For many decades now, “workers” – or employees – have been organising themselves in unions in order to campaign for better working conditions. Today, trade unions are perceived by many as somewhat distant and top-down. It is sometimes unclear what their aims are and it can feel like they belong to the past. Are trade unions in the 21st Century still important or rather a fading phenomenon? What does the current trade union landscape look like in different European countries? In this article the work of trade unions in three EU member countries – Sweden, Germany and Hungary –  will be discussed.

Strong Trade Unions in Sweden

For those of us living in Sweden during the past two years, it was almost impossible to avoid reading or hearing about the so-called ”LAS-utredningar” in the media on a regular basis. ”LAS [Law on Employment Protection] utredningar [investigations]” stands for the very controversial negotiation process between the Swedish government and Swedish trade unions on a modernised labour law. LAS would limit employers’ ability to fire employees. To some extent LAS also prevents employers from choosing freely when hiring, since a former employee may have priority for re-employment. 

These negotiations have been a huge component of Swedish politics since 2019, and they are only one example of how much power trade unions in Sweden still possess when it comes to wage bargaining and shaping labour market conditions in general. The Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen i Sverige, LO) is an umbrella organisation for fourteen Swedish trade unions. The two other umbrella organisations one can find in Sweden are the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges akademikers centralorganisation, Saco). In 2019, 68% of all employees in Sweden were affiliated to a trade union

Quite different from other European countries, LO is still tightly connected to the Swedish Social Democratic Party (S). This cooperation means that the trade unions (and the individual members through their membership fee) contribute a significant amount of money to the party.

“LO-borgen” in Stockholm. The building has been the headquarters of the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions for almost one hundred years. (Photo by: author)

Racist Trade Unions in Germany?

Whereas the trade unions in Sweden work hand in hand with – and are also economically and legally bound to – the Social Democratic Party, trade unions in Germany are not politically-bound. Still, trade unions in Germany are accepted negotiating partners in policy-shaping and play a big role in the fight for workers’ rights. The German Trade Union Confederation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) is the umbrella organisation for eight German trade unions and comprises more than 6 million members. The most prominent issue German trade unions are facing is shrinking membership. This is an issue trade unions in most countries are facing and it concerns mostly younger employees, immigrants and women.

Apart from shrinking membership, German trade unions have also been confronted with racism in recent years. One concrete example is the establishment of the right-wing trade union ”Zentrum Automobil” that works successfully especially in the Daimler concern in Untertürkheim near Stuttgart. In the elections to the employee representatives in this Daimler plant, 1.800 out of 14.000 employees voted for the representatives from ”Zentrum Automobil”. Trade unionists and elected representatives from this ”alternative worker representation” –  as the union calls itself – are deeply rooted within populist parties and other populist organisations, such as the AfD and Pegida. Remarkable is that the chairman of the Zentrum Automobil, Oliver Hilburger in the past was the guitarist of the right-wing populist rock band ”Noie Werte”.

Trade Unions Influenced by Politics in Hungary

Another country struggling with trade unions in crisis is Hungary. In this Eastern European country, trade union membership is, with only 9% (figures from 2020) of the workforce unionised, one of the lowest in the EU. The Hungarian trade union landscape is characterized by its manifoldness with 990 different trade unions in 2019. This huge variety repeatedly causes disputes as some of the unions are accepted negotiating partners and some are not and accordingly do not really get a platform to work for better labour conditions. 

The main reason for disputes  in Hungary in 2018/2019 was a new labour law, which, among other things, gives employers the opportunity to demand from employees 400 hours of overtime per year, instead of the previous 250 hours. The main force behind the ensuing protests was the student union Hallgatói Szakszervezet, that endeavours to organise demonstrations and to actively incorporate their ideas in meetings with other trade unions. Their main value is solidarity and, in some ways, they are taking the place of the country’s very weak left-wing party. Hungary could, therefore, be seen as a good example for how much politics influences the work of trade unions and vice versa.

Diverse Trade Union Landscape throughout Europe

Among others, the well-known economist Thomas Piketty thinks that the development of trade unions actually was one of the key elements for reducing inequality from around 1920-1970. What has weakened trade unions since then are policies that have been aimed at raising countries’ capital and to favour it over countries’ labour.

Thomas Piketty (Photo by: Universitat Pompeu Fabra/Flickr)

The goal of the European Union was to create a common internal market first and foremost. Along with that came the idea of a common welfare state, or at least to regulate the national welfare states in a similar way. Trade unions are an integral part of a well-functioning welfare state. Comparing the work of trade unions in only three of all EU member states shows that the EU has not succeeded in uniting and converging the still highly-fragmented trade union landscape. This leads to very divergent labour, health, and integration conditions and to very diverging welfare standards. However, we can conclude that trade unions – at least in the European Union – still play an important role in regulating labour market conditions.

Sanja Pfister