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Trade Unions


The level of union membership in Sweden is high – at 68% – and, although it has fallen from its peak of 85% in 1993, it has been broadly stable since 2008. 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 3.6 million 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. According to the most comprehensive regular study of union density, undertaken by Anders Kjellberg at Lund University, it was 68% in 2019.[1]  Figures from the Labour Force Survey produce a union density figure of 65.2% in 2019;[2] and the estimate from the ICTWSS database of industrial relations statistics is that union density was 65.6% in 2017.[3]


There are three main union confederations in Sweden, each dealing with a different part of the occupational structure. The largest is now TCO, which has 1,417,889 members and organises mostly non-manual workers. The second largest, which was toppled from its leading position by TCO for the first time in 2019, is LO which has 1,410,606 members and organises manual workers. The smallest confederation is Saco which organises graduate employees. It has 706,306 members.[4] (All figures are for the end of 2019.)[5]


There is also a managers’ association Ledarna, which is outside the three confederations and had 92,882 members at the end of 2019.[6] Other smaller bodies outside the main confederations include the pilots’ union, unions which organise fire fighters and dockers, and the radical SAC union, known as the sindicalists.


The figures quoted above are total membership figures. The number of union members active in the labour market, excluding students and pensioners, is lower, and on this basis, on the Lund University figures, although not on the basis of the Labour Force Survey, LO regains the top spot. It  has 1,222,830 economically active members, slightly more than TCO, which has 1,109,766. Saco with 548,016 economically active members has around half the number of the other two.[7] (All figures are for end 2019.)


The balance of membership between the three confederations has changed in recent years, with Saco and TCO growing and LO losing members (see below).


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 between unions in either confederation, and there are comparison websites, which allow potential members to assess the relative benefits offered by competing unions. In practice employees, however, will normally join the union which has a collective agreement with their employer.


Both the LO and the TCO are broadly structured on an industry basis while Saco is based on its members’ occupations.


The two largest unions in LO are the local authority workers’ union, Kommunal, with 502,899 members, of whom 500,560 are active, and IF Metall, which has 305,904 members (241,951 economically active)  and organises in the metal, building components, textile and clothing industries. These two are followed by the retail union, Handels, with 154,388 members (122,274  economically active), the construction union Byggnads, with 104,283 (80,472 economically active), and the service and communications union, SEKO, with 103,046 (70,818 economically active). All these figures are for 31 December 2019.[8] In total, LO has 14 affiliated unions.


By far the largest TCO union is Unionen, which organises administrative and technical employees in industry as well as workers in retail and distribution. It has 675,506 members, of whom 566,331 are economically active, and is the largest union in Sweden.[9] The next largest is the TCO teachers’ union, Lärarförbundet, with  232,407 members (160,502 economically active).[10] The third-largest is Vision, the union for non-manual local and central government employees, which has 198,945 members, including 138,603 economically active members. [11] The fourth largest TCO affiliate is Vårdförbundet, which organises nurses, midwives and other healthcare professionals. It has 114,033 members, of whom 91,180 are economically active.[12] These figures also relate to 31 December 2019, and, like LO, TCO has 14 affiliated unions.


Saco’s biggest union is Sveriges Ingenjörer, the association of graduate engineers with 154,829 members (127,429 economically active),and, following a merger between two Saco affiliates on 1 January 2020, the second largest is Akavia. This brought together the lawyers’, managers’ and computer experts’ union, Jusek, with the economists’ union, Civilekonomerna. Akavia has 133,767 members, of whom 97,173 are economically active. Other major Saco unions are another teachers’ union, LR, with 91,270 members (63,793 economically active) and Akademikerförbundet, which has 72,7458 members (56,799 economically active) and organises social scientists. Following the merger of Jusek and Civilekonomerna  to create Akavia, Saco has 21 affiliated unions.[13]


The ending of centralised bargaining has reduced the power of the confederations and individual unions now have greater room for manoeuvre and greater influence, although the confederations still play a role in co-ordinating union claims (see section on collective bargaining). Overall, individual unions have considerable independence. One clear example was the decision of LO’s two largest unions, Kommunal and IF Metall in December 2020 to reach an agreement with the employers on new employment protection legislation, which had previously been rejected by LO as a whole. Although the new deal had been revised, a majority of LO unions remained opposed to the agreement signed by Kommunal and IF Metall.[14]


The LO has a long tradition of a close relationship with the Swedish Social Democrats. LO’s president, its most senior figure, is a member of the party’s executive. The ties have, however, loosened over time. 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 85% in 1993, although at 68% it remains high.[15]


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. The consequence was that overall union density fell from 77% in 2006 to 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. LO was much more severely affected than the other confederations, losing 11% of its membership over the period, while membership losses at TCO were just 7% and the was a slight increase in membership in Saco unions.[16]


