO members in 2003.
Finland According to a study from the Ministry of Labour (Palkansaajien järjestäytyminen Suomessa vuonna 2001[Wage and salary earners’ organisation in Finland in 2001], Lasse Ahtiainen, Työpoliittinen tutkimus no 246, 2002), in 2001, 21.5% of all union members were not in employment. The proportion was 28.5% for AKAVA, 21.6% for SAK and 16.6% for STTK. Among members of all unions: 11.5% were pensioners (varying from 15.0% for SAK to 7.7% for STTK); 6.1% were students (from 18.2% for AKAVA to 2.1% for SAK); 0.5% self-employed (from 2.0% for AKAVA to nil for SAK); and 3.4% 'others' (from 4.5% for SAK to 0.4% for AKAVA). In 1994, 10.0% of members were pensioners and 4.7% were students, so the shares of these groups in union membership are increasing.
France According to CGT, 24.9% of members were pensioners in 1993 and 21.8% in 1998.
Greece Of GSEE members, 4.7% were retired in 1993, 6.3% in 1998 and 7.0% in 2003. GSEE has few unemployed members and ADEDY none. Students are not union members.
Hungary Estimated (for all unions) at 30% in 1993 and 20% in 1998 and 2003 - mainly pensioners.
Italy According to the Istat statistical office, 49.5% of Cgil, Cisl and Uil members were retired in 2000, 49.4% in 2001 and 49.3% in 2002.
Latvia According to LBAS, 12% of its members in 2003.
Luxembourg Estimated for OGB-L and LCGB at 22% in 1993, 20% in 1998 and 18% in 2003.
Malta Estimated at 8.4% in 1999 and 11.2% in 2003 by the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations, based on figures for the two largest unions (which covered 85%-86% of total union membership).
Netherlands According to MHP, 19% of its members in 1993, 19.3% in 1998 and 22.1% in 2003. According to CNV, 19% of its members in 2003 - half of them retired, the remainder unemployed, ill or disabled.
Norway According to figures from FAFO, 23% in 1993, 24% in 1998 and 26% in 2002 (all unions). In 2002, proportions were 29.8% for LO, 20.3% for UHO, 21.6% for YS and 27.3% for Akademikerne.
Romania Meridian’s reported membership of 1.5 million in 2003 includes around 900,000 members (60%) who are not employees, but members of affiliated cooperative associations.
Slovakia 13.2 % retired (all unions), and total not in employment estimated at up to 20%.
Slovenia Estimated at under 1% (all unions)
Sweden According to the confederations: LO - 13.3% in 1993, 12.8% in 1998 and 13.5% in 2002; TCO - 16.5% in 2002; SACO - estimated at around 22% in 1993 and 27% in 1998 and 2002.

Source: EIRO.

Because data are not available on this issue for all countries or all unions, an overall correction of the crude density figures for non-active members is not possible. However, such a calculation is possible for 13 countries. Correcting only for non-active union members (and not for other factors such as employees eligible to join a union) reduces density by some 15 percentage points or more in countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Romania and especially Italy (where the 'crude' density is nearly halved). The fall is also quite substantial (over 5 percentage points) in Austria, Malta and Sweden.

The main conclusion that can be drawn from the above is probably that union density is a perilous area, with too many variables and insufficient data to draw any firm conclusions in a brief overview such as this one. (Mark Carley, SPIRE Associates)


