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Trade Unions

The level of union membership in Sweden is high – at 71% – although it has fallen from its peak of 86% in 1995. There are three main union confederations, LO, TCO and Saco, which are divided along occupational and educational lines in line with the traditional way in which Swedish employees are grouped, and there is considerable co-operation between them.

There are some 3.5m trade unionists in Sweden and, although there are a number of non-employed members, particularly students and pensioners, the level of union organisation is high. Figures from the official National Mediation Office put union density at 70% in 2011.1 Similarly, the ICTWSS database of union membership put union density at 68.9% in 2010.2

There are three main union confederations in Sweden, each dealing with a different part of the occupational structure. The largest is the LO which has 1,502,285 members and organises manual workers. The second largest is the TCO, which has 1,245,864 members, of whom 995,891 are employed or looking for work and organises mostly non-manual workers. The smallest federation is Saco which organises graduate employees. It has 636,301 members, of whom 479,417 are employed. (All figures are from union websites and are for the end of 2012, 2011 for LO.) The balance of membership between the three confederations has changed in recent years, with Saco growing and LO and, to a lesser extent, TCO both losing members (see below). There is also a managers’ association Ledarna, which is outside the three confederations and has 89,740 members (January 2013).3

Relations between the federations are generally good and there are agreements between most LO and TCO unions to help resolve potential conflicts over membership. There is, however, greater scope for competition between TCO and Saco as many employees can choose either, although in practice employees will normally join the union which has a collective agreement with their employer.

Both the LO and the TCO are structured more or less on an industry basis but Saco is structured on the basis of its members’ occupations. The two largest of the 14 individual unions in LO are the local authority workers’ union, Kommunal, with 504,600 members, and IF Metall, created through a merger of the metalworkers’ and industrial workers’ unions in 2006, which has 348,287 members in the metal industries, building component and textile and clothing industries. These two are followed by the retail union, Handels, with 144,891 members, the service and communications union, SEKO, with 123,639, and the construction union Byggnads, with 106,013 (all figures as stated by the unions for 31 December 2011).4

The largest TCO union is the Unionen formed through the merger of SIF, a union organising clerical and technical employees in industry with HTF, which had substantial membership in retail and distribution. Unionen, which came into being on 1 January 2008, has 534,413 members. The next largest is the TCO teachers’ union, Lärarförbundet, with 230,698 members and the union for non-manual local and central government employees, Vision (formerly SKTF), with 164,414 members (all figures for 31 December 2012). In total TCO has 15 affiliated unions.5

Saco’s biggest union is Sveriges Ingenjörer, the association of graduate engineers with 136,358 members, followed by another teachers’ union, LR, with 87,336 members, and Jusek, with 81,551 members, who include lawyers, business managers, personnel managers and computer experts (all figures for 31 December 2012). Saco has 22 affiliated unions. (One small union of ships’ officers left Saco in 2012).6

The ending of centralised bargaining has reduced the power of the confederations and individual unions now have greater room for manoeuvre and greater influence. However, the confederations still play a role in co-ordinating union claims (see section on collective bargaining).

The LO has a long tradition of a close relationship with the Swedish social democratic party, the SAP. Local union branches can affiliate to local bodies of the SAP and LO’s president, its most senior figure, is a member of the party’s executive. The ties have, however, loosened to some degree. The two other confederations stress their party political independence.

The proportion of employees who are union members has fallen in recent years from a high point of 86% in 1995, although at 70% it remains high.

Until the change of government in 2006, the decline was relatively slow and in part reflected changes in the labour market. LO lost 160,000 members and TCO 16,000 between 2001 and 2006, while Saco’s graduate membership increased by 72,000 over the same five-year period. However, between 2006 and 2008 the unions’ membership situation deteriorated sharply as the centre-right government altered the legislation on unemployment benefit insurance, which is often paid together with union membership contributions.7 The consequence was that union density fell from 77% in 2006 to 73% in 2007 and 71% in 2008. The decline in union density was greater in the private sector, where it fell from 71% in 2006 to 65% in 2008, than in the public sector, where there was a drop from 88% to 84% over the same period.8

Since then, the previous pattern of losses at LO being partially compensated by gains elsewhere appears to have re-emerged. While LO lost 108,200 members between the end of 2008 and the end of 2011, TCO gained 25,400 over the same period, and Saco saw a 45,900 membership rise. Both TCO and Saco continued to increase membership in 2012.

On the issue of membership balance, the National Mediation Office reports that union density is higher in the public sector (83%) than in the private sector (65%) and that overall non-manual workers, with 73% union density are more likely to be in unions than manual workers, with 67% union density. This is true in both the private sector, where 64% of manual workers and 66% of non-manual workers are in unions , and in the public sector, where 83% of manual workers and 86% of non-manual workers are organised. Women workers (74% union density) are more likely to be in unions than men (67%).9

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.