Labour movement in European integration: facing modern challenges

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The labour market and trade unions in the EU as a whole and in the member states shall be seen as most important parts in the EU’s doctrine of growth based on “social market economy”, which is a different facet of traditional “capitalism”. Although the covid-pandemic has challenged and jeopardized the implementation of the ambitious EU’s green and digital transition, it didn’t undermine the core aspects of the labour unions’ role in the transformation’s process. Regardless of the differences in the unions’ density among the EU states, the “happiest” nations in Europe are a clear example of the unions’ positive role in progressive growth.    

The covid-pandemic has only additionally underlined a vital aspect in the modern labour union’s issues: i.e. in order for the unions to survive they have to pay attention to mounting problems, which include a reducing role of unions in numerous EU states, changing individual employee’s expectations from the unions and the union’s “surviving” stemming from redrafting of the collective bargaining’s process, etc.

This is the second article in the EII’s complex analysis within the “post-Covid”  research concerning workforce and labour relations issues; a previous one in: 

A general introduction to the series of articles on “post-covid research” and the “Post-COVID’s effect on national and European growth” in:    


Covid-pandemic seriously affected the role of labour/trade unions in modern European integration: abrupt working hours, temporary as well as permanent companies’ closures and massive redundancies, etc. greatly increased both workers’ unemployment and social disruption in general. The situation in most EU countries (in particular, on central and eastern regions) has become so dramatic that urgent supporting measures have been taken by the EU and the member states’ government to assist people in need. As a result, the labour movement and trade unions in the states are experiencing devastating conditions which have already affected all walks of life.  

The EII provides a review of the present labour/trade union’s situation in some of the EU states while looking into possible options in the “movement” in dealing with contemporary challenges.

The EII’s position is clear: labour movement is to be regarded as an indication of the responsible state’s social position in creating a perspective national growth. One of the major tasks in modern governance is to increase employment: it means that the labour/trade unions’ role has to be increased and strongly supported.


Traditionally trade unions have been formed for securing workers’ remuneration, improvements in employment and living conditions, providing employment benefits, minimum wages, hours of work, dismissal, holidays and so on and so forth through collective bargaining and negotiations with the government authorities and employees associations; the “discussions” are usually called a “tripartite agreements”.  

Through some elected representatives, the trade unions are “bargaining” during these agreements the actual workers’ conditions, i.e. typical labour contracts schemes with the employers’ entities and the government authorities. In this way, the trade unions are not only negotiating labour contracts’ basic terms with the employers, but  becoming an integral part of a national political-economy’s structures, as bargaining includes wages, working rules, occupational health and safety standards, complaint procedures, employees’ status including promotions and other employment benefits. In this sense, a state labour law shall be regarded as basic element in a nation social system: the better are the workers’ conditions, the better is a social system, as employment “standards” reflect the level of “social guarantees” in a society. The government authorities are seeing that labour laws and bargaining contracts are enforced.   

Se, for example:


Thus, “bargaining” process is about “mediating” relationship between employees “united” in trade unions (all sort of workers, contractors and entrepreneurs), employers’ entities (employers, corporate and other business associations) and the government authorities; hence a collective labour law in some countries regulates, in part, the tripartite relationship among employees, employers and government bodies.  

Government’s participation is not formal; on the contrary, it is an active part in “tripartite governments: e.g. governments actively support almost all social movements (for example, through a massive financial support in political parties’ membership). In the same way governments have to support labour movements: actually they do in the Nordic countries. That’s quite logic: e.g. without budget’s support labour movement will not be an effective part of national progressive growth.

Different outcomes can be envisaged after pandemic: mild, harsh and/or severe; however, recovery shall be adaptable to a specific national situation and corporate conditions in a certain country.

