Industrial Revolution to 1980: The History of Industrial Democracy in Denmark and Norway

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This paper is a brief discussion of the early history of industrial democracy in two Scandinavian countries: Denmark and Norway. Specific attention is paid to the evolving labor laws and the impact they had in creating these truly unique nation-wide approaches to cooperative management-labor relations. It is interesting to note that these two nations and their neighbor, Sweden, developed along such similar lines, but still maintained their individual characteristics and philosophies towards the democratization of the work-place. It is also clear that industrial democracy in Scandinavia meant much more than employee representation on the board of directors. It encompassed all employees participating in the decision making process from the individual worker on the shop floor, through various cooperation committees or works councils, to the board of directors, and even outside of the organization.

In the first paper in this series, the author argued that the early Swedish experimentation with employee participation and workplace democracy provided significant lessons for the rest of the world (Haug, 2003). This paper attempts to provide an understanding of how the two other Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Norway, faced with the same pressures and issues as everyone else coming out of the industrial revolution, also evolved unique approaches to labor relations. On purpose this history lesson is incomplete. The reader is taken from the Industrial Revolution to 1980. Since, it was in the economic downswing of the late 1970's and early 1980's that some of the Scandinavian practices were found to be unrealistically excessive, this is a reasonable place to stop. The reader is encouraged to make comparisons between the Scandinavian experiences and other nations' of which he/she is familiar with in order to develop a true appreciation for how these two nations evolved such unique approaches to management.


History of Danish Industrial Relations

In 1857 the Danish government abolished the guild system via the Free Trade Act. The initial result may have improved the employment opportunities of some workers, but it certainly removed both the masters and the apprentices from the protection that the old guilds had provided. This action coupled with increasing industrialisation led to a worsening of the working conditions, a reduction in real wages, and deteriorated housing, especially in the larger cities such as Copenhagen. In 1871, the Danish section of the International Workers' Union was organized as a reaction to the above mentioned conditions. It drew some of its political inspiration from the Paris Commune of the same year. This time period is considered the true beginning of Danish trade unionism (Boelsgaad, 1983a & 1983b).

In 1872, 2,000 Copenhagen bricklayers struck for a ten-hour working day. Clashes with the police occurred resulting in the banning of the International Union and the jailing of some of its leaders.

During these early years it was often impossible to separate the trade union movement from the progressive political movement. In 1876, the Social Democratic party was organized with 6,000 people attending the first convention. The following year some of the police were involved in bribing two of the workers' leaders to emigrate to America. This and other pressures helped to reduce some of the impetuousness of the politicalunion connection. In 1878 the political and trade union movements separated into two different entities. Although independent, to this day there are extremely close ties between the trade union movement and the Social Democratic Party.

Throughout this period pressure was exerted on the Danish Parliament to make child labor illegal. Legislation accomplishing this fact passed the parliament. Many also lobbied parliament to provide aid for destitute persons over the age of 60 and to remove the criminal status of unions. In 1891 these ideas were also enacted into law by a concerned government. …