Trade unions. A European overview

1.11.2016

Levels of union density vary widely across the 28 EU states, from around 70% in Finland, Sweden and Denmark to 8% in Francei. The average level of union membership across the whole of the European Union, weighted by the numbers employed in the different member states, is 23%. This level is a consequence of the relatively low levels of membership in some of the larger EU states, Germany with 18%, France with 8%, Spain with 19% and Poland with 12%

The right of association is expressly provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in the article 12.1.: Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association at all levels, in particular in political, trade union and civic matters, which implies the right of everyone to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests. Moreover, as abovementioned, the European Commission proposed transnational collective bargaining, which was intended to encourage the creation of transnational trade unions or even a European-wide trade union movement. However, the density, the organisational structure and the role played by the trade unions vary considerably between the Member States. While some trade unions concentrate on collective bargaining, some others are involved in public policy making, as part of the tripartite bodies and are consulted by administrative authorities on economic and social policy matters.

In some of the Member States, the trade unions are politically ideological and confessional. As an example, in the Netherlands, there are two major trade union: the FNV the largest trade union with 1,367,800 members in December 2011 and the CNV, with 338,000 members in January 2012. Both, the FNV and CNV trace their roots back to organisations with a clear religious or political orientation. The FNV emerged from the merger of the socialist and the catholic union federations; the CNV still describes itself as a Christian union and comes from a tradition of Protestant trade unionism.

The existence of such differences suggests that worker representation will continue to take place primarily within national context. But even at national level the trade unions need to address challenges related membership and legal criteria for being recognized as representative.

Table 1. Union membership and non-membership in EU Member States, 2000 -2012

Source: ICTWSS databasei

As regards the union membership, the statistics reveal a continuous decrease of union members. The causes are multiple and complex. By way of comparison, it may be stated that the employees validated trade unions involved in the provision of unemployment benefitsii. Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, who implemented the Ghent system, have high trade union density. We recall that the Ghent system refers to a system of voluntary unemployment insurance that is subsidized by public authorities and in which trade unions provide benefits to the unemployedi.

The legislative measures, especially those related to the criteria for the trade unions to be considered representative for participating in the social dialogue, could have discouraged the employees to adhere to trade unions which seen their representativeness challenged. In 2008, France increased the minimum level of support for the trade union to 10% of the votes at company level and 8% of the votes at sector level. In 2011, Romania, the 2011 law on social dialogueiv imposed the following levels of support: 5% of the total number of employees of the national economy, at the national level, 7% of the total number of employees of the sector, at the sector level and 50% + 1 employees of the company, at the company level.

In parallel, the economic crisis generated a decrease of employment contracts concluded of indefinite duration, in favour of fixed-term contracts and part-time contracts employees, who are less likely to adhere to trade unions.