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Labour unions’ issues in the EU

European trade union cooperation is mostly carried out within the European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC founded in 1973. EU’s decision making is important for workers, i.e. the unions must therefore keep track of the development of new initiatives and laws. In addition to the national arenas, the EU is an important political forum for the union movements; decisions made by the EU institutions impacted all unions in the EU-27. This aspect shows an important contemporary trend contrasting with a diminishing importance of national movements in some states and signifies new challenges for the unions’ work. It is important to mentions that most of the “employment” issues are within the shared competence between the states and the Union (TEU, art.2).

Increased business competition results in insecure employment and puts wages and other working conditions under pressure.


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is an EU advisory body comprising representatives of workers’ and employers’ organisations and other interest groups. It issues opinions on EU issues to the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament, thus acting as a bridge between the EU’s decision-making institutions, workers and EU citizens. The EESC provides a “consultative support” to the EU’s drafts on three main issues: a) ensure that EU policy and law are geared to economic and social conditions, by seeking a consensus that serves the common good; b) promote a participatory EU by giving workers’ and employers’ organisations and other interest groups a voice and securing dialogue with them; and c) promote the values of European integration. Three groups are represented in EESC: employers, workers and other interest groups, so-called “diversity group” (e.g. farmers, consumers, etc.). Source:


Most “advanced” labour union’s organisations have their representation in the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. Thus, the Brussels office of the Swedish Trade Unions was established in 1989; it is jointly run by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees (TCO) and Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Saco). These three organisations represent around 3.5 million Swedish workers. The main task of the Swedish office (composed of four civil servants) is to follow the EU’s integration efforts, in general and, particularly, to “influence” those aspects of the Union’s economic policies that are having consequences for workers’ interests. The office is visited by about 1500 guests every year. Source:

National unions’ representations in Brussels gather information concerning EU legal drafts originating from the European Commission, as well as new laws adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Minister. Important as well are the resolutions adopted by the main European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) concerning socio-economic progress, integration and labour market policy.

On the other hand, the “Brussels Offices” play important role linking together the national trade unions and the Union’s authorities. Besides, these offices supply vital “first-hand” information to national decision-makers, politicians, civil servants, researchers, etc. regarding European policies with effect for the trade unions. Additionally, these offices receive many visitors and draw programs for trade union groups that want to learn more about the EU.


The EU has already developed an extensive labour legislation; but numerous labour unions’ issues (at least officially) are excluded from the EU Treaties, e.g. matters concerning direct wage regulation (e.g. setting a minimum wage), the fairness of dismissals and collective bargaining. Almost all other unions’ issues are included in a series of directives, e.g. Working Time Directive guarantees 28 days of paid holiday, the Equality Framework Directive, which prohibits all forms of discrimination and the Collective Redundancies Directive, which requires that a proper notice shall be given with proper consultations on decisions about economic dismissals.

However, the European Court of Justice has during last decades extended the Treaties’ provisions via case law. For example, the trade unions have sought to organize across borders in the same way that multinational corporations have organized production globally; they sought to take collective action and strikes internationally.

This coordination was challenged in the EU in two controversial decisions. In Laval Ltd v Swedish Builders Union a group of Latvian workers were sent to a construction site in Sweden. The local union took industrial action to make Laval Ltd sign up to the local collective bargaining agreement. Under the Posted Workers Directive (art. 3) there are minimum standards for foreign workers so that they receive at least the minimum rights that they would have in their home country in case their place of work has lower minimum rights. The Directive says that this “shall not prevent application of terms and conditions of employment which are more favourable to workers”. For most people this would mean that more favourable conditions could be given rather than the minimum (e.g. Latvian) by the host state’s legislation or a collective agreement. However the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that only the local state could raise standards beyond its minimum for foreign workers. Any attempt by the host state, or a collective agreement (unless the collective agreement is declared universal) would infringe the business’ freedom (TFEU, art.56). This decision was implicitly reversed by the ECJ and the Rome I Regulation, which made clear that the host state may allow more favourable standards.

However, in The Rosella, the ECJ held that a blockade by the International Transport Workers Federation against a business that was using an Estonian flag of convenience (i.e. it was operating under Estonian law to avoid taxation and labour rules in Finland) infringed the business’ right of free establishment under the EU law (TFEU, art. 49). The ECJ recognized the workers’ “right to strike” in accordance with the ILO Convention, but said that its use must be proportionately to the right of the business’ establishment.

