A new survey conducted by two of Norway’s major labour research institutions shows that fewer workers are joining labour unions. Only 37 percent of those working in the private sector were organized in 2013, an unusually low level in a social welfare state with strong labour traditions.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that the survey by research foundation Fafo and the Institute for Social Research (Institutt for samfunnsforskning, ISF) found that the degree of organizing among workers has fallen for several years, especially among workers aged 35 to 44.
While union membership remains high within the public sector and has only slipped slightly, from 80 to 79 percent over the past 20 years, it fell in the private sector to 37 percent from 44 percent in 1995. The overall degree of organizing has declined from 57 to 52 percent.
Can’t be blamed on youth and immigrants
Some of the decline is linked to a growing tendency among young workers to refrain from joining unions. There’s also been a large influx of labour migrants into Norway in recent years and immigrants in general also have a tendency to forego union membership.
The Fafo and ISF researchers wouldn’t blame youth and immigrants for the declines, however. “We actually found the opposite among the young,” Fafo rsearcher Kristine Nergaard told Dagsavisen. “We found a quite stable, if low, degree of organizing and we can say the same about labour migrants.” She said that immigrants “clearly” are less likely to join local unions, but even without increased immigration, the numbers of workers in the construction and other industries, for example, who join unions has declined.
Nergaard pointed to “many other reasons” for the decline in organizing. Changes in the size of companies where workers are employed is a key factor, as are structural changes within business and the economy that have led to fewer industrial jobs and more service jobs.
Fragmentation poses challenges
Branches that traditionally were dominated by big companies “made it easier for us in the labour movement to build up a good organization,” agreed Clas Delp of Fellesforbundet, trade union federation LO’s largest organization in the private sector. Small businesses, or those whose activities are divided by operation or that outsource workers make it much harder for labour unions to organize their employees.
Changes in company structure present challenges for the labour movement, as does the proliferation of small businesses as a major source of employment. That can also challenge the so-called “Norwegian model” that’s characterized by a high degree of union membership that enables large-scale negotiations with employers’ organizations and leads to political influence. The model is also credited for relatively small pay differences in the Scandinavian countries, universal welfare programs that apply to everyone and relatively high employment levels.
Nergaard doesn’t think Fagforbundet or other labour organizations need to worry too much, but she does warn of the rise of “A- and B-teams” of workers, where large, well-organized workplaces and the public sector will have tariff agreements and the benefits they bring, while others working in more fragmented branches won’t have the same rights or benefits.