Sweden is one of the most unionised countries in the world, with the union movement representing over 70% of the nation’s workforce. Yet on arrival in Sweden many foreigners will choose not to join. The reasons are many and varied but it can also be worthwhile educating yourself further before making a final decision as the benefits are not always obvious.
“Foreigners don’t really understand that for a Swede joining a union is like joining the church: you do it at birth and take it for granted,” says Michael Collins, National Secretary of the Civil Aviation Section of the Unionen union.
With around half a million members Unionen is the biggest white-collar union in the world, and is typical of the large well-funded and well-resourced unions in Sweden.
Over the past century the union movement has been integral in creating Sweden’s generous work conditions and by extension the famed welfare state. Some foreigners may choose not to join because they feel they’ve successfully negotiated their own pay and conditions. But unions would argue that you may be underpaid compared to your colleagues. There may even be other entitlements that you’re not even aware of yet.
“As a foreigner, and I say this as a foreigner myself, when you get your first job you can be taken advantage of,” says Collins, who hails from the US and has lived in Sweden since 1977.
“The best way to get information on your rights is to join a union. It gives you automatic representation.”
Australian Nicholas Gregory spent several years working as a postman for Citymail in Stockholm, where he not only joined the communications union, SEKO, but also got elected to the divisional board. “The Swedish union movement has been successful in offering workers more than just better wages and work conditions,” says Gregory.
“They have been able to offer things that are outside their work environment, and as a result become a bigger part of their lives.” SEKO provided Gregory with free Swedish lessons as well as covering his pay for days he took off from Citymail to attend, and when elected to the board he was sent on a two-day training course in leadership skills. While it varies between unions, many offer members the chance to take up free classes in cooking, art or other extracurricular activities.
In many countries the relationship between unions and the government/private sector is typically tense and hostile. However in Sweden it is far less confrontational with the two often intertwined.
“I was amazed that the union office was in the Citymail head office, and funded by Citymail,” says Gregory, “I got the same wage, and any days I worked at the union office were covered by Citymail.”
Union representatives often sit in on job interviews, as well as various committees and working groups within a company, as they feel they have a vested interest in ensuring the company is being run well for the sake of their members’ job security. In other words, rather then see themselves as opposing forces, unions and employers emphasis their shared interests. “Generally the union will work with the company and not against it,” says Gregory.
Currently Sweden is in the midst of one of those rare periods of their modern history when the Social Democrats are out of power. The centre-right Reinfeldt government have abolished tax deductions on membership fees and increased fees for unemployment insurance schemes (which are often run by unions) resulting in a sharp drop in union membership. Yet these changes have been made with a good deal of consultation with the union movement, hence the lack of large-scale industrial action.
In Sweden joining a union does not have the same stigma or political connotations as it might elsewhere. “In the US it is uncommon for white collar workers to join a union,” says Michael Collins, “Employers will call your loyalty into question, but that is not the case in Sweden.” While some blue-collar unions retain strong links to the Social Democrats, many other unions, such as Unionen, are apolitical, and a sizeable chunk of union members will vote Liberal or Moderate.
Whatever role or function unions have in your own country, in Sweden they can be something quite different. Joining may not suit everyone, but the potential benefits certainly make it worth investigating.