More on EU labour law in:


European Labour Authority, ELA

Over the last decade the number of mobile citizens (people living and/or working in another EU state) almost doubled and reached 17 million (2017). The ELA’s aim is to help individuals, businesses and national administrations to get advantages of the free movement and to ensure fair labour mobility. Thus, the ELA’s objectives are three-fold:

  1. provide information to citizens and businesson opportunities for jobs, apprenticeships, mobility schemes, recruitments and training, as well as guidanceon rights and obligations to live, work and/or operate in another EU state.
  2. support cooperation between national authorities in cross-border situations, by helping them ensure that the EU rules that protect and regulate mobility are easily and effectively followed.
  3. provide mediationand facilitate solutions in case of cross-border disputes, such as in the event of company restructuring involving several EU states.


Social dialogue in the EU

National-level bipartite social dialogue and collective bargaining is at the heart of the EU’s industrial relations with an appropriate support the principle of subsidiarity and the autonomy of the social partners. Structural gaps at national level include lack of representativeness and mandate to negotiate, limited “tripartism”, sectoral collective bargaining and low collective bargaining coverage, lack of social partners’ autonomy and lack of trust between the social partners and governments.

Elements that would foster a more effective social dialogue at national level include legislative reforms to promote social dialogue and collective bargaining, a more supportive role by the state, increase in membership, capacity and mandate to negotiate, more human and financial resources.

Developing the skills and expertise of the two sides of industry in relation to specific skills (such as industrial relations, negotiation, research and analysis, policymaking, advocacy, and soft and digital skills) should be supported. Social partners should be assisted in their efforts to increase their membership representativeness and capacity to negotiate and implement agreements.

Source: Eurofound (2020), Capacity building for effective social dialogue in the European Union, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg

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Trade unions in Nordic countries

Focal point in the Nordic model is that at a national level, trade unions negotiate collective agreements/bargaining with employers’ organisations and the state’s authorities, i.e. so-called “tri-party” agreements; though it’s voluntary for the companies to adhere to the “agreement”. Since collective agreements regulate large parts of the labour market regulation, the trade unions play an important role to secure decent wages and working conditions. The regulation of working conditions is primarily in the hands of the social partners, contributing to the creation of a dynamic labour market and at the same time strengthening the influence and relevance of the social partners.

The “union’s” problems have direct effect on workers: thus, only in Denmark about 600 thousand employees in private labour market are involved; existing system in some Nordic states doesn’t take so far the individual interests in the tripartite bargaining (among business, unions and government). Recent analysis has shown that about 43 percent of workers in private sector would rather make “individual arrangements” than go through collective bargaining. For example, in Denmark there is no legislation regulating wages: they are defined exclusively in the collective agreements; then further on the wage setting and the development of salaries are negotiated at company or sector level.


Presently, the Nordic countries are having the highest rates on union membership in Europe and, probably, in the world. Thus, some recent statistics has shown that the percentage of workers belonging to a union (so-called, labour union density) was over 90 percent in Iceland, about 66-67 percent in Denmark and Sweden (excluding students working part-time, the Swedish density could reach 68 percent), followed by Finland with 64 percent and Norway with about 52 percent.

In all the Nordic countries with a Ghent system (see below): in Sweden, Denmark and Finland the union’s density is about 70 percent. Considerably high membership fees of Swedish union unemployment funds implemented by the new center-right government in January 2007 caused a certain drop in membership in both unemployment funds and trade unions: during 2006-08, the union’s density slightly declined from 77 to about 70 percent. Source:


