Power in a Union: Lessons from Danish Labour

When international student Michaela Cavanagh received her first paycheque from her job as a server in a Danish restaurant, she realized 37 per cent of it went to the state. Compared to the typical Canadian income tax rate, this amount seems ludicrous. But Cavanagh’s hourly wage is 128.64 Danish Kroner — approximately $25 Canadian dollars. So even after a huge chunk of her paycheque is deducted, Cavanagh still makes more per hour than a server does in her native Ontario.

Aside from that, she says, “the working conditions are better — meaning mostly that I’m not as stressed at work. Of course, it’s nice to get income right into my pocket when I work in Canada in the form of tips, but I can see that in Denmark you’re paying for services and benefits that servers just wouldn’t have access to in Canada.” Tipping in restaurants is not an expectation in Denmark like it is in other countries, and though Cavanagh is not a member of a union, she still feels the benefits of Denmark’s strong labour culture.

A history of vigorous labour advocacy is what led to the Danish economic system becoming so much more than the link between high taxation and comprehensive public services. Without a strong working class and union culture, the country’s inclusive and accessible economic model just would not work.

“If you look at it historically, you can see that the labour movement has been very tightly connected to the Social Democratic Party, which has had the power building the welfare system,” says Anita Vium Jorgensen, head of secretariat at Fagligt Fælles Forbund, also called 3F — the largest union in Denmark. 3F is a union which includes not only workers in transport, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and forestry; but also in horticulture, hospitality and the service industry.

“If we didn’t have a strong union historically,” says Jorgensen, “the welfare system would look totally different.” Denmark’s Socialdemokraterne is the social-democrat political party whose policy became the backbone of Denmark’s current social security system. Before this system was put in place, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) ended a deadlock with right-wing politicians and employers by issuing a 1987 joint declaration together with employer organization Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening and the then centre-right government. This cooperation with the government was a first for Danish labour. LO had strongly opposed the government for years, but pragmatically chose cooperation and political influence. That led to labour organizations participating in government committees, and also to long-term labour reform.

“Overall, we have, compared to what you have in North America, fantastic maternity leave. We even have leave you can share with your husband, paid maternity leave,” says Lars Brittain, head of networking with Djøf, the Danish Association of Lawyers and Economists. Djøf, with almost 100,000 members, is the largest union in Denmark for students and employees working in law, administration and governance. It also covers those who work in research, education, communication, economics, and in the political and social sciences.

High taxes go towards the generous Danish social safety net — free post-secondary education, up to eight months parental leave for both parents, state-subsidized child care and unemployment benefits as high as 90 per cent of your previous job’s salary. In contrast, while parental leave in Canada totals up to 35 weeks for both parents, post-secondary education is considered extremely inaccessible, as is child care. Employment insurance starts at 55 per cent of your previous income, with a cap at $49,500.

“In that case we have some really good structures. Of course they can be better and everyone wants to get even better deals, but the people that are criticizing the status in Scandinavian countries have never been in a workplace in North America. Here, it’s hard to be fired. If you get fired you get compensation. If you’ve been in the same job for half a year you get three months’ pay if you’re fired, even if it’s a legitimate reason [that you were fired for].”

According to Jorgensen, “Because we have so many unions and such relatively strong trade unions, the lowest wages in our community are quite high. We’ve been able to have so many members and have some power in society.” Though the country has no legislated minimum wage, the lowest paid jobs tend to earn around $20 per hour before taxes.

If you consider other elements of working life, Cavanagh’s experience demonstrates more differences between Canada and Denmark, at least in the hospitality sector.

“In the service industry in Denmark, I don’t have to rely so heavily on tips. I’m less dependent on the whims of customers. In Canada, you’re fiercely competitive for more and more tables in the restaurant, and less likely to cooperate or work together with other servers, more likely to ‘stay in your own lane.’”

Cavanagh feels her rights are so well protected that she’s not constantly stressed about making ends meet or about having to keep a job in a workplace plagued with exploitative labour practices.

The historical relationship between labour advocacy and the political sphere has made union culture so ubiquitous in Denmark that 29-year-old middle school teacher Ellen Brandt says, “It is almost weird if someone is not in a union — it would mostly be students or poor people,” because they don’t have jobs that enable them to pay the union dues. “It would seem like you don’t care about fællesskabet (the community and the people). It is considered smart and for your own good to be in a union, but also society benefits.”

Brandt belongs to Danmarks Lærerforening or DLF and pays about 6,000 DKK — approximately $1,100 Canadian dollars per year in union dues. DLF represents teachers, pre-school teachers, school leadership, student teachers and retirees. The total membership is about 90,000. Brandt says people usually feel the cost is worth it both for the long-term and collective gain those dues bring.

That may be changing in some people’s minds, though, and, ironically, the Danish social safety net may be feeding a growing complacency.

Thomas Ryan, 26, is a research assistant in political science employed by Aarhus University and a member of Djøf. Ryan pays 3600 Danish Kroner or approximately $700 Canadian dollars per year in union dues.

Ryan’s upbringing provided him with a conceptual framework to appreciate what may now be old-school labour values.

