Home / National Industrial Relations / Countries / Sweden / Workplace Representation

Workplace Representation

Workplace representation for employees in Sweden is through the local union at the workplace. There is no other channel. Legislation requires the employer to inform and negotiate with the unions at the workplace before making major changes, and many of the practical arrangements for doing so, which elsewhere in Europe are fixed by law, are left in Sweden to local negotiations.

In Sweden it is trade unions who provide employee representation at work. There is no separately elected structure along the lines of the works councils which exist in many other European states. A key reason why unions have this role is the very high proportion of the working population in Sweden that are union members (see section on unions). Overall, the Swedish model is built on trust between the parties and union strength in the negotiations is not a result of legal requirements – in fact none of the parties are interested in this – but of the willingness and ability on the part of unions to resort to industrial action.1

The legislation which gives unions these wide ranging powers at the workplace is the 1976 Co-determination at Work Act (MBL). In addition there are collective agreements which aim to increase union influence over company decisions. In the private sector the most important of these is the 1982 agreement on efficiency and participation, known in Swedish as the Utvecklingsavtalet (UVA), and subsequently incorporated into industry level agreements.



A very important element of this union based approach is that it leaves many of the practical details to be worked out locally through negotiation between employers and unions. Unlike in some other European states the legislation does not contain a series of detailed provisions which must be complied with.



Instead, the Co-determination at Work Act (MBL) sets out a number of more general requirements, and gives unions “the right to negotiate with an employer on any matter relating to the relationship between the employer and any member” of the union.



Where “significant changes” in employer’s activities or employees’ working or employment conditions are planned, there is a duty on the employer to take the initiative and enter negotiations with the union, with whom he or she bargains before any decisions are taken. Where the changes are not significant, employers are still required to negotiate on these issues if the union, with which they have signed a collective agreement, requests this.



This does not just include the issues that are typically subject to collective bargaining, but also gives unions the right and the employer the obligation to negotiate on managerial decisions – so-called “joint-regulation” bargaining. Here the intention is that, in the words of the MBL, “decisions that would otherwise be taken by the employer shall be taken by employee representatives or by a joint body specifically constituted for such purpose”.2

In addition, the employer must keep the union, with which he or she has a collective agreement, "continuously informed about how his activity is developing". The law also specifically opens the way to collective agreements on joint decision making on employment levels, "the management and distribution of work", and other aspects of the business.



In cases where an employer does not have a collective agreement with a union, there is still an obligation to negotiate in respect of individual employees, if there is a significant change in their employment or working conditions. In such a case, however, there is no obligation to negotiate about the employer’s own activities.



There are also rules covering bargaining about grievances in the MBL.



In July 2005, the MBL was amended to take account of the EU’s information and consultation directive (2002/14/EC) by ensuring that employees whose employers have not signed any collective agreement with the unions are also covered. These employers are now required to inform and negotiate with unions with members in the workplace over a number of issues, even though they do not have a collective agreement with them. The issues covered by this obligation are “all matters relating to termination of employment as a consequence of insufficient work or the transfer of an undertaking, a business or a part of a business”. This requirement, giving unions who do not have an agreement with the employer the same rights in this area as those who do, is a breach with the Swedish tradition, under which unions who have signed a collective agreement have exclusive negotiating rights.



However, it is important to emphasise that although the employer must negotiate before making changes there is no obligation for these negotiations to end with an agreement. As a result, in most cases the union has no veto powers over the employers' plans. The ultimate right of management to manage, initially recognised more than a century ago in the central collective agreement of 1906 – the so-called “December compromise”, still applies. In addition, where an employer takes a decision before negotiating – and so acts contrary to the MBL – the decision is not invalid. Instead the employer must fulfil the negotiating obligations. Failure to do so can result in substantial damages.



Numbers and structure



There are no rules about the numbers of union representatives who should be involved in negotiations with the employer but typically in a workplace with 200 to 300 employees there may be three or four members of the union committee representing manual workers and smaller numbers for the unions representing white collar and professional staff. The 1982 agreement on efficiency and participation specifically lays down that, where there is no local union organisation at a workplace, the union can appoint a specified individual as the union contact person for negotiations. The LO estimates it has 50,000 individual contacts in workplaces without a separate union organisation.



The negotiation and information obligations do not just apply to a single union in the company. If there are several unions present, and, with separate representatives for manual, non-manual and graduate employees, this will normally be the case, the company must, if necessary, deal with each of them separately. However, unions will often come together for issues which affect them all.



Tasks and rights



Trade union representatives at workplacse have a wide range of tasks. Firstly, they have a democratic role within the union. If there are enough union members at a plant, perhaps more than 25 or 30, then the members will make up a union club, the basic democratic building block of the union. The elected union representatives are the office holders of these clubs and so make up the local face of the union for the other members.



Secondly the union representatives are also the individuals to whom members turn for information and advice in their relations with the employer, although here they may have assistance from the full-time union official.



Thirdly, the local union representatives also have a very important negotiating role on questions of pay and conditions. Current trends in pay bargaining mean that an increasingly large part of overall pay – in some cases all of it – depends on locally agreed arrangements (see section on collective bargaining) and it is the local union representatives who negotiate this.



In the area of information and consultation – the issues which in many other countries are covered by works councils – the law imposes a series of obligations on the employer, requiring the union to be informed and consulted. These start when there is a single union member in the company (see above).



