Swedish unions have become obsolete: leaders

Two of Sweden's union leaders have singled out the failure of the organisations to modernise their approaches to collective bargaining as a major reason an increasing number of Swedes choose not to become members.

Swedish unions have become obsolete: leaders
Ledarna Chairwoman Annika Elias

In the long run, wages should be set on a completely individual basis, Swedish manager organisation Ledarna Chairwoman Annika Elias wrote in an opinion article for newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) on Sunday.

As such, the Swedish trade union movement must modernise or perish, Elias and negotiation leader Thomas Eriksson wrote in DN on Sunday.

They pointed out that the unions within the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen i Sverige, LO) and Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) lost more than 40,000 members last year.

The membership collapse is a result of an outdated view of collective agreements, under which wages are negotiated in closed rooms by people who never meet the employees, according to Elias and Eriksson.

“The idea that wages are best negotiated in a group is a long-outdated notion. It is a legacy from August Palm’s days, when Sweden was an industrial society where large groups in the labour market had only gone to school for a few years,” they wrote.

Palm was a leader in introducing the social democratic labour movement in Sweden in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The labour market supplies well educated employees who want and can make their own choices, Elias and Eriksson added.

Ledarna sees its own model of a local salary structure as a reason behind its membership growth of nearly five percent in 2010. The organisation stopped negotiating central wage increases for its members in 1992.

Instead of the collective agreements, the setting of wage rates is negotiated between employees and managers.

“We want to give people greater opportunities to negotiate their own pay and conditions at the individual level. We want to transfer power from the organisations to individuals and businesses,” said Elias, adding it is “absolutely necessary” in the long run for wages to be set individually.

In response to how the weakest would be protected, Elias responded, “I think that it is a misconception that poor people receive greater support from the wage structure model we have today. There will always be people who are less attractive to employers than others, but it is already like this now.”

LO Chairwoman Wanja Lundby-Wedin dismissed Elias’ observations, pointing that Ledarna should not call itself a trade union.

“They are a good enough interest organisation for managers, but it is not a professional organisation,” she said.

She finds it difficult to understand Elias’ arguments, stating that it is wrong to say that wages are negotiated in closed rooms without transparency for employees.

“The whole idea with a union is that we do it together. Each individual does not have individual power. That we negotiate general wage increases through central collective agreements is obvious for a union. However, wages are often spread out locally and it can look very different,” she said.

TCO Chairman Sture Nordh also defended his organisation from the allegations.

“The illustration of how negotiations go with is totally incomprehensible. It does not take place like that. Workers settle their salaries individually in conversations with their bosses. That we would not support individual and differentiated salaries is naturally completely wrong,” he said.

Nordh believes that Ledarna abdicated its responsibility as a union organisation when it abandoned the principle of central negotiations for general wage increases.

According to Nordh, TCO has not lost members and instead gained 1,000 new members in 2010.

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Swedish union ‘impotent’ in Norwegian staff shuffle

Norwegian's Sweden-based cabin crew, recently moved to a staffing company, have complained that their Swedish union does not have the clout to protect them against the budget airline and the unspoken threat of losing their jobs.

Swedish union 'impotent' in Norwegian staff shuffle
Norwegian cabin literature. File photo: Ann Törnkvist/The Local
Days before Christmas, Norwegian announced that 52 cabin crew in Sweden would be let go. They would continue working for Norwegian, but via staffing firm Proffice. 

"All Proffice employees are now scared, we are no longer employed by an airline. When they say jump, we have to say 'How high?'," a cabin crew member, who wanted to remain anonymous, told The Local.

"We are all pissed at the union and the fact that they own shares in the staffing firm makes us feel that they aren't listening to us. It's very frustrating; from year to year they are giving us worse conditions."

The cabin crew's union, entitled Unionen, is one of the ten biggest share holders in Proffice, the disgruntled employee noted. 

The latest twist, reported in local media over the festive season, was that the move to Proffice cut three days off a month for the former directly employed cabin staff, despite initial promises that all working conditions would remain unchanged. Twelve days off became nine. 

Such scenarios have been addressed in a question to the European Commission sent by Swedish Left Part MEP Mikael Gustafsson. 

"The Temporary Agency Work Directive (2008/104/EC) entered into force in 2008 and was based on the principle of equal treatment," he wrote in the official letter. "In other words, employees of temporary employment agencies should not have less favourable working conditions than employees in the user enterprise."

Gustafsson told The Local he found it regrettable that the EU had introduced a temporary workers directive at all, as staffing firms should be regulated on national not union level, but said the current problem was simply that companies based in Sweden were disregarding the 'equal treatment' clause. In other words, staffing companies should uphold domestic laws and standards.

The cabin crew member who spoke with The Local touched on the perceived precarity of being at the mercy of company that could simply ship jobs abroad. The employee summed up a lose-lose paradox: While furious that Unionen had not stopped the transfer of jobs to a third-party staffing company, the cabin crew member said the Swedish union's insistence that all airline staff be covered by its collective bargaining agreement jeopardized the existence of their jobs in the long-term – regardless of the EU temporary workers directive.

"Unionen is making this profession leave Sweden. They want everyone in Sweden to have the same collective agreement, but Norwegian is a European airline so our organization has a different structure," the employee told The Local. "Because our union won't let go of this thinking, our jobs are going to go abroad."

MEP Gustafsson is now awaiting a reply from the Commission. 

"It's a downward spiral. This kind of (staffing behaviour) forces even 'good' companies to behave badly in order just to compete and survive," Gustafsson told The Local.

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Representatives at Unionen, meanwhile, have spoken openly about their worries that Norwegian could endanger working conditions. And Rickard Gustaffsson, CEO of Scandinavian airline SAS, one of Norweigian's main competitors, told the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper last week that politicians should look into the organizational "grey zone" in which he believed Norwegian was operating. Outsourcing its staff has taken place not only in Stockholm, but also in Bangkok, London, and Malaga, SvD noted this week. 

While Norwegian has been widely covered in Nordic and international media as a business success story, with the purchase of new planes and the addition of several long-haul routes in recent months, they have not escaped criticism. Union representatives in the US added their voice to the fray on Thursday. 

Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), a Washington, DC-based labour organization, said Norwegian had already has a track record of leaving workers in the lurch in its quest for lower labour costs . The business model, which he noted was based on having planes on Ireland, staff in Thailand, and owners in Norway – should be criticized, he told the Norwegian news agency NTB.

"It's designed to do one simple thing. Shop the world for the cheapest possible work force," Wytkind said."And to come to the US and shove out employees."