Trade Union in the European Union - Gewerkschaften in der Europäischen Union

Seminar Paper, 2003

31 Pages, Grade: A (1,3)






The Role of Trade Unions within the European Union’s member countries

Union density
Individual characteristics
The Genth system
Union representatives’ access to the workplace
Partnership to political parties
Level of labour market centralization

European Collective Bargaining

National level
Industrial level
Partners on negotiations
Range of achieved agreements

European Level
Partners on negotiations
Range of achieved agreements

Problems Trade Unions have to face

Multinational companies

Member decline
High levels of unemployment
Workforce composition

Approaches solve trade unions’ current problems

Attempts to organize workforce
Social pacts
Trade Union mergers
Trade Union Confederations


Appendix A - Employee representation in Europe
Apendix B - Organizational Ties between Unions and Major Working-Class Parties and Left Party Representation in Government
Apendix C - Legal application and extension of collective agreements
Abendix D - Social Pacts in the Member States


Union density - factors of influence

Collective Bargaining in Europe

Appendix A - Employee representation in Europe

Apendix B - Organizational Ties between Unions and Major Working- Class Parties and Left Party Representation in Government

Apendix C - Legal application and extension of collective agreements

Abendix D - Social Pacts in the Member States


The European Union (EU) “is neither a new State replacing existing ones nor is it comparable to other international organisations” (European Communities, sine anno).

Instead the idea behind it is a step by step approach to integrate organizational duties normally run by the nation states on a super national level. This includes the establishment of a European citizenship, to ensure freedom, security and justice, promote economic and social progress, and asserting Europe’s role in the world (European Communities, sine anno). For the first time in history the member countries voluntarily gave up parts of their sovereignty to become part of a supranational organization. The members agreed to the “creation of an area without internal frontiers” (European Communities, 2002), which means basically that capital and workforce is free to travel and settle without restriction within the borders of the European Union. That kind of freedom and the possibility of the council of the European Union to crate laws which replace their national counterparts (Fontaine, 1998) have increased the pressure on the stakeholders of labour relation to get to a European level as well. With this shift from the national towards the European view trade Unions has to change their way of work. The basic model most of the Western Europe used worked on a national or industry level where trade unions participated in the industrial democracy and collective bargaining. These unions where backed by also national union confederation which coordinated activities among and minimized conflict between confederated unions (Waddington, 2001, p. 449). Today this model may become more and more obsolete and trade unions has to struggle more and more to survive in a united Europe. So it’s the question which threats do trade unions have to face these days and which approaches have been made to solve these threats or perhaps which opportunities do trade unions have right now?


This literature review has got three major topics and will start with a close look on the differences of union density within Europe. Therefore the determinants “Individual characteristics”, “Ghent system”, “Union representatives’ access to workplace”, “Partnership to political parties” and “Level of centralization” will be evaluated to point out their influence to union density. After that the focus of interest will be placed on collective bargaining on a national as well as on European level. For both I will have a closer on the partners of the negotiations or collective bargaining rounds and the range of the achieved agreements. After that the second part will deal with the problems trade unions currently have to face. Literature provides two major threats for union: multinational companies using arbitrage of capital to bypass national trade unions and member decline. Both threats will be closely reviewed.

After that the new approaches currently tried by trade unions are shown. The first will be about attempts to organize the new workforce with Social Pacts and mergers second and third. Finally a brief survey over trade union confederations will be given before I draw my own conclusions.

The Role of Trade Unions within the European Union’s member countries Despite the growing European integration trade unions appear in different roles and structures throughout the European Union. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom have been chosen to represent the heterogeneity of the EU ideas of trade unions. The references mainly used in this review are about OECD-statistics which consider countries as Switzerland and Norway also as European. But they cannot be used here because they don’t belong to the EU. On the other hand it may be argued that Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain are also members of the EU. Unfortunately the used OECD based studies do not mention those states in their statistics - at least Spain would have been a very good supplement - so they had to be taken out. The sample states represent the intersection of referenced countries and EU member states. Union density Western (1997) introduced three groups of union density. The first group of countries with high density of organised workers is formed by Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Belgium. Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom form the medium density group, while France and The Netherlands are among the countries with the lowest density of unionisation. Individual characteristics According to Waddington (2000) male older full-time blue collar workers tend to join unions more often then white collar workers or women. Bean and Holden (1994) add “family responsibility” and “educational attainment” to those characteristics. But these figures are average trends throughout the EU. The northern countries managed to achieve equal density of male and female workers. Going more and more south the gap between the sexes widens. Young workers, migrants and members of ethnic minorities are underrepresented within the whole EU (Waddington, 2000).