National trade union confederations/centres listed in table 1
Austria Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB)
Belgium Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België, CGSLB/ACLVB)
Bulgaria Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) Confederation of Labour Podkrepa (CL Podkrepa) National Trade Union Promiana Association of Democratic Trade Unions (ADTU) National Trade Union (NTU)
Cyprus Cyprus Workers' Confederation (SEK) Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) Democratic Labour Federation of Cyprus (DEOK)
Denmark Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) Confederation of Salaried Employees and Civil Servants in Denmark (Funktionærernes og Tjenestemændenes Fællesråd, FTF) Danish Confederation of Professional Organisations (Akademikernes centralorganisation, AC) Organisation of Managerial and Executive Staff in Denmark (Ledernes Hovedorganisation, LH)
Estonia Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL) Estonian Employees’ Unions’ Confederation (Teenistujate Ametiliitude Keskorganisatsioon, TALO)
Finland Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö, SAK) Finnish Confederation of Salaried Employees (Toimihenkilökeskusjärjestö, STTK) Confederation of Unions for Academic Professionals (AKAVA)
France General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT)
Germany German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) German Federation of Career Public Servants (Deutscher Beamtenbund, DBB) Christian Trade Union Federation of Germany (Christlicher Gewerkschaftsbund, CGB)
Greece Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) Greek Confederation of Public Servants (ADEDY)
Hungary Trade Union Cooperation Forum (Szakszervezetek Együttműködési Fóruma, SZEF) National Association of Hungarian Trade Unions (Magyar Szakszervezetek Országos Szövetsége, MSZOSZ) Alliance of Autonomous Trade Unions (Autonóm Szakszervezetek Szövetsége, ASZSZ) Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions (LIGA) Confederation of Unions of Professionals (Értelmiségi Szakszervezeti Tömörülés, ÉSZT) National Federation of Workers’ Councils (Munkástanácsok Országos Szövetsége, MOSZ)
Ireland Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)
Italy General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil) Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacato Lavoratori, Cisl) Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil)
Latvia Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (Latvijas Brīvo Arodbiedrību savienība, LBAS)
Luxembourg Luxembourg Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (Onofhängege Gewerkschafts-Bond Lëtzebuerg, OGB-L) Luxembourg Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Lëtzebuerger Chrëschtleche Gewerkschafts-Bond, LCGB) General Public Sector Confederation (Confédération générale de la fonction publique, CGFP) Luxembourg Association of Banking and Insurance Staff (Associations luxembourgeoise des employés de banque et d’assurances, ALEBA)/Union of Private Sector White-Collar Employees (Union des employés privés, UEP)-Neutral Union of Luxembourg Workers (Neutral Gewerkschaft Luxembourg, NGL)-National Union of Private Sector White-Collar Employees (Syndicat national des employés privés-Rénovateurs, SNEP) (ALEBA/UEP-NGL-SNEP)
Malta Confederation of Maltese Trade Unions (CMTU)
Netherlands Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV) Christian Trade Union Federation (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV) Federation for Middle and Higher Staff (Middelbaar en Hoger Personeel, MHP)
Norway Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) Confederation of Higher Education Unions, Utdanningsgruppenes Hovedorganisasjon, UHO) Confederation of Vocational Unions (Yrkesorganisasjonenes Sentralforbund, YS) Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations (Akademikerne) Confederation of Norwegian Professional Associations (Akademikernes Fellesorganisasjon, AF)
Poland All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy, NSZZ Solidarność) Trade Unions Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ)
Portugal General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral de Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) General Workers' Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT)
Romania Meridian Confederation (Confederatia Meridian) Cartel Alfa Confederation (Confederatia Cartel Alfa) National Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Romania 'Brotherhood' (Confederaţia Naţională a Sindicatelor Libere din România Frăţia, CNSLR Frăţia) Democratic Trade Union Confederation of Romania (Confederaţia Sindicatelor Democratice din România, CSDR) National Trade Unions Bloc (Blocul Naţional Sindical, BNS)
Slovakia Confederation of Trade Unions of the Slovak Republic (Konfederácia odborových zvazov Slovenskej republiky, KOZ SR)
Slovenia Union of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (Zveza svobodnih sindikatov Slovenije, ZSSS) KNSS - Independence, Confederation of New Trade Unions of Slovenia (KNSS - Neodvisnost, Konfederacija novih sindikatov Slovenije, KNSS) Confederation of Trade Unions of Slovenia Pergam (Konfederacija sindikatov Pergam Slovenije, Pergam) Confederation of Trade Unions ΄90 of Slovenia (Konfederacija sindikatov '90 Slovenije, Konfederacija '90)
Spain Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) Workers' Trade Unionist Confederation (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO) General Confederation of Workers (Confederación General del Trabajo, CGT)
Sweden Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen, LO) Swedish Confederation of Salaried Professionals (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Svenska Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO)
UK Trades Union Congress (TUC)
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