“My parents are both working class. My mom is a union rep, so I was brought up with the idea of standing together even though it doesn’t lead to rewards for me (as an individual) immediately or ever. If unions are not strong — the working class will be exploited — and that’s not good for a society. I am therefore mostly in a union in solidarity with other unions.

“When I was a kid I worked nights at a bakery and was severely underpaid. But I didn’t think too much of it and was just happy to have a job. Now I feel guilty for doing that because I was contributing to a system that underpays workers and I was, in effect, creating unfair competition.”

This perspective is what informed the labour movement that built the Danish system. “If we didn’t have a strong union historically, the welfare system would look totally different,” says Jorgensen. But what does that mean for the next generation of workers going forward?

Ryan is worried about the future. “Unions are on their way down,” he says. “Unfortunately when people cannot see how the unions benefit them at this very moment they are less inclined to join. People who either cannot really afford it or cannot see why they should use money on something that doesn’t give an instant return — 3600 Kroner can buy a couple of plane tickets — have a very difficult time buying into the idea of long-term benefits, a well-functioning and equal society and so on. For the first group I understand and sympathize. For the second I understand the logic but do not sympathize.”

“People are leaving the unions. There is a big competition [for union membership],” says Lars Brittain. “The unions that are going to survive and the ones that are going to grow are the ones that are trying to reinvent themselves. That’s a big question for the whole market, and all the unions are asking themselves: how can we still be relevant in 2016?”

“In the late ‘80s,” explains Jorgensen, “when Denmark had a lot of economic problems, the labour movement helped Denmark to create a better pension system and get us out of the economic problems.” Jorgensen is referring to the 1987 joint declaration that included the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions. By cooperating with the government, labour revived the tradition of corporatism in the Danish political system, ended a long standoff between the political left and right, and paved the way for structural changes. One of the committees formed afterwards focused on pension reform. Four models were discussed, and while the various committee participants did not necessarily agree on which model should be used, those models were cited in 1989 and 1991 bargaining. The end result was more progressive pension reform.

Cooperation with employer organizations and the centre-right government was a huge milestone for Danish labour. “In the long run it’s a good thing for our members, but at that time it wasn’t that welcomed by members,” concludes Jorgensen.

Younger Danes did not grow up during challenging economic times in Denmark. Instead they were born into an inclusive economic system. So how do you keep them invested in the labour movement?

3F’s Jorgensen explains that the way unions work is what needs to change.

For a labour organization like 3F, with around 250,000 active members across a handful of sectors, keeping a large, diverse and modern membership engaged is the challenge.

“In the young generation there is a trend towards doing things together, but the challenge is the way that unions do things together is a bit old fashioned,” she says. “The way our [Danish] democracy works, for example — you have to actually go to the meeting and say something, and young people are more used to just posting on social media and so on.”

Appealing to the younger generation is a challenge in other countries as well: Making labour organizing relevant, for example, to young Canadians who didn’t necessarily grow up with a connection to traditionally unionized industries remains a challenge for the current Canadian labour movement.

“Young people can relate the welfare system to the labour market and the trade unions and so on, but they might find it difficult to actually identify with it, to be a part of it,” says Jorgensen. “So we have to renew ourselves, to work in the ways young people like to be in a community.”

This is exactly where Djøf’s head of networking, Brittain, comes in. “That’s the part I’m in charge of —trying to figure out new ways of getting members to connect, to use each other, and to find the strength in the community of Djøf members.”

His work emphasizes engaging members, finding out their needs and encouraging events that help members to understand and best take advantage of the network that union membership provides.

“To be an organization like us, if you want to be relevant and you want to be legitimate, then you have to engage with your members in new ways. You can’t just wait for the people to contact you and use you like an insurance company. You have to make them feel like they get something out of their membership and the money they pay for their membership.”

So what should Danish unions be prioritizing?

Jorgensen explains that depending on the sector some of the issues unions need to tackle are digitalization (by educating unskilled workers), wages (by ensuring a living wage), working conditions (maintaining health and safety standards) and the consequences of free movement of labour across the EU. This final issue is a complex and changing one that involves peripheral issues like immigration, workplace discrimination, and fair contracts for temporary workers.

“The traditional union is important of course, but that is not what will keep us going and what will keep us relevant in the years to come,” explains Brittain. “I never thought I would work for a union, because I thought unions were old fashioned.” He points out something else: “In the old days everyone had to be a member.” Union membership was never required, but there was an expectation: joining a union meant you were invested in labour advocacy. This is not the case in Denmark as much anymore. “If you look at [the] situation right now, people do not have to be a member of a union.”

So how does Jorgensen suggest unions in other countries make themselves essential? How do they secure for themselves the power that unions in Denmark have, the power to create a system of economic inclusion that benefits all workers?

“It’s a long journey,” says Jorgensen. “It also depends on what perspective the trade unions have on their role, you could say. If you only look at the wages and working conditions, then I don’t think it helps much. You need to have trade unions looking at the broad perspectives in society and economy.”

This story was originally published in Our Times Magazine‘s Fall 2016 and 35th Anniversary Issue. Order this issue here.

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