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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 than1 between confederations.

Collective Bargaining

The proportion of employees covered by collective bargaining in the 28 EU states plus Norway varies from well over 90% to 10%. The countries at the top of the table either have high levels of union membership, as in the Nordic countries, or have legal structures which ensure that collective agreements have a wide coverage. In the countries at the bottom of the table, company level bargaining dominates. In some countries, such as Belgium, Italy or Sweden, there are links between different levels of bargaining but in others, like Luxembourg or Cyprus, various levels simply coexist. Overall the trend seems to be towards greater decentralisation and the crisis has accelerated this.


Workplace Representation

Employee representation varies across Europe, combining both representation through local union bodies and through works councils or similar structures elected by all employees. In the 28 EU states plus Norway, there are four states where the main representation is through works councils with no statutory provision for unions at the workplace; eight where representation is essentially through the unions; another 12 where it is a mixture of the two; and a further five where unions were the sole channel, but legislation now offers additional options. In many countries, national legislation implementing the EU’s information and consultation directive has complicated the picture. One common feature of most states is that unions play a central role.


Board-level Representation

Arrangements for employee representation at board level in the 28 EU countries plus Norway can be divided into three groups. There is a group of ten countries where there is no board level representation and a further group of six, where board level representation is limited to state-owned or privatised companies. However, the biggest group of 13 states provides for employees to be represented on the boards of private companies, once they have reached a certain size. These thresholds vary greatly as do other elements of the national arrangements.


Document Fulton 2019-20 NIR update

European-level Representation

National representatives on bodies linked to European Works Councils and the European Company are generally chosen in a way which reflects the existing structures of the country concerned – either by the union, or by the works council. However, in seven countries they are elected by all employees.

Contact - European Worker Participation Competence Centre (EWPCC)

Aline Hoffmann, Coordinator

+32 2 224 0519

Catherine Rihoux, Assistant

+32 2 224 04 98

European Trade Union Institute

Boulevard du Roi Albert II, 5 box 4
B - 1210 Brussels
Tel : +32 2 224 04 70
Fax: +32 2 224 05 02

The ETUI offices are located in the ITUH (International Trade Union House), near Place Rogier and the North Station (on the corner of boulevard du Roi Albert II and rue des Croisades).

Train: North Station
Metro: Rogier (line 2)
Bus, trams: stop Rogier.

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