Note: By the Ghent system is understood in some states an arrangement in which the main responsibility for welfare payments, especially unemployment benefits, is held by trade/labor unions, rather than a government agency. The system is named after the city of Ghent in Belgium, where it was first implemented. It is the predominant form of unemployment benefit in Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Belgium has a hybrid or “quasi-Ghent” system, in which the government also plays a significant role in distributing benefits. In Nordic states, unemployment funds are managed by unions/labour federations and/or partly subsidized by governments. As soon as workers in many cases have to belong to a union to receive benefits, union membership is higher in countries with the Ghent system. Furthermore, the state benefit is a fixed sum, but the benefits from unemployment funds depend on previous earnings. More in:


Box: Nordic states’ labour market statistics

= two-thirds of Nordic women are full-time employed;

= employed by gender: 54 percent men and 48 percent women;

= general unemployment rates in the region –about 6 percent and among youth – about 17 per cent (before the pandemic);

= annual median income: single person with dependent children – €15-20.000; two or more adults with dependent children – € 22-27.000.

Note: there are eight countries in the Nordic region – Denmark, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Finland, Aaland, Island, Norway and Sweden. Source:



The Danish model is based on the collective representation of the employees rather than on giving the individual employee rights. Although workers are free to join a union, it is in fact the union with its “collective strength” that protects the employees’ rights, not the individual employee; hence about 70 percent of the Danish workforce is attached a certain trade union, the highest figure in the Nordic states. Most union members are associated with the main labour confederation (so-called FH, as a result of a merger in 2019) and with the Akademikerne-union; the latter unites all occupational and educational workers; however, there are several labour unions outside these two main confederations.

The membership of a specific union is not an obligation for a worker; generally, the choosing of a union depends on education/position and or a workplace. Trade unions are associated with unemployment insurance funds; it provides an incentive to join a union. More in:


A diversified union’s system in Denmark consists of the following unions:

= Central, so-called “united” unions’ organisation, FH with about 1,3 mln members and 65 sub-organisations. More in: In:

= Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (AC “Akademikerne”, founded in 1972): it is an umbrella organisation for numerous organisations “united” under the AC structure. The members of the AC-associations offer services to professional and managerial staff graduated from universities and other higher educational institutions.  


= Professional and/students association/union (with 97 thousand members) in social sciences, economy, business and law, called Djøf; the union accepts as members both already employed in private and public sectors or looking for a job. E.g. about 22.000 students are already members of Djøf. They have such advantages as favorable insurance, free-digital courses in Excel, Photoshop, etc. Often the unions provide new members with one year-free-fee’s membership plus about 50 euros for textbooks; after a year, their membership fees are about 49 DKK or about 6,5 euro/month; otherwise the fees varied from about 450 to 900 DKK or 60-110 euro/ per quarter. Source: and

= Danish Society of Engineers, IDA, is a professional organization with more than 125,000 members working and studying in the fields of technology, natural sciences and IT.

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= Trade union of workers in the financial sectors; More in:



The level of union membership in Sweden is at the general “Nordic level” at about 70 percent; it has fallen from its peak of 86 percent in 1995. There are three main union confederations: LO, TCO and Saco, which are divided along occupational and educational lines in which Swedish employees are grouped; a strong and Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO unites 14 big trade unions. Many employees’ issues: e.g. working hours, minimum wage and right to overtime compensation are regulated through collective bargaining agreements in accordance with the Swedish model of self-regulation, i.e. regulation by the labour market parties themselves in contrast to state regulation and labour laws.

Swedish labour legislation represent a comprehensive code of statutes which include, inter alia, the Annual Leave Act, the Promotion of Employment Act, the Co-determination Act, the Work Environment Act and the Working Hours Act. More in:


Specific part of labour force in Sweden is a political cooperation between LO and the Social Democratic Party as both reflects the same set of values. In modern society, the union-political cooperation constitutes a major tool in influencing decision-making. However, LO has other means to exert influence in the society, including contacts with various organisations, authorities and political representatives. Exerting contacts between trade unions and political parties regarded as complementary representing two different ways of reaching the same policy goals.


