27. august 2012

Importing Low Density Ideas to High Density Revitalisation

Paper by Jens Arnholtz, Christian Lyhne Ibsen (FAOS) & Flemming Ibsen (CARMA, University of Aalborg)

Trade union membership levels in Denmark began to drop considerably from the mid-1990s. Responses to this development have been somewhat tardy and piecemeal as unions are slowly waking up to the realities of shrinking membership.

Indeed, it could be argued that Danish union officials have had to reinvigorate recruitment and retention efforts after years with almost automatic memberships due to the Ghent-system. In their search for ways to re-vitalise union membership, officials have looked to their peers in Anglo-Saxon countries and have promoted the ‘organising model’ as a lifebuoy.

This paper traces how these processes of import and translation of the ‘organising model’ have evolved and what they have meant for the organising efforts in a selection of unions belonging to Danish LO. We try to unravel the puzzle of why union officials from a high union density country like Denmark chose to import a model from low density countries such as the US, Great Britain and Australia where success rates have not been uniform.

The time-lag, between the big debates on the ‘organising model’ in the US, Great Britain and Australia on the one hand, and the import of the organising idea in a Danish context on the other, shows that the circulation of ideas is not a case of semi-automatic institutional isomorphism, but the result of an active import and translation process.

To understand import and translation, we look at the various responses to membership decline already in action, such as service union strategies, partnership strategies or political lobbying for re-enchanting membership incentives. Similarly, we try to understand the interests of the union officials initiating the import of the ‘organising model’.

We base our analysis on in-depth interviews with union officials at federate and local union levels within two main areas of the LO-unions, construction workers and salaried workers. This is complemented by analysis of documentary material about organising efforts and quantitative data on union membership.

The analyses of the different processes for construction workers and salaried workers show how workplace and occupational characteristics, timing and agency – including the career battles of union officials – have significant consequences for the import of the ‘organising model’, which in turn frames the re-vitalisation efforts of the future.

The ‘organising model’ is coupled with other recruitment and retention schemes in a sometimes random fashion as campaigns and initiatives by local officials are seldom fully coordinated with union headquarters. Similarly, the analyses show that the ‘organising model’ might be ill-fit to a context of cooperative relationships at workplace level – indeed, often the problematic issues around which to organise are hard to identify.

The full paper was presented at ILERA World Congress 2012, Philadelphia, USA, 2-5 July 2012 and ILERA European Congress 2013, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 20-22 June 2013.