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Trade Unions

Levels of union density vary widely across the 28 EU states plus Norway, from around 70% in Finland, Sweden and Denmark to 8% in France. However, density is not the only indication of unions’ capacity to mobilise workers. In most countries union membership has been falling in recent years, and, even where it is growing, it has not generally kept pace with the rise in the numbers employed. Most European states have several competing union confederations, often divided on political grounds, although ideological differences may now be less important than in the past. Union mergers continue to remake the trade union landscape, although generally within rather than between confederations.

Union density

In looking at union strength, a key starting point is the level of union density, defined as the proportion of employees who are union members. In some countries union density figures are collected as part of broader labour market surveys. In others they are derived from the membership figures produced by the unions themselves. The density figures, particularly where they come from union membership records, are not always precise, either because the unions themselves do not publish detailed figures or because the published figures include a proportion of union members who are not employees. In some cases these members are pensioners, in some cases students and in some cases the unemployed. However, estimates are included for each country and are set out in the table.

The figures1 make clear the great variety of levels of union membership, ranging from 74% of employees in Finland, 70% in Sweden and 67% in Denmark, to 10% in Estonia and Lithuania and 8% in France. However, it must at once be noted that union membership is not the only indicator of strength. In Spain, for example, support for the unions is shown by the large number of votes they receive in works council elections, and in France the unions have repeatedly shown that despite low levels of membership they are able to mobilise workers in mass strikes and demonstrations to great effect.

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%. The average is held down by 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 three smallest states, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta, have levels well above the average.

As already noted, the three Nordic countries of Denmark, Sweden and Finland are at the top of the table with around 70% of all employees in unions. In part this is because, as in Belgium – which also has above average levels of union density – unemployment and other social benefits are normally paid out through the union, although recent changes in the Swedish system of unemployment benefit have had a negative impact on union membership. However, high union density in the Nordic countries also reflects an approach that sees union membership as a natural part of employment, as shown by the relatively high proportion of employees – around 52% – who are union members in Norway, where unemployment benefits are not paid through the unions.

Elsewhere unions have to face a more hostile climate and this is evident in some of the newer EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe, which generally have below average levels of union membership. Eight of the 11 states in this position have union density levels below the EU average, including the largest, Poland, where 12% of employees are estimated to be union members. Only Slovenia, with union membership at 26% of employees, Croatia, with 35% union density, and Romania, where union density has been estimated at 33%, although union sources put it at between 40% and 50%, are in the top half of the table.

However, if the levels of union membership are very varied, the direction in which they are moving is less so. Only six states – Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, and Norway – have seen a gain in union members among the employed in recent years. However, with the apparent exception of Italy, this growth has not kept pace with the overall growth in employment, meaning that union density has drifted downwards.

In the rest of the EU overall union membership has fallen. The losses are clearest in the states in Central and Eastern Europe, where industrial restructuring and a fundamental change in the role of unions have had a major impact. But there have also been membership declines in the countries of Western Europe, such as Austria and Portugal. However, there are also signs of membership stabilising in some of the countries which have seen major membership losses in the past.

In Germany, for example, where the main union confederation, the DGB, has lost 48% of its membership since its peak in 1991, partially because of substantial losses in the former East Germany, the most recent figures show only a 0.7% loss over two years. Similarly in the UK, where unions suffered major losses in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, membership numbers have more or less stabilised, and there was a very slight increase between 2011 and 2012.

UK union membership figures over the period 2010 to 2012 show growth in the private sector, where unions have made major efforts to recruit, while in the public sector cuts membership has fallen as employment has been reduced in line with government policy.2 However, over a longer period it has been the growth in employment in the public sector, where unions are stronger, that has explained stabilised membership figures.