Basic aspects of Swedish labour law and collective agreement/bargaining involve some procedural rules on the right to negotiate and basic rights for workers: most of it is in the “Co-Determination Act” and “Employment Protection Act”. Main aspects of individual labour rights and obligations are formulated in collective agreements, e.g. without a statutory minimum wage it is the latter that stipulates how wages should be paid at all; thus, collective agreements and individual contracts are the only ways to define how a worker is paid for the work performed. Without agreement, an employer can pay any level of wage as long as the employee accepts it.

Swedish collective bargaining model is based on a strong cooperation between the union and employers’ organisation: about 80-90 per cent of workers in Sweden are protected by collective agreements. A high level of “unionization”, together with the absence of legal restrictions in unions’ activities, stipulates that “social partners” play a vital role in collective agreements.

There are over a hundred national contracting parties in the Swedish labour market, covering over 650 collective agreements at national level.

The social insurance system is administered by two government agencies: Swedish Social Insurance Agency and/or Swedish Pensions Agency; collective insurance schemes and occupational pension schemes are regulated in collective agreements between employer and employee organizations at the national level. Generally, employees are entitled to benefits under these schemes if: their employer is a member of an employer organization, which means that the collective agreement is automatically applicable; or if an employer concludes an agreement with the relevant trade union. The premiums for negotiated insurance and occupational pension schemes are paid by the employer out of the negotiated pay settlement. In other words, some of the employees’ pay is used to fund the insurance scheme instead of being paid out in the form of wages. Collective insurance and occupational pension schemes are normally administered by an insurance company that is jointly owned by the social partners. More in:



The main purpose of a union is to safeguard and improve the benefits and rights of its members; it includes, e.g. wages, employment security, quality of working life, etc. Generally, Finnish unions are so-called “occupation-based” with the three main levels: local trade unions, national federations and labour confederations which are made up of affiliated federations. Collective agreements covering the whole of Finland are concluded among the federations.

There are over 2.2 million trade union members in Finland, including working people, retired, unemployed and students; around a quarter of union members are not working while a very large proportion of employees are the union members. Statistics Finland noticed that the union’s density was 73 percent in 2008, equivalent to almost 1.6 million union members; presently, this figure reduced to about 69 percent.  


There are three trade union confederations in Finland: the biggest (SAK) with over one million members (2019) organises manual workers, although around one-third of its members are non-manual. STTK is the second union with 608 thousand members (2019); it organises graduate employees and non-manual workers. The third largest union confederation is AKAVA with about 589 thousand members: it organises graduate employees and also non-manual workers. These three confederations work closely together: a co-operation agreement between was concluded already in 1978. There is, however, some competition between STTK and AKAVA for graduate employees, with AKAVA showing greater growth; a number of smaller unions, including the 11,000 strong police union, switched their affiliation from STTK to AKAVA during the ultimately unsuccessful merger discussions in 2015/16.


SAK has 2218 affiliated smaller unions, primarily organised on an industry basis. The largest SAK affiliate is PAM, which represents workers in the private services sector and has about 231 thousand members. The next largest is Teollisuusliitto (Industry union), created out of a merger between the metal workers’ union, the industry union TEAM and the woodworkers’ union in January 2018, with 211,995 members.

AKAVA with 35 affiliates is organised professionally: its largest part is OAJ representing about 121thousand teachers; the second largest, TEK with 72 thousand members, organises graduate engineers; the third largest IL with 70,8 thousand organises professional engineers (all figures for January 2015).

The unions’ density has been generally stable during a recent decade at the level of 73 per cent; one reason for the high figures is that unemployment insurance is typically obtained through union membership, although it is also possible to be insured through an unemployment fund without being a union member. However, in 2019 the unions’ density had fallen from 64,5 to 59,4 percent.

Unions increasingly recognise that they need to take active steps to recruit those joining the labour market if they are to maintain their strength and influence; young people are a particular target, and the unions encourage students to join. For example, AKAVA is presently a confederation with the largest proportion of students as members with more than a hundred thousand students (united in a special student council AOVA). AKAVA’s membership has increased sharply in recent years, going from 375,000 in 2000 to about 600 thousand presently.