Additionally to demographic reasons mentioned above people join trade unions for psychological reasons. In several studies (among others Waddington/Whitston, 1994 Tolich/Harcourt, 1998) the top reasons for people to join a trade union are:

- “Support if I have a problem at work”
- “Improved pay and conditions”
- “Because I believe in Unions”

Although the ranking of these reasons may vary, they are always among the top three. Klandermans (1986) provides three very similar motives.

- “Job dissatisfaction”
- “A rational choice analysis on of economic costs and benefits of union membership”
- “Identify with trade union values, particularly that of social solidarity”

Both of those studies imply that despite of certain affinity to the values of trade unions, people consider very rational the advantages and disadvantages of joining trade unions. So here might be a point of departure to work against membership decline.

The Genth system

Keeping in mind that event blue-collar worker tend to join unions more often than white collar workers there might be a paradox because the Scandinavian countries are used to have the lowest density of blue collar workers and the highest density of unionized workforce. So there must be another reason why those and Belgium form the group of high density countries. Some authors (among others Scruggs, 2002, Waddington, 2000, p. 319) believe that the so called Genth system may be the reason for the prospering Scandinavian and Belgian trade unions.

The system is named after the Belgian city of Genth where it came into existence in 1901 (Western 1997). It started on a very regional basis when the Ghent municipal authority began to co-finance the unemployment insurance of the local trade union. During the following years the system spread throughout Europe and was implemented as a national system in 1905 by France. Today national Genth systems only are used in Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Finland.

Though there might be differences among the Genth system’s organization in those four countries, they all follow the same principles and the result is pretty similar. Basically in countries which have those kind of system unemployment insurances are distributed via the trade unions. In reality that means except of Belgium which runs a compulsory union-run insurance system the Genth countries have voluntary union-run insurance funds against unemployment (Western, 1997). According to Western (1997) and Scruggs (2002) this gives trade unions the power to control the labour market. On the one hand as insurer unions set the terms of the conditions to receive unemployment help (e.g. unemployment because of work dispute included or excluded or the levels of setbacks an employee must accept). On the other hand unions take care that important union goals like collective bargained wages and conditions apply when workers are reemployed. Finally both authors see a big advantage in the system that workers are drawn to unions even when they face unemployment. In countries with compulsory nationalized employment insurances workers tend to loose the touch to their union when they are forced out of work. Western believes that this increased attraction of unions among crrently unemployed workers in Genth countries arise from the close contact between insurance providing unions and all workers. However Scruggs (2002) sees discrimination or at least the threat of discrimination behind it. Unfortunately he is not able to proof his hypothesis. So he provides two “indirect tests” (Scruggs, 2002) to convince the reader of his opinion:

- Unions are in charge of allocating new jobs in the sector the former employee was used to work or job retraining programs are administered by unions. So it’s better to get the status of an insider.
- Unemployed workers believe in a threat of being discriminated if they stay outside the union (e.g. union members are granted privileges when waiting for a new job). Scruggs proves that fact with the plain explanation that people tend to quit union membership when they get unemployed in non-Ghent countries while they stay in their unions in Ghent countries. Both “indirect tests” are rather weak and there should be more research done concerning the Genth system, although an absolute proof of the discrimination of non-union-unemployed workers may be unachievable.

Union representatives’ access to the workplace

A second source of the differences between EU member states in Union density is the union representatives’ access to the workplace. Table 1 provides among other things a survey of the formal or de facto influence trade unions have on the workplace level. A more detailed overview of the bodies of industrial democracy, levels and restrictions is given in Apendix A. Access to the workplace and a certain power in work councils and other industrial democracy process helps trade unions representatives to recruit people more easily for union joining. Although that idea seems to be attractive in literature (Bean/Holden, 1994; Waddington, 2000), Scruggs (2002) remarks that there is no statistical evidence for it. Instead he indicates that countries with week representatives’ access had smaller losses in average density than there counterparts with moderate access during the last 16 years before 1996. On the other hand and for me even more convincing is the fact that Austria which suffered the highest loss in density (-17.70) completely contradicts the theory. Austria is among the countries with very strong union influence at workplace level. There is no evidence in literature whether an abnormal incident or scandal may have caused that extraordinary decline despite the high level of access to the workplace in Austria. So Austria cannot be treated as an unusual outlier, until further research has been taken place what exactly caused the Austrian decline in union density. That’s why there is no proof whether or not trade union representatives’ access to workplaces influences the union density on a national level or not.

