Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Decline in Swedish Union Density since 2007

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Decline in Swedish Union Density since 2007

Article excerpt

In 2007 and 2008 something quite unique in modern time occurred in the Swedish union arena. In the course of two years union density fell by 6 percentage points: from 77% in 2006 to 71% in 2008 (annual averages). From 1 January 2007 to 31 December 2008 Swedish unions lost in all 245,000 members, or 8% of all active union members.2 To find an equivalent it is necessary to go back to the large union defeat in the 1909 general strike. In 2007 alone, trade unions lost 181,000 members or almost 6% of their members.

In 2007 and again in 2008 the center-right government, which came to power after the September 2006 elections, radically changed the financing system of unem- ployment funds. Among the issues discussed in the article, the following questions may be asked: What was the role of government policy in the considerable membership losses in union unemployment funds and trade unions? Why did the largest decline take place among blue-collar workers? Which objectives did the government wish to achieve by sharply raising fund fees, and later link them more closely to the unemployment rate in each fund? To what degree was government policy successful? Was it possible to foresee the massive membership losses of funds and unions? The aim of the article is to describe and explain the development in Swedish trade union membership since 2007.

In contrast to most other countries, union density in Sweden has generally increased. Two historical exceptions are the years after the 1909 general strike and the depression years in the early 1920s. From 1923 and up to the mid-1980s a period of more or less uninterrupted union growth followed. After a peak of about 84-85% in 1986, union density during the years of the tight labor market in the late 1980s decreased to 81%, to rapidly recover in the early 1990s when Sweden was hit by the deepest depression since the 1930s. In the late 1980s there were plenty of vacant jobs waiting for those dissatisfied with their current jobs. A growing number of people then thought they could manage well without being union members. The rate of unionization fell most among young employees in private services living in big cities, to swiftly rise again among the same groups when harsher times set in (Kjellberg 2001).

Gradual decline followed by a sharp fall

Up to the mid-1990s union density recovered to about 85%. Density then decreased again, but at a relatively modest pace up to 2007. The average annual decline from 1993 to 2006 was just 0.6 - 0.7 percentage points among blue-collar workers and 0.5 percentage points among white-collar workers (Table 1). In the seven years 19992006 it varied from zero to just over 1 percentage point, and was significantly greater among blue-collar workers (on average almost 1 percentage point per year) than among white-collar workers (0.5 percentage points). As a result, blue-collar density (84% in 1999, 77% in 2006) and white-collar density (80% in 1999, 77% in 2006) converged.

Considering the slow union decline from 1993 to 2006 it is remarkable from both a short-term and a long-term perspective that such a large subsequent drop of 6 percentage points occurred in the course of just two years. In the preceding two-year period the decline was limited to 2 percentage points (from 79% in 2004 to 77% in 2006), but then union density suddenly began to fall three times faster. The proportion of the labor force affiliated to unemployment funds decreased even more rapidly: from 83% at the end of 2006 to 70% two years later (Kjellberg 2010a).

The main explanation for this turn of events is not particularly hard to find. From January 2007 the membership fees of almost all unemployment funds increased at the same time as tax reductions for both union dues (25%) and fund fees (40%) were abolished. Unemployed members did not have to pay the raised fund fees. Some groups of workers from one day to the next saw a six-fold net increase of their fund fee. In a country with state-supported union unemployment funds as Sweden, i. …

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