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Unions in retreat across Europe

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Trade unions have lost members and influence over the past 20 years in almost all European countries. High unemployment, an increasingly deregulated labour market and weaker safety nets makes many workers weary of putting their demands forwards and to become union members. Unions in several countries also criticise what they see as a relatively self-congratulatory Nordic model.

For a long time Sweden was home to some of the strongest trade unions in the world. 85 percent of all workers were union members as late as in 1993, it was an obvious thing to do. Trade unions didn’t need to put a lot of effort into recruiting, the members came regardless. But things changed in the mid-1990s and member numbers started falling by nearly one percent a year. Most of those turning their backs to the unions were young, often city based people working in the service industry. By 2006 union membership had sunk to 77 percent of all workers. In 2007 the centre-right government weakened unemployment protection, which led to a mass flight away from the unions.

The new system made it more expensive to be a member of an unemployment insurance fund, while payouts became lower. Unions within Sweden’s Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) were particularly badly hit because some of the changes meant unions with high unemployment rates also ended up paying higher fees. 245,000 members left mainly LO unions within two years, but unions representing professional employees took a hit too. Union membership figures sank from 77 to 71 percent.

A European problem

But the decline of the unions was not only a Swedish problem. The same development was seen in country after country in Europe. This made two journalists reporting on the labour market curious. Anna Danielsson Öberg and  Tommy Öberg applied for funds with Sweden’s LO and in spring 2012 they travelled across Europe to find out why European trade unions have been loosing millions of members over the past decades. In addition to Sweden, they chose to study unions in Germany, Estonia, Italy and Norway. This allowed them to meet people in both old and new EU countries, but also in non-EU member state Norway. Their travels resulted in the book ‘Union decline - reports from Europe’, published this spring. It confirmed people’s misgivings. Things aren’t going particularly well for European trade unions in today’s Europe.

“We had low expectations for union development in Estonia even before we went there, and our preconceptions turned out to be true. But I had not expected to find that Germany was such a mess of unregulated wages and conditions. There was also generally more fear than what I had expected,” says Tommy Öberg.

Social democratic betrayal

The number of workers organised through the German Confederation of Trade Unions has been halved since German unification - from 12 million to 6.1 million members. Total union membership now stands at 19 percent, and there are several explanations for this. Germany’s labour market has changed; industry has shrunk while the service sector has grown. This has not benefited unions. Another explanation is Gerhard Schröder’s red-green coalition government’s weakening of workers‘ rights with the introduction of the so-called Hartz reforms, especially within trades from which unions traditionally had been able to recruit many members.

The deregulation of the labour market means there are far more types of temporary jobs today. In Germany there is for instance something called ‘mini-jobs’ - a kind of part time job which means the worker must never earn more than 400 Euro a month while the employer doesn’t pay tax and social fees. The rights to unemployment benefits was also weakened through lower payouts and shorter benefit periods. The result is millions of people living with non-secure jobs on low pay, and as a consequence more people accept worse and worse conditions out of fear of becoming unemployed. This is for instance the reality for many of the women who sell luxury goods along the main boulevards of Germany’s bigger cities.

Estonian unions risk being wiped out

The Estonian trade union movement is facing a total wipe out. There is partly an ideological scepticism to unions, a heritage from the Russian occupation where unions were part of the powers that be. Employers are also often negative to the point of being hostile to organised labour, and this influences workers’ desire to join unions. Trade union interest is also being negatively influenced by high unemployment combined with weakened employment rights and low unemployment benefits.

Italy enjoys higher union membership figures than both Germany and England, but here too numbers are down. Permanent staff enjoy strong support through collective agreements for sure, but the problem is that more and more have non-secure contracts and they are in fierce competition for their jobs. The wage gap is widening and many consider politicians to be incapable of solving the problems. The resulting increased fear in society can lead to racism and nationalism.

“In Italy we found fear that self-interest is growing and that national interests will take precedence again,” says Anna Danielsson Öberg.

The exception: Norway

Norway stands out among the countries covered by the book. So far Norway has managed to avoid the crisis experienced by the other trade unions described in the book. One reason is the high employment rate and the fact that there has been a sellers market for a long time, which creates a strong negotiation position. The relationship between the social partners and the government is good and strong. There is also the knowledge that things can quickly change.

When unions loose influence, fewer people listen and the power behind negotiations is weakened. Politics tends to take over what used to be regulated by the social partners. But when minimum wages and working conditions become election issues, you have a problem, thinks Tommy Öberg.

“You risk leaving these issues to politicians when the unions are on the slippery slope they’re on today. And if for instance the size of the minimum wage is being decided through an election campaign we’re in trouble. We can get knee-jerk reactions and questions of security and conditions end up far beyond the workers’ control,” he says.

Nordic unions criticised

European unions disagree on statutory minimum wages. Nordic countries want to keep the tradition of negotiating a deal, while the weakened European unions want to see legislation. They are critical of their Nordic colleagues whom they think fail to appreciate the considerably tougher reality faced by the European unions compared to the strong, Nordic unions with their high membership numbers.  

“The strong criticism of Nordic unions is well deserved. Because they have been a respected adversary for many years, they have paid less attention to the plight of others. Sometimes you find a lack of imagination among the Scandinavian unions, who often cannot imagine what it is like to have membership numbers around 20 percent. You should be able to defend a collective agreement model while still understanding that you sometimes need to make use of policies to establish support,” says Anna Danielsson Öberg.

The two authors’ are painting a bleak picture. The insecurity, the fear of getting involved because it might be used against you in the tough fight over jobs and sometimes in the face of outright anti-union employers. 

“130 years ago union work was directly associated mortal danger. You were evicted from your home and blacklisted. Today it is not as dangerous, but yet the fear seems to be as big. People hesitate to be associated with the union. If you mess with people all the time you understand the rationale of not putting your head above the parapet,” says Tommy Öberg.

So how do you change the trend?

“You need political change. Legislation to make permanent jobs a norm in all countries. People must be allowed to feel safe by offering decent unemployment insurance funds and a regulated labour market. This is a political question and not one for the social partners,” says Anna Danielsson Öberg.

Fast dwindling membership numbers

Union book

In the last 20 years the number of European trade union members has fallen from 66 to 60 million people, according to figures from the European Trade Union Configuration. In their book ‘Union Decline - reports from Europe’ labour market journalists Anna Danielsson Öberg and Tommy Öberg look at why unions have been forced back and at the effects of dwindling membership numbers. They chose to describe how things have developed in five European countries, and in spring 2012 they visited Estonia, Germany, Italy and Norway as well as their home country Sweden. They have interviewed trade union leaders and researchers to get their views on developments. 

The book paints a bleak picture of how workers are loosing security and are forced to accept worsening conditions. The risk of unemployment combined with a more deregulated labour market and weakened job security creates a fear which forces union membership and the will to demand better condition onto the back burner. But unions also accept that they have not realised the size of the problems and done something about them in time. There is also criticism against Nordic trade unions which sometimes seem to have trouble understanding and supporting other realities than their own

The downward trend in union membership is the same across Europe with a few exceptions, including Norway.

Read more (in Swedish):

‘Union decline - reports from Europe’ by Anna Danielsson Öberg and Tommy Öberg. (Premiss förlag 2012)


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