Reference to: L. Fulton (2020) National Industrial Relations. -Labour Research Department and ETUI. Online publication at:



More than half of Norway’s employees are in unions; although the union density has declined slightly in recent years. The majority of unions are grouped in four confederations: LO, UNIO, YS and Akademikerne. While UNIO and Akademikerne primarily organise more highly qualified employees, there is direct membership competition between LO and YS unions.

Affiliated trade unions are, in turn, centrally organised through a main organisation or main confederation. In Norway there are four such confederations:

= Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions LO is Norway’s largest workers’ association with 22 different professional unions affiliated with LO, including employees in Norwegian Union of Commerce and Offices Employees, the Electricians and IT Workers Union, and the union for workers in industry and energy sectors; these unions organise members in the municipal, county council and private sectors.

= Confederation of Unions for Professionals is Norway’s second largest employee organisation, which unites the Norwegian Nurses Organisation, the Education Union, the Norwegian Police Federation and the Norwegian Physiotherapist Association.

= Confederation of Vocational Unions, YS with 19 affiliated unions, covering workers in several sectors, incl. professional drivers, librarians, teachers and the pharmacists’ unions.

= Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations is an employee organisation for professionals with higher university’s qualifications and colleges; it consists of 13 member associations, which include the union for architects, Norwegian medical association, Norwegian dental association and the Association of social scientists.




Collective bargaining coverage in the country is about 62 percent; in the industrial sectors cooperation among trade unions and employers’ organisations is still the most important mechanisms for setting wages and working conditions in Germany. However, the system is under pressure as employers leave professional employers’ organisations, and that the present agreements provide for greater flexibility at company level.

Only around a sixth of employees in Germany are union members, although the decline in union density has slowed in recent years. The vast majority of union members are in the main union confederation, the DGB; however, individual unions, like IG Metall and Ver.di, have considerable autonomy and influence. 

Workers’ councils provide representation for employees at the workplace and they have substantial powers: e.g. extending to an effective right of veto on some issues. Source:


The Baltic States

Historically, during last fifty years, the labour unions in the Baltic States have formed a part of the Soviet Union’s trade union system being closely connected with the party’s organisation in the state; hence the industrial relations were not a part of the unions’ activities. After 1990s trade unions in the Baltics have experienced rapid loss of membership; at the same time, employers’ organisations increased their influence and membership. Low financial and organizational capacity caused by declining membership added to the problems of union’s “interests”, as well as workers’ protection in negotiations with employers’ and state organisations.

Differences still exist among the Baltic States in the ways the labour unions are organised, in the unions’ density and functions; thus, starting from 2008 the union density have been decreasing in Latvia and Lithuania, while in Estonia the density’s indicators are even lower than that of Latvia and Lithuania with about 7 percent of the total employment. Historical legitimacy is one of the negative factors that define a low level of labour unions’ collective powers.



= Latvia: the LBAS is the main trade union confederation in Latvia; almost all existing unions belong to it. Union density is low – at about 12 percent- but higher than in other two Baltic States; much higher share of membership is recorded in the public than in the private sectors. Collective bargaining system covers 34 percent of workers. Employee representation at the workplace is either through unions or through elected workplace representatives. However, with low levels of union membership, particularly in the private sector, and reluctance among employees to elect workplace representatives, most workplaces have no employee representation at all. Source:


= Estonia: the union’s density in Estonia is the lowest in the Baltics at 7 percent; most union members are organised in two major confederations: a) EAKL for primarily manual workers, and b) TALO, for generally non-manual workers; collective bargaining system covers 33 percent of workers.


= Lithuania: the union’s membership is quite low- at about 9 percent of all employees. The unions are divided (mainly, on ideological grounds) into three main confederations: LPSK, LDF and Solidarumas; recently, the unions were showing a trend for more cooperation.