Higher union density in the public than in the private sector is a common factor across much of Europe both east and west. In France, for example, official figures covering the period 2001 to 2005 show that 15.2% of those directly employed by the state were in unions, compared with only 5.0% in the private sector. 3 In Croatia, a survey published in 2010, found union density to be 68% in the public sector, but only 17% in the private sector. 4

In Poland, a survey in 2012 found that employees of state-owned companies and institutions were three times more likely to be union members than those working in the private sector.5 Similarly in Sweden in 2012, the National Mediation Office reports that union density was higher in the public sector (83%) than in the private sector (65%). 6 In the Netherlands, a regular survey of employees by the national statistics office shows that union density is highest in public administration – at 34%, while in hotels and catering it is only 7% (figures for 2011).7

There is greater divergence in the proportion of men and women in unions, although these figures are not available for most countries and reflect a range of factors including the extent of part-time working and the sectors in which women and men are employed.

In Spain, for example, a 2010 government survey found that men – with a union density of 17.8% – were more likely than women – at 14.8% – to be in unions, although the gap between the two is narrowing.8 In the Netherlands too, the employee survey quoted above indicates that in 2011 men, with union density at 23%, were more likely to be union members than women, with a union density of 17%. In Poland, the 2012 survey found that there was no difference between the unionisation rates of men and women.

In contrast in Hungary, union density was higher among women – at 12.9% – than among men – 11.1% (figures for 2009). 9 The same is also true in Sweden, where the figures from the National Mediation Office indicate that women workers (74% union density) are more likely to be in unions than men (67% union density) as well as Ireland, where union density is 34% among women and 28% among men,10 and the UK, where 29% of female employees and 23% of male employees are union members.11


Proportion of employees in union (%)











































Czech Republic*

















EU average


Average including Norway


Sources: In many cases (marked with *) the source is the ICTWSS: Database on Institutional Characteristics of Trade Unions, Wage Setting, State Intervention and Social Pacts in 34 countries between 1960 and 2012 compiled by Jelle Visser, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS), Version 4, April 2013 University of Amsterdam (see http://www.uva-aias.net/207 ) . For other countries the sources are as follows:

Cyprus: Department of Labour Relations;

Croatia: Industrijski odnosi u Hrvatskoj: društvena integracija ili tržišni sukob (Industrial relations in Croatia: social integration or market conflict) by Dragan Bagić, 2010;

Denmark: Udviklingen i den faglige organisering: årsager og konsekvenser for den danske model, by Jesper Due and Jørgen Steen Madsen. 2010, LO-dokumentation 1/2010;

Estonia: Statistics Estonia database Table WQU96;

Finland: Three decades of working conditions: Findings of Finnish Quality of Work Life Surveys 1977-2008, by Anna-Maija Lehto and Hanna Sutela, 2009;

France: Le paradoxe du syndicalisme français: un faible nombre d’adhérents, mais des syndicats bien implantés, DARES, 2008

Hungary: Szakszervezeti stratégia és megújulás (Trade union strategy and renewal) by Ágnes Szabó-Morvai, November 2010;

Ireland: Quarterly National Household Survey, Union Membership, Quarter 2 2012, CSO, Ireland, March 2013;

Latvia: LBAS;

Lithuania: Statistics Lithuania, Table M319020;

Luxembourg : Regards sur la syndicalisation au Luxembourg, by Jean Ries Statec, 12

Malta: Calculated from the Report by the Registrar of Trade Unions 2011-12, Malta;

Netherlands: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek ;

Norway: Organisasjonsgrader og tariffavtaledekning i norsk arbeidsliv 2008, by Kristine Nergaard, and Torgeir Aarvaag Stokke, Fafo, 2010, updated by Fafo 2012;

Poland: Związki zawodowe i prawa pracownicze, BS/52/2102, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), 2012;

Slovakia: Calculated from Statistical Yearbook of the Slovak Republic: 2011

Slovenia: Trades Union in Slovenia: historical development and the current situation by Miroslav Stanojević and Živa Broder, 2012;

Spain: Encuesta de la Calidad de Vida en el Trabajo (ECV) (2010);

Sweden: Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2012 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Medlingsinstitutet, 2013;

United Kingdom: Trade Union Membership 2012: Statistical Bulletin, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2013.

