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.
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where they come from union membership records, are not always precise, either because the unions themselves do not publish detailed figures or because the published figures include a proportion of union members who are not employees.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. The details are also not always up-to-date. While in some countries they are published annually, in others they may be published much less frequently, or the most recent reliable survey may date back several years.
Despite these difficulties, estimates are included for each country and are set out in the table. It is, however, important to bear in mind the imprecise nature of the percentages presented for many countries.
The figures 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 8% in France and Lithuania.
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, and they have a strong presence in the many workplaces (see section on employee representation).
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 changes in the Swedish system of unemployment benefit had a negative impact on union membership between 2006 and 2008. 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. Nine 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 and Croatia and Romania, both countries where union density has been estimated at 35%, are in the top half of the table.
In most countries union density has been falling steadily for more than a decade and a half. The main exception is Italy, where union membership among the employed (almost half of Italian union members are retired) has increased over the last five years. With overall employment falling, density has risen.
However, the most recent figures suggest that membership decline has slowed and density has stabilised in a number of countries which have seen losses in the past.
In Germany, for example, 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. However, the most recent figures show only a 1.4% loss over four 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. Over the ten years from 2003 to 2013, union density declined, but only by 3.7% percentage points (from 29.3% to 25.6%). In Austria too, what the union confederation describes as the “crisis years” for membership, from 2006 to 2009, appear to be past, with membership broadly stable. As already noted, union density in Sweden also dipped at around the same time. However, here too it has been stable at 70% since 2011.
There is less positive news from the newer EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe where industrial restructuring and a fundamental change in the role of unions had a major impact in the past and unions are still facing a difficult environment. In the seven countries where up-to-date figures are available (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia), union membership has fallen.
Lack of current figures makes it difficult to judge how economic and financial crisis is affecting the unions in most of the states in Southern Europe which have been severely affected by it. In Cyprus, the unions report that membership is being hit, but the extent of the impact remains unclear. The situation appears similar in Portugal and Greece. In Spain, the two main confederations have presented detailed membership figures, which show losses of 12.6% (UGT) and 16.7% (CCOO) since 2010. These falls are greater than the decline in overall employment and indicate that density is also falling.
Across much of Europe both East and West union density is higher in the public than in the private sector. In the UK, the figures are particularly stark, with density at 55.4% in the public sector but only a quarter of this figure, 14.4%, in the private sector. Elsewhere in Europe the gap is generally smaller but it still exists.
In France, 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. In Norway, 79% of public sector employees are union members, but only 37% of those working in the private sector. In Croatia, a survey published in 2010, found union density to be 68% in the public sector, but only 17% in the private sector – a similar ratio to that in the UK. In Sweden, the National Mediation Office reports that in 2014 union density was higher in the public sector, at 83%, than in the private sector (65%), a smaller gap than in most other countries.
Some countries provide figures on the proportion of men and women in unions. These vary considerably they 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, based on the total workforce rather than just employees, 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 was narrowing. In the Netherlands too, a regular survey of employees (EBB) 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, a 2014 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). 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 32% among women and 26% among men, and the UK, where 28% of female employees and 23% of male employees are union members.
Proportion of employees in union (%)
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:
Bulgaria: Official census of trade union membership 2012;
The effects of the economic crisis on industrial relations in Croatia, by Hrvoje Butković, Višnja Samardžija and Sanja Tišma, 2012;
Cyprus: Department of Labour Relations;
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 2013; CSO, Ireland;
Latvia: Calculated from LBAS figures;
Lithuania: Calculated from The number of members in membership organizations at the end of year, Statistics Lithuania;
Luxembourg : Regards sur la syndicalisation au Luxembourg, by Jean Ries Statec, 12
Malta: Calculated from the Report by the Registrar of Trade Unions: 2012-2013;
Netherlands: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (EBB survey) ;
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, NR106/2014, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), 2014;
Romania: Romania: Industrial relations profile by Luminita Chivu, EurWork, 2014;
Slovakia: Calculated from KOZ SR figures 2015
Slovenia: Public Opinion and Mass Communication Research Centre at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana 2013;
Spain: Encuesta de la Calidad de Vida en el Trabajo (ECV) (2010);
Sweden: Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2014 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Table 3.3 Medlingsinstitutet, February 2015;
United Kingdom: Trade Union Membership 2013: Statistical Bulletin, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, May 2014.
The figures for the EU and EU plus Norway are calculated using Eurostat figures on employees in employment.