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Getting closer to members could secure union survival

| Text: Marie Preisler

Nordic trade unions must get closer to their members and provide a better service at a lower price. If not the Nordic labour market model will die, warn labour market experts.

More and more workers opt out of trade member union membership and unemployment insurance funds. It is especially young unskilled workers who are disappearing off the union membership lists. This threatens the entire Nordic labour market model based on collective bargaining, and the trade unions’ only way to stop the drop in membership is to get much closer to each worker - without making membership more expensive. 

That is the conclusion in a new book by three of Denmark’s leading labour market experts, Flemming Ibsen, Laust Høgedahl and Steen Scheuer. It describes why a large number of workers are abandoning trade unions and stop paying into unemployment insurance funds. 

“We risk loosing something very valuable in the Nordic region if unions continue to loose members like this. We have a democratic tradition of voluntary deals between the social partners which secures stability and economically sustainable agreements. But the collective bargaining model is under threat as more and more abandon the unions,” says Flemming Ibsen, professor at the Centre for Labour Market Research at Aalborg University (CARMA) and co-author of “Collective bargaining - Professional Organisation and Change of Union”.

Can’t see the point 

The newly published book builds on various data about the motives Danish workers have when they change or leave their unions. It documents how more and more Danes choose not to join a union and that they do so for various reasons. There is a growing number from both high and low income groups who do not feel a union would be of any use to them, the authors say. They simply can’t see the point:

“High earners with sought after skills run a low risk of becoming unemployed and find it easy to negotiate a good salary and good working conditions with their employer. And many high earners do not necessarily sympathise with the union’s political views,” says Flemming Ibsen.

At the opposite end of the labour market - among unskilled workers - there are also many who do not see the value of union membership.

“Many unskilled workers no longer consider joining a union. They can freeride on the benefits without paying, or also they’re working in a place where membership has never been offered to them because the workplace is not covered by collective agreements and the trade unions are not visible.”

Yet union support is still high - also among young people - in trades with strong identities where unions have managed to stay relevant to individual employees’ working lives through attractive offers of further education among other things. This means individual workers see the benefit of being a member and that they get their money’s worth.    

“It is no longer enough for unions to call for solidarity and community. On the contrary, some of these traditional values might scare many workers away. The worker should also experience a personal gain - and at a reasonable price,” says Flemming Ibsen.

New role

He points to four important reasons behind the increasing number of workers who choose not to join unions:
- Many find membership too expensive
- Many do not sympathise with the values
- Many feel they get little back for their membership
- Many are never offered membership

Look inwards

Union membership used to be obligatory in many Danish workplaces because of so-called exclusive agreements. Today membership is voluntary, which means unions must adapt to their new role as service-minded providers of services in an open market. It is a change which they struggle enormously with, says Flemming Ibsen. 

He sees the members of Denmark’s Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) as being mostly preoccupied with attacking the new, cheaper ‘yellow’ unions - rather than looking inwards and acknowledging the necessity of delivering a better and cheaper product themselves: 

“Danish LO is too busy blaming the ‘evil yellow’, but this is far too defensive. There is no self criticism. There is a need for a far more offensive strategy to find ways for how unions can make a difference today to individual workers in the workplace.” 

The three authors conclude that the LO trade unions must become cheaper and better, and that this is achievable. But it means the trade unions themselves must prove that they do make a difference in the workplace, while they slim down internally too. Why should an LO secretary earn twice what the majority of the members they serve make, asks Flemming Ibsen.

So far there is nothing which indicates Danish LO has seen the writing on the wall, thinks Flemming Ibsen after having just taken part in LO’s annual congress:

“LO expects the fall in membership to continue and mainly talk about savings and mergers. This is a desperately defensive strategy. What we need is far more self-awareness and a willingness to embrace changes,” he says.


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