The figures for the EU and EU plus Norway are calculated using Eurostat figures on employees in employment.

Union structures

Union confederations, the peak structures of unions at national level, are organised in many different ways in the EU.

There are only five states where there is a single union confederation for all, or almost all, union members. These are Austria, Ireland, Latvia, Slovakia and the UK, although something very close to this pattern is found in both Germany and Greece. In Germany, as well as the dominant DGB, there is another confederation – the DBB – organising substantial numbers of public sector workers, and a much smaller Christian confederation. In Greece, one confederation – GSEE – organises the private sector, while another – ADEDY – organises the public sector.

In five states in Northern Europe, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, and, to a lesser extent Estonia, divisions between the confederations are primarily on occupational/educational lines, with different confederations organising manual workers, non-manual workers and those with a graduate-level education (only manual and non-manual in Estonia where the division is in any case not absolute).

The commonest pattern is where there are several confederations, whose rivalry at least initially was political or religious. This is the position in 17 countries, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.

However, the basis for the division between rival confederations varies in different parts of Europe. In Western Europe and the Mediterranean island states, the fault line runs between confederations whose differences in some cases emerged during the Cold War and in some cases go back much further. This is the case, for example, in Belgium, France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as in Cyprus and Malta, although in most of these countries the political connections that led to the initial antagonism have weakened over time. In Central and Eastern Europe, one of the key divisions is between the confederations that emerged from the reformed official trade union structure of the Communist period, like KNSB in Bulgaria or OPZZ in Poland, and those whose creation grew from opposition to the then government – Podkrepa in Bulgaria and NSZZ Solidarność in Poland.

There are also other complexities. In Italy, Spain and Luxembourg, there are important groups of trade unionists in specific industry-based confederations – in the finance sector in Italy, in public administration in Spain, and in both finance and public administration in Luxembourg. In Slovenia and Hungary union confederations divide along both political and industrial lines. In Croatia, the differences seem to be organisationally rather than politically based. In the Netherlands as well as the FNV, which resulted from a merger of socialist and catholic confederations, and the CNV, which comes from the protestant tradition, there is a third confederation, the MHP, which was originally set up to represent more senior staff, although it has recently split. In Spain there are important union confederations that are purely regionally based, reflecting a demand for greater autonomy and, sometimes, independence.

There has been little indication that in most countries, these organisational divisions will disappear in the near future. A recent attempt, in Romania to form a new alliance between union confederations failed in 2012, and, in France, discussions on a merger between two smaller confederations, CFE-CGC and UNSA, in 2008 and early 2009 also did not reach agreement. However, more recently in May 2013, three of Hungary’s six confederations announced that they planned to merge.

In contrast, within confederations there has been an ongoing tendency for individual unions to merge. Some of the largest unions in Europe are direct products of mergers over the last 12 years. They include Verdi – now the second largest union in Germany, which was formed in 2001, Fagforbundet – the largest union in Norway, formed in 2003, 3F – the largest union in Denmark, formed in 2005, Unite – the largest union in the UK, created in 2007, and Unionen – the second largest union in Sweden, which came into being in 2008. More recently, PRO-GE, the second largest union in Austria, was the result of a merger in 2009.

However, experience in Finland, where two separate mergers in 2009 and 2010 failed to go through as planned, with only some of the unions involved finally agreeing to merge, indicates the potential problems involved in bringing unions together.

In any case, in some countries, the structure is not based on strong individual unions operating through branches at local level – the situation in Germany and the UK for example. Instead the basic unit is the individual workplace union which then joins with other similar bodies to form industry federations or regional union groupings, which in turn affiliate to the confederations. Examples of this include the unions in Poland, other than Solidarność, as well as Croatia, France, Romania, Portugal and Greece.

L. Fulton (2013) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.