Under the information requirements of the law on co-determination, the employer is obliged to keep the union informed of its general economic situation, production levels and personnel policy. Unions should also be given access to company accounts and other corporate documents and, provided it is reasonable to do so, the company should provide the unions with copies of other documents they request.



The 1982 agreement on efficiency and participation (the UVA agreement) provides further detail on the type of information to be provided to the unions. As well as stating that they should “be given insight and influence over the undertaking’s economic situation, planning, budget and follow up work”, it also requires managerial assessments for the future to be explained so that the unions have an opportunity to deal with and assess: “the market outlook for the undertaking, its purchasing activity, its competitive position, product development, and production equipment as well as employee security and development of work”.



The consultation element of the law requires the employer to start negotiations with the local union, with which he or she has a collective agreement, before a "significant change to the employer’s activity" and before "significant changes in working or employment conditions for employees" who belong to the union.



Decisions by the Labour Court have defined these “significant changes” as including: changes in work organisation and methods; personnel changes including changes in supervisors; the preparation of the annual budget; structural changes; and alterations in the patterns of recruitment or dismissal. On all these issues, and other issues involving significant changes, the employer must take the initiative by opening negotiations with the union. The employer must also negotiate on issues, which do not involve significant changes, if they have been raised by a union, with which the employer has a collective agreement. In these circumstances, the employer may not take or implement decisions that concern a member of the union before such negotiations.



Negotiations first take place at local level but if agreement cannot be reached the unions have the right to ask for negotiations at national level.



The 1982 UVA agreement on efficiency and participation, lists three areas where unions and employers are likely to be involved in negotiation. These are: development of work organisation, where the aim is to increase the “skills and experience” of each individual worker; technical developments; and issues linked to the economic situation of the business, including issues such as purchasing policies, investment, marketing and research. The agreement makes clear that the aim is both to secure that the business remains competitive and to ensure that work is organised so that employees “are given as absorbing and stimulating a work situation as possible”.



It provides a range of possible options to be followed. One is that there are straightforward company level negotiations between the management and the unions on planned changes in accordance with the law; a second is that union representatives at all levels in the company negotiate with the appropriate local line managers; a third possibility is that joint union-employer bodies can be set up to take decisions.



A further variation set out in the 1982 UVA agreement is that specific issues of a limited duration, such as the introduction of new investment, new organisational systems or company restructuring, can be dealt with through joint union employer projects. However, the agreement also stipulates that it should be clear which issues are being dealt with in which way and that union representatives always have the right to refer matters being dealt with in negotiations with line management or through joint bodies to formal company level negotiations between the employer and the union. In addition staff reductions should always be dealt with through company level negotiations unless the local agreement specifically provides otherwise.



In one area the union has veto powers. It can prohibit the use of sub-contractors, who are not direct employees, unless there is a genuine need for labour of this type; for example, if they have specialist skills or are needed for a short period of time.



The experience has also been that the larger the company the more likely it is that there are formal company level negotiations, whereas in smaller companies issues are dealt with more flexibly. Typically problems will be settled between local union representatives and local management on a day-to-day basis. It also seems clear that in the majority of cases unions are involved in negotiating change.



Election and term of office



Workplace representation is provided through the trade unions, operating under their own rules, and there are no statutory regulations which lay down how trade union representatives should be chosen; it is for the unions to decide. The 1974 Act on Trade Union Representatives, which provides the trade union representative with a variety of legal rights where the union negotiates with the employer, refers simply to “all employees who have been elected by a local union to represent the employees in the capacity of a trade union representative”. To function as a trade union representative, the only requirement is that the employer should be informed by the union as to who has been chosen. However, these rights only apply to representatives of the union with which the employer has a collective agreement covering the employees concerned.



In practice trade union representatives are elected for a one or two year period of office at the annual general meeting.



Protection against dismissal



If the union considers it is particularly important to union activity for the union representative to be kept on, he or she must be given priority in redundancy selection. Employers who fail to observe union requests in this area may find that their dismissals are invalid.



Time off and other resources



The 1974 Act on Trade Union Representatives does not set down a fixed period of time off for trade union activity at work. It simply states that paid time off should be provided “as required” but should “not, however, be longer than what is reasonable considering the conditions at the workplace”.



Local collective agreements often define what is regarded as “reasonable” and the position varies widely. In the central government sector a national agreement provides for one union representative on full-time union duties for every 500 members in the local union. Time off will normally include going to outside meetings and on courses provided these are linked with the workplace.



The union representative either as an individual or as part of the trade union committee is entitled by law to use of a room or other space for union activities. Collective agreements often extend these rights to the use of various items of office equipment – telephone, fax, computer, photocopier etc – and in some cases provide for secretarial support. The question of exactly what facilities the union representatives should have is normally one of the first issues to be negotiated between the union and the employer.



The 1982 agreement on efficiency and participation also provides for the trade union representatives to make use of external consultants, paid for by the employer, where major changes are in prospect. Typically the employer will pay for a consultant for a week.



Representation at group level



The 1982 agreement on efficiency and participation states that information on the whole group should be given to union representatives in the companies within it and where decisions are planned which have an impact on several group companies the unions "should appoint a group of representatives with power to discuss and negotiate with group management". The union representatives have the right both to time off and expenses, although the details are normally regulated locally.

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.