22. november 2012

Matching Danish Shop Stewards' Service Demands

- Union Strategies and Mergers over a Decade

Paper by Steen E. Navrbjerg and Trine P. Larsen

During the past 20 years Danish unions have merged and restructured in order to strengthen their power vis-à-vis the political system and employers’ organizations – and in some situations also to seize power from other unions. Under The Danish Confederations of Unions (LO), 21 unions merged to 15 unions from 1998 to 2011. During the same period, the unions under the confederation reduced the number of branches from 886 to 334; a reduction by 62 per cent.

At the same time, a process of decentralisation of the collective bargaining system has taken place since the early 1990s based on the needs for more flexibility in work organization at company level in order to meet the challenges of globalization. The level of negotiations moved from national and sector levels to work place level at the same time as the scope of issues to discuss has broadened, including local negotiations on issues like policies atypical work, special schemes for older workers, local wage systems etc.

This development has increased the work load on Danish shop stewards; they are not only to guard the wages and working conditions stipulated in the sector agreements; shop stewards are also expected to negotiate these matters locally and on top of this negotiate all kinds of employment policies, work organisation, working hours etc.

Based on two extensive shop stewards surveys undertaken in 1998 and 2010 respectively, the paper examines whether there exist a contradiction between a) the on-going decentralisation process of the collective bargaining system, which adds more and more tasks on the shoulders of the shop steward and; b) the on-going trend of union mergers.

While it could be expected that union merger and the reduction of local branches would entail a lower service level and a democratic deficit, the analysis shows that shop steward anno 2010 are more satisfied with the unions, compared to the shop stewards in 1998. Likewise a higher proportion of shop stewards feel to have influence on union politics in 2010 compared to 1998. This is largely due to a professionalization of union employees and a more effective communication structure.

Paper presented at the CRIMT Conference, Montreal, Canada, 25-27 October 2012.