Collective bargaining system covers 15 percent of workers; since 2004 elected works councils have had bargaining rights in cases with no unions’ organisation present; however, that doesn’t increase the bargaining’s importance. Lithuanian legislation now provides for employees at workplace level to be represented by a company-level trade union, by an external union, to which they have transferred their representational rights, or by a works council.

Both company-level unions and works councils have almost identical functions, including collective bargaining and information and consultation, and since 2005, works councils can also organise strikes; practically, there are no unions or councils at most workplaces in Lithuania.


= Poland: trade union density is relatively low at around 12 percent of employees and membership is mainly divided between two large confederations: NSZZ Solidarność and OPZZ, followed by a somewhat smaller one, FZZ. Significant number of union members is still in small local unions not affiliated to any of the main confederations.  

Only a few employees in Poland are covered by collective bargaining – about 10-15 percent, which takes place largely at company or workplace level. This means that where there are no unions to take up the issue, payment and working conditions are set unilaterally by employers subject to the national minimum wage.

Polish legislation provides for employee representatives at supervisory board level in state-owned and privatised enterprises; even greater powers belong to some state-owned enterprises. There is no right to employee representatives on the boards of private companies.



Labour/trade-union membership dropped sharply in the EU and globally during last decade, falling to about 20 per cent of workers in 48 out of 92 countries, according to International Labour Organisation, ILO in the latest annual report: World Labour Report 1997-98. The ILO says that in 1995, roughly 164 million of the world’s workforce of 1.3 billion belonged to trade unions; in 14 out of 92 countries surveyed the union membership rate exceed 50 per cent of the national workforce. In all but about 20 countries, membership levels declined during the last decade. According to ILO, in spite of the negative trends, the drop in union numbers has not resulted in a corresponding drop in influence: in most countries, trade unions managed to consolidate their strength and develop new collective bargaining strategies.

Trade unions’ membership in Europe is on a positive side: about 7,5 mln members in Northern Europe, about 23,8 mln in Western Europe, some 10 mln in Southern Europe, and about 14 mln in Central and Eastern European states (out of total 164 mln in the world).



Re-elected ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder recently underlined that although many observers saw only decline, the real picture showed increased democracy, greater pragmatism and freedom for millions of workers to form representative organizations. Dramatic rise or fall of trade union membership is usually linked to systemic changes in governance or major legislative overhauls in many countries and regions. For example, the drop in union membership was sharpest in central and eastern European countries, which saw an average decline of almost 36 per cent, much of which resulted from the ending of quasi-obligatory union membership following the breakup of the former Soviet bloc. Unionization rates in Estonia were down 71 per cent, in the Czech Republic by 50 per cent, in Poland by 45 per cent, in Slovakia 40 per cent and Hungary by 38 percent. Much of the decline in Germany’s unionization rate (20 per cent versus 16 per cent average in the EU) is attributable to the drop in former East Germany. But not only in Europe, the union membership in the US declined by over 21 percent during the last decade, turning the country towards one of the lowest levels of unionization among industrialized countries.



While unions in most countries have moved “towards a less adversarial and more cooperative” approach, trade unions have shown themselves capable of wielding power in times of crisis. In a number of recent industrial and political conflicts (France and Germany), labour unions proved decisive in reaching settlements. Innovative social structures, such as the implementation of works councils in Europe and various “social pacts” (along the lines of those implemented in Ireland and Italy which have boosted growth, restrained inflation and reduced unemployment) owe much of their inspiration to trade unions. Large numbers of new entrants to the labour market are not being unionized and that the relative numerical importance of unionized labour is decreasing as a percentage of the workforce in most countries. The number of unionized workers remained steady in Italy, but the percentage of unionized workers in the labour force decreased by 7 percent to 44 percent of the total since the mid-1980s.


Labour unions are going to be important as a vital economic factor during green and digital transition in Europe as “vehicles of democracy and advocates of social justice”. Therefore, quite notable are the points of the EU’s agenda for new skills and jobs, which is meant to create conditions for modernising labour markets, elaborating strategies for raising employment levels, and ensuring sustainability of the EU social models.

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