Partnership to political parties

Links between mainly left of the middle parties and trade unions can be reported in nearly all of the observed EU countries. But their intensity varies across Europe. In Western’s (1997) literature review many authors argue for a strong relation of union and party power. However on the other hand the econometric proof of that thesis is rather weak. Also an empirical proof of the thesis is not achievable. A time series on the question whether unions are a “good thing” in Britain (Western, 1997, p. 77) points out that support on unions and support on labour are rather negative correlated. Scruggs (2002) gives certain examples where union acceptance grew when “pro-trade-union” governments lost their elections and declined when they won. So from that point of view there is no clear evidence for interdependence between the success of unions and the success of parties. Those parties seem to have drawn similar conclusion because the left-of-the-middle parties recently “distanced themselves from trade unions” (Waddington, 2000) and loosened their traditionally strong ties.

Level of labour market centralization

The level of centralization as well as all other determinants influencing union density in Europe differs between the member countries of the EU. Centralization is said to create more union density than decentralization. Also it may reduce the bias of employers against union members because collective bargaining and work disputes are argued in higher levels than the particular company (Western, 2002). Finally centralized unions represent more workers and so are more attractive in the workers perception than smaller unions. Scruggs (2002) on the other hand points to the fact that most of the European countries run extension mechanisms (see Apendix C) which basically bring the benefits for e.g. collective bargaining to non-union workers. Actually Scruggs has no proof for that kind of freeloader behaviour at all. However evidence can be found that labour market centralization is not suitable to explain the gap in European trade union density. Three of the four countries which could increase their national density have decentralized labour markets (leaving Finland the only exception), while the most centralized country - Austria - suffered the highest loses in union density (Scruggs, 2002).

Summa sumarum the Genth system seems to be the reason which has the most impact on explaining high variance between the union density within the EU. The other reasons may explain the small gaps within the middle and low density countries but not the large one to the high density group.

illustration not visible in this excerpt


Composed of tables of Ebbinghaus/Visser (2000), Western (1997) and Scruggs (2002)

European Collective Bargaining

The importance of collective bargaining is accepted throughout the EU. The main area of interest in collective bargaining is settled on a national level. Efforts to bargain for agreements which are accepted throughout the whole EU are right now in an early stage.

National level

On the national level European collective bargaining has three dimensions:

- Industrial level
- Partners of negotiation
- Range of achieved agreements

Industrial level

Collective bargaining can take place on a cross-industry, sectoral or individual industry level. All in all there is a clear trend towards more decentralized bargaining on individual industry level or at least a trend to get compromises to sustain a balance between job security and flexibility (European Commission, 2000). The latter is basically introduced to ensure the survival of Small and middle-sized Enterprises (SME). Conflicts which can occur when cross- industry or sectoral agreements and individual industry agreements are achieved will be solved also differently in Europe. For example In Germany and Italy the sectoral contract will be valid, while France will use the contract containing more favourite conditions for the workers (European Commission 2000). Also outline agreements on a cross-industry or sectoral basis with more specific conditions on an individual industry level are possible.

Partners on negotiations

“Mutual recognition is the basic mechanism of collective bargaining in most EU countries” (European Commission, 2000). Although in some countries a there may be additional conditions (see table 2).


Excerpt out of 31 pages


Trade Union in the European Union - Gewerkschaften in der Europäischen Union
University of Lincoln  (Commerce Department)
Advanced Labour Relations - Arbeitsbeziehungen
A (1,3)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
761 KB
Differences of union density within Europe: Individual characteristics - Ghent system - Union representatives' access to workplace - Partnership to political parties - Level of centralization, National and European Collective bargaining, Problems for trade unions: member decline - international arbitrage, Ways out: Social Pacts - Union mergers - Union confederations
Trade, Union, European, Union, Gewerkschaften, Europäischen, Union, Advanced, Labour, Relations, Arbeitsbeziehungen
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Florian Leuchtenstern (Author), 2003, Trade Union in the European Union - Gewerkschaften in der Europäischen Union, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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