Trade union leader outlines vision for one large union

Declining membership numbers and stronger employer organisations are prompting the trade union movement to streamline its efforts. The president of the largest trade union in Denmark has recommended a merger of all trade unions affiliated to the Danish Trade Union Confederation into one single comprehensive union. The leaders of the other trade unions are sceptical in this regard but are generally positive towards the idea of comprehensive mergers.

Background

At the beginning of 2009, the membership of the trade unions organised under the Danish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) fell to under one million active members. This was a symbolic milestone of a development that has been steadily ongoing since the middle of the 1990s when membership peaked at 1.5 million and started to decrease after decades of continuous growth. The declining membership has been a contentious issue in the debate among the trade unions. They fear that further decline will leave them without influence towards employer organisations and that this will be the end of the so-called Danish model of labour market regulation, with its main emphasis on collective bargaining between strong labour market organisations.

In a remarkable feature article on 29 August 2009 in the daily newspaper Politiken, entitled ‘Vision for en samlet fagbevægelse’ [Vision for a united trade union movement], the President of the United Federation of Danish Workers (Fagligt Fælles Forbund, 3F), Poul Erik Skov Christensen, gave the latest contribution to the debate on how to turn the tide. As the leader of the largest trade union in Denmark, Mr Skov Christensen recommended the creation of one large LO union in Denmark to replace the existing 18 unions within LO. These numerous trade unions are based on occupational categories, which is the norm in Denmark.

Mr Skov Christensen pointed out that the trend during the last decade to merge trade unions into bigger organisations will continue and, in 10 years from now, only six or seven large LO unions will remain. However, he argued, the system of maintaining trade unions according to occupations is based on a 100-year old tradition that no longer matches the labour market and the employees’ working life of today. In his view, it is important to start a development towards merging the LO unions into one comprehensive trade union in the near future.

Four challenges for trade unions

To pursue this objective, the trade unions must address four central challenges, as outlined under the following headings.

Flexible labour market

The first central challenge is the emergence of a much more flexible labour market mainly as a result of globalisation. Danish employees change jobs more often – up to nine times on average in a working life. The employees not only change occupation but also sector of economic activity. For example, many of those who were dismissed from the manufacturing sector due to the current economic recession found a new position in municipal care. In the opinion of Mr Skov Christensen, one strong trade union for LO employees would be able to handle these changes across occupations and economic sectors.

Young peoples’ relationship with unions

The second significant challenge for the development of the membership of LO trade unions is the general failure to recruit young people. A generation ago, membership of a trade union was a natural continuation of a job relation. Today, however, the traditional solidarity has been replaced by a more individualistic approach among young people to the trade union movement. This approach is in accordance with a more flexible and individualistic labour market.

Moreover, the current demographic imbalance is not to the benefit of trade unions if young people keep staying away from the unions as they grow older. In this regard, Mr Skov Christensen also points to the ‘dinosaur’ approach that the trade unions have in the eyes of young people in the labour market. The trade unions can resemble a confusion of different larger and smaller unions, local union departments, clubs, confederations and unemployment funds, with different membership fees depending on a local department or union. One strong trade union could make the movement more visible and transparent. It would be in a much better position to prepare for one powerful strategy with the aim of attracting young people to the movement.

Competition from ‘yellow unions’

The third challenge comes from the competition from so-called ‘yellow unions’, that is, trade unions which are not part of the traditional union movement. Mr Skov Christensen explains that

it is not a direct competition since none of them can deliver the central union product, the collective agreement. Only the real union movement can deliver this. However, since many employees, also young, are tempted by low membership fees, it is necessary to respond to the competition. One large union will benefit from an economy of scale and be able to offer better and more direct service and a lower membership fee. The aim for a new LO must be to be a strong and visible actor in the local society with member-service centres on the main street in all Danish municipalities together with a strong united LO unemployment fund.

A spin-off benefit of a single trade union would be to avoid occupational boundary conflicts and internal disputes between the LO unions themselves, which at times has marred the work of the unions.

Accumulation of power among employers

The last but not least challenge for the development of the LO trade unions, according to Mr Skov Christensen, is the increasingly dominating role of the employer organisation the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI), affiliated to the Confederation of Danish Employers (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA). In the opinion of the 3F leader,

the reinforcement of the political work in a strengthened DI partly means that the confederation DA is no longer an independent political actor, and partly that the unions have to increase their own political work in order to be able to match the side of the employers.

Furthermore, the already powerful DI merged in January 2008 with the third largest DA organisation, the Confederation of Danish Commercial Transportation and Service Industries (Handel, Transport og Service, HTS), thus cementing the dominating position of DI with regard to the trade unions, the other employer organisations and the parliament (DK0802029I).

The new DI will negotiate the renewal of the collective agreements in the sectoral domains of LO and DA in early 2010. This means that, for the first time, DI will not only be a strong opponent in the trend-setting industry sector but will also dominate the negotiations in the transport sector. Before the merger, the two sectoral agreements were negotiated with two different employer organisations and the outcome was easier for the trade unions to influence. According to Mr Skov Christensen, ‘the reality now is that a number of different constellations of unions will negotiate all key agreements with a united DI.’ He explained that ‘a united LO movement will have the necessary muscles to be one the country’s most influential lobby organisations in Copenhagen, in Brussels as well as in the individual municipalities to the benefit of the employees’ interests.’

LO unions sceptical but generally positive

The response from the leaders of the other LO trade unions to this somewhat surprising initiative is mainly positive but also reluctant. One of the small trade unions commented that ‘if big is beautiful, why does 3F itself lose members?’ As noted, 3F is the largest trade union in Denmark, with about 300,000 paying members, and it was a result of a comprehensive merger between the National Union of Female Workers (Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund, KAD) and the General Workers’ Union in Denmark (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD) (DK0410103N).

The tendency among the responses is that the small trade unions tend to envisage about six large unions while the big trade unions propose two or three unions as a possibility. The third largest LO union, Trade and Labour (Fag og Arbejde, FOA) – whose 175,000 members are employed in the public sector – suggests one private sector organisation and one public sector organisation. However, the President of LO, Harald Børsting, has downplayed the question about how many trade unions should be the future target. The most important point is that 3F has initiated a discussion that will take as its starting point the problems that the LO trade unions are currently facing. All of the unions support this argument, and the preliminary plan is to present a concept for a structural change at the LO congress in 2011.

Commentary

The employer organisations have for half a century been setting the trends regarding mergers and acquisitions between the associations. The rule has been that the trade unions have followed the rhythm in the structural development of the employer organisations and have changed a traditional ‘heavy’ trade union system into fewer and bigger units. When DI was founded in 1992 through a merger of powerful organisations mainly in the iron and metal industry, the response from the LO movement was to create a cartel of all trade unions organising skilled and unskilled workers in industry – the Central Organisation of Industrial Employees (Centralorganisationen af industriansatte i Danmark, CO-industri). The new bargaining cartel was an enlargement of the existing CO-Metal and could match DI at the bargaining table.

The situation today is in many ways similar. DI has merged again, but the trade unions are currently in a much different situation. They are experiencing a steady decline in membership as members get older and fewer younger members join. More potential members complete a medium-long or higher education that suits the profile of trade unions outside LO. Furthermore, the ‘yellow unions’ are growing mainly because they can offer a certain security for a much lower membership fee than the LO unions. It seems that, whatever form the trade union or trade unions might take, lowering the membership fee will be a central issue for further discussion.

Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS

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