Decentralising the Danish bargaining model - changing the relations between shop stewards, management and unions

Steen E. Navrbjerg* & Trine P. Larsen*
*Associate Professor, FAOS, University of Copenhagen
Paper presented at IREC Conference, Gothenburg, September 2015

Key words: shop stewards, decentralisation, company based bargaining, Danish industrial relations and unions

This paper examines is whether Danish shop stewards’ relations with their colleagues, management and the union have changed during distinct phases in the decentralisation process of the Danish collective bargaining system, especially when shop stewards exploit the new and more extensive opportunities for company based bargaining. In doing so, we draw on longitudinal survey data with Danish shop stewards from 1998 and 2010, respectively – each year representing a distinct stage in the decentralisation process.

Until the 1990’s, the sectoral agreements signed by social partners restricted the scope for company based bargaining in various ways, and most local deviations had to be reported to unions and employers organisation. This has changed over the last two decades, and in 2010, shop stewards and management no longer need the approval of local unions when they sign local agreements, and most sectoral agreements give considerable latitude for company based bargaining on a wide range of issues, including the possibility to deviate from the sectoral agreement provided that there is local consent between the employer and the employees (Ilsøe, 2012). Hence, data from 2010 is expected to show differences with regards to relations between shop stewards, management and unions when compared to data from 1998.

By examining the decentralisation process from the perspective of shop stewards, the analysis reveals how shop stewards have handled the decentralisation process, especially with regards to their relations with management, colleagues and unions – aspects rarely explored in much industrial relations literature.  Denmark is often considered the prototype of organised decentralisation with its comparatively high union density, extensive collective agreement coverage and strong union representation at the workplace. The bargaining structures and negotiation culture at sectoral level seems to a large degree to have been replicated at company level although variations exist depending on the sector under consideration (Traxler 1995; Due and Madsen 2006; Ilsøe, 2012; Ilsøe and Felbo-kolding, 2014). If shop stewards are unable to unite, guard and represent employee interests in company based bargaining whilst ensuring a close link between the unions and their members, this could challenge the Danish industrial relations model, as a precondition for a functioning centralised decentralisation – as oppose to a disorganised decentralisation - is a close coordination between the social partners at sectoral and company level (Due and Madsen, 2006: 28-30).