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”Change or die” - mobilising and modernising unions

”Change or die” - mobilising and modernising unions

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

From 2007 to 2011 Swedish trade unions lost 273,000 members. Worst hit was the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the lowest numbers of union membership was found among young people and people of foreign heritage. But unions are not passively watching the fall in membership numbers - on the contrary, they are mobilising to reach old and new members.

Veronica Karlsson, second deputy leader at the trade union Vision is on the telephone from Alvesta, a town in Southern Sweden. Like many elected representatives she is travelling around the country to reach Vision’s goal to spend this autumn talking to hundreds of thousands of existing and prospective members.

“In the workplaces we ask ‘do you want to join the union?’ Many might think of us as a staid institution, but it is by being present at people’s coffee breaks that we get to know what is important to our members. It is a new way of working and I am witnessing a joy and pride I have not seen before,” says Veronica Karlsson.

Until a few months ago Vision was known as SKTF. The union has 160,000 members in the private and public sector in municipalities, county councils and churches. After 75 years it was time for a new name and new branding. The homepage is full of happy colours, pictures of young people and a direct question - what ‘would make your Monday happier?‘ Both the new name and the new branding are results of a long and thorough process in response to the large drop in membership which hit the entire trade union movement in 2007 and 2008.

“We have been loosing members for decades, but the changes to the unemployment benefit funds in 2007 meant a major loss. We realised we needed to change or die,” says Veronica Karlsson.

Changing structures change unions

Union membership loss has been going on for some time, but it has been a slow decline. There are many explanations to this. One is the changes to the labour structure. There is more job creation within trades with lower union membership, for instance the private service industry. There’s a growth in service sector jobs while traditional industry worker jobs are disappearing, which hits the members of Sweden’s Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and benefits white-collar worker organisations like the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) and the Swedish Confederation of Professions (Saco). The public labour market has also changed because many state and municipal businesses have been incorporated or privatised. Many jobs have also disappeared through cuts and leaner workplaces. All these changes have meant a rewriting of the union map - not only when it comes to membership numbers but also when it comes to the possibility of taking part in union activities in the workplace.  

The law does allow for union related activity during paid working hours as long as this relates to your own workplace, but if this is to the detriment of an already hard-pressed team it might not always be that easy to do. And if a workplace has no active union chapter it becomes even harder to recruit new members.

Shock increase in membership fees

But there was a different reason for the huge drop in membership which started in the autumn of 2006 and which hit more or less the entire union movement. When the centre-right government came to power in the autumn of 2006 it decided to make changes to the unemployment benefit funds. These changes came into force on 1 January 2007. The fee was increased considerably and tax rebates for unemployment benefit fund payments and union membership were abolished. One and a half years later, in July 2008, another decision meant an even greater difference in the various fees paid to  unemployment funds - the higher the unemployment figure among members in one union, the higher the fee.

This led to shock increases in fees, especially for many LO member unions, but it had consequences for white-collar organisations too. During the period 2007 - 2008 a full eight percent of union members left and since the start of 2007 the number of union members has dropped by 273,000. LO unions are worst hit. Since 2006 LO has lost 16 percent of its members, which means one in six members have left their union. Even more quit the unemployment funds and at the end of December 2009 the union unemployment funds had lost 371,000 members in three years. From the end of 2006 to the end of 2010 the number of workers (including unemployed ones) with no unemployment insurance fund membership rose from just over half a million to just over 1.1 million. 

“This increase was a hard blow to the unions and the unemployment funds, and has led to many falling outside of the social safety net offered by unions and unemployment funds,” says Anders Kjellberg, professor of sociology at Lund University.

A unique event

He has been studying union membership figures for many years and describes what happened in 2007 and 2008 as a unique event in modern Swedish history. Between 2006 and 2008 the rate of unionisation fell from 77 percent to 71 percent. The country was experiencing an economic boom when the new rules which meant major increases in membership fees were introduced. Normally membership numbers follow business cycles - in good times membership usually falls. But in 2008, when Sweden along with much of the rest of the world entered one of the worst economic downturns since the 1930s, membership numbers did not grow, and this broke the trend. 

“We’re talking about attitude changes implying that more people are taking benefits and drawbacks into consideration, and if there are no new benefits as fees go up, union membership might suddenly not be that attractive,” says Anders Kjellberg.

He reckons this concerns younger people in particular, who have left unions in droves. Only 24 percent of employees between 16 and 24 were union members in 2010, while 20 years ago the number was 62 percent. Young people settle into the labour market later in life, and they are also more exposed to structural changes to the labour market. They enter into growth sectors with relatively low union membership numbers. They are for instance over-represented in service industries like hotels and restaurants.

“Many young people have a loose connection to the labour market and to individual workplaces, because most of them have short-term jobs which are often followed by periods of unemployment. Many also lack proper knowledge about what a union or a collective agreement is, and many young people do not realise that the collective agreement is their guarantee for securing an occupational pension,” says Anders Kjellberg.

Younger committees

SKTF’s change into Vision aims to change this situation, among other things. It already began a comprehensive transformation back in 2008. Veronica Karlsson thinks this transformation was a brave one, as they dared ask themselves difficult questions. Rather than blaming someone else for falling membership figures, they blamed themselves. Member surveys and focus groups have helped the union identify what changes are needed to become an attractive and obvious choice for young people, academics and newly hired workers. Vision decided that all committees on all levels should aim for at least 30 percent of their members to be younger than 35.  

“We didn’t want to speculate about what the young wanted, we wanted to give them power instead,” says Veronica Karlsson.

Vision is also part of a TCO drive where 15 unions have been working together since 2007 with the project ‘Unions are Changing’. It helps communicate the importance of collective agreements, but also deals with questions relating to how people want their life and working life to be. Social media has been a good help in this work, with a film on YouTube which starts by asking ‘What’s in it for you?’ The film details how all the old-fashioned, top managed and dictatorial stuff is being replaced with coaching, being human and contemporary and  offering influence and engagement. So is Vision’s change also a criticism of how unions have developed over the years?

“We have not been good at explaining what we do and how we do it. During the 1970s we achieved many victories, but we perhaps became complacent after that and as a result more administrative,” says Veronica Karlsson.

Listening, not recruiting

She senses an interest out there in the workplaces. But the most important thing is not to talk about the Swedish model, but to be more to the point - “how do you want to feel when you come in on a Monday?”. It is about being serious while easy-going. That’s when you get to the conversations about how to make life work, about the opportunities to develop and about the stress of always having to be accessible. She feels their new way of doing things is working. In two months they have gained 2,000 new members - or 800 if you count the ones who left. 

LO is the one central union which has lost the most members. In 1994 LO represented some 88 percent of organised workers. Today the figure is nearly down to 69 percent. One of the main problems is that so few young people join unions, and the campaign ‘The Big Journey’ aims to reach them. It is not mainly a recruitment campaign, but more a way of listening to the young. But this method also works perfectly well for recruiting new members, says project leader Stefan Hansson at LO. The aim is to reach 100,000 young people, and so far some 20,000 have been reached. The actual listening is being done by union members who have taken an interest in the project. The hope is that all these conversations will result in ideas to make unions more interesting for the coming generation.    

“We will soon launch an ad which says ‘we have always been shouting our members‘ names, now we need to listen to what they’re actually saying’. This is a good and patient way of recruiting new members,” says Stefan Hansson. 

He draws a similar picture to that of Anders Kjellberg when it comes to young people’s attitude to unions. Young people look at union membership as any other product, comparable to a holiday or some gadget. They also often believe unions are only for people with permanent jobs in an industrial area. Stefan Hansson does not think the solution is to offer them a range of benefits, like iPads or other products. But perhaps there should be different kinds of memberships which were tailored to the individual’s life situation. If you live with your parents you might not need the home insurance which comes with the membership.

“There’s nothing wrong with our opinion, our aims or our task, but we have not managed to communicate our idea in a good way to those who are not members,” he says.

A gap in union membership

Yet even if unions seem to be facing a gloomy membership situation, Sweden, Denmark and Finland still have some of the highest union membership rates in the world. Many are also benefiting from collective agreements and even the unions which are loosing members and which have few local chapters do get help from LO. It is also worth pointing out that employers are well organised and their organisations have not suffered a loss of members. White-collar workers are now more organised than blue-collar workers, which represents a major change.     

A gap is emerging between white and blue-collar workers when it comes to union membership because of the high combined fees for union membership and unemployment insurance funds. There is also a growing number of people falling outside of the system, where young people and people of foreign heritage are more likely to not be union members. The union map is being re-drawn, and the question is what does it all mean? Will fewer members and a change in the balance of power change unions’ influence?

“If union membership continues to fall, there is a risk that we end up with fewer jobs being covered by collective agreements. This in turn could lead to further demands for legislation on minimum wages and more. EU directives could also be introduced more often in the shape of legislation rather than as agreements. This could lead to a more rigid system where unions see their power weaken. Another problem with falling membership numbers is that this weakens the basis for union chapters, which can make local cooperation between the social partners more difficult,” says Anders Kjellberg.


Swedish union membership plummeted in 2007 and 2008. A total of 273,000 members disappeared out of Swedish unions between the start of 2007 and end of 2010. Since 2006 LO has lost 16 percent, or one in six members.

The main cause was the centre-right government announcing an increase in unemployment insurance fees in autumn of 2006, taking effect from January 2007.

At the same time the tax rebates for unemployment fund fees (40 percent) and trade union fees (25 percent) were axed. In Sweden most unemployment benefit funds are traditionally linked to trade unions. 

One and a half years later the government decided to further differentiate unemployment fund fees according to the risk of unemployment in each fund. This meant members of certain unions, for instance IF Metall, faced an unemployment fund fee of 390 kronor a moth when unemployment among members were at its highest, while civil engineers got away with 90 kronor in monthly fees.

Today 71 percent of all employees are union members. At its peak in 1993, union membership stood at 85 percent. A historical shift is that the number of white-collar workers is now higher than that of blue-collar workers. Yet Sweden’s total union membership figure is amongst the highest in the world.

Sources: ”Collective agreements’ reach and trade union and employer organisation  membership” by professor Anders Kjellberg, Lund University, plus ”Why are unions loosing members?”, a presentation at a seminar on 25 October 2011.


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