Since then, the previous pattern of losses at LO being more than compensated by gains elsewhere has re-emerged. Using figures for economically active members, LO lost 162,000 members between 2008 and 2019, while TCO increased its membership by 152,000 and Saco by 119,000. Including other unions, principally the managers’ association Ledarna, this means that the number of economically active trade unionists was 4% higher, at 2,981,423, in 2019 than it had been in 2008.[17] However, the total number of employees increased by 12% over the same period, with the result that overall union density, as calculated in the Lund University study, has slipped from 71% in 2008 to 68% in 2019.[18]


Union density is higher in the public sector (79%) than in the private sector (63%) and overall non-manual workers, with 72% union density, are more likely to be in unions than manual workers, with 60% union density. This is true in both the private sector, where 57% of manual workers and 67% of non-manual workers are in unions, and in the public sector, where 72% of manual workers and 81% of non-manual workers are organised. [19] (All figures are for 2019.)


Figures from the three confederations indicate that the majority of trade unionists in Sweden are women. In LO, women are in a minority, making up 46% of total membership. However, women account for 59% of the membership of TCO unions and 54% of Saco’s membership.[20] Union density is also higher among women, at 72%, than among men, at 64%.[21]

[1] Den svenska modellen i en oviss tid: Fack, arbetsgivare och kollektivavtal på en föränderlig arbetsmarknad by Anders Kjellberg,Lund University, 2020 https://portal.research.lu.se/portal/en/publications/den-svenska-modellen-i-en-oviss-tid(11ad3d7f-b363-4e46-834f-cae7013939dc).html (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[2] Employees aged 15-74 (LFS), 1000s by type of employment, main union organisation, sex and year (own calculations), Statistics Sweden

[3] Jelle Visser, ICTWSS Data base. Version 6.1. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies AIAS. October 2019

[4] Figures from union websites https://www.lo.se/start/lo_fakta/lo_forbundens_medlemsantal_2011_2019


https://www.saco.se/om-saco/medlemsstatistik/  (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[5] For an analysis of the situation and development of trade unions in Sweden see Why no wage solidarity writ large? Swedish trade unionism under conditions of European crisis by Erik Bengtsson and Magnus Ryner in Rough waters: European trade unions in a time of crises, edited by Steffen Lehndorff, Heiner Dribbusch and Thorsten Schulten, ETUI, 2018

[6] Ledarnas Årsredovisning 2019 https://www.ledarna.se/globalassets/dokument/ledarnas-arsredovisning-2019.pdf  (Accessed 17.12.2020)  

[7] Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2019 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Tables 15.4 to 15.6 Medlingsinstitutet, February 2020 https://www.mi.se/alla-vara-arsrapporter/ (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[8] Figures for total membership from LO-förbundens medlemsantal 2011-2019 https://www.lo.se/start/lo_fakta/lo_forbundens_medlemsantal_2011_2019 (Accessed 17.12.2020); figures for active membership from Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2019 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Table 15.4 )

[9] Årsrapport Unionen 2019 https://www.unionen.se/sites/default/files/files/Arsrapport2019_200515_low_0.pdf (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[10] Lärarförbundets årsredovisning över 2019 https://www.lararforbundet.se/artikelsidor/aarsredovisning-2019 (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[11] Årsrapport 2019 Vision https://vision.se/contentassets/251c725eabb9468d83692349606a5dbb/hr_vb_ar_2019_digital_underskrift.pdf (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[12]Vårdförbundets Årsberättelse 2019  https://www.vardforbundet.se/siteassets/om-vardforbundet/verksamhetsberattelser/arsberattelse-2019.pdf (Accessed 17.12.2020) and from Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2019 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Table 15.5

[13] Figures for total membership form Saco website https://www.saco.se/om-saco/medlemsstatistik/  (Accessed 17.12.2020) figures for active membership from Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2019 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Table 15.6 )

[14] Majoritet av LO-förbunden negativa till las-avtal, Arbetaren, 9 December 2020 https://www.arbetaren.se/2020/12/09/majoritet-av-lo-forbunden-negativa-till-las-avtal/

[15] Den svenska modellen i en oviss tid: Fack, arbetsgivare och kollektivavtal på en föränderlig arbetsmarknad by Anders Kjellberg,Lund University, 2020 Table 21

[16] ibid Table 65


[18] ibid Table 1.1 and Statistics Sweden Employees aged 15-74 Labour Force survey

[19] ibid

[20] Union representation, Statistics Sweden https://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/temaomraden/jamstalldhet/jamn-fordelning-av-makt-och-inflytande/facklig-representation/#129749 (Accessed 17.12.2020)

[21] Den svenska modellen i en oviss tid: Fack, arbetsgivare och kollektivavtal på en föränderlig arbetsmarknad by Anders Kjellberg,Lund University, 2020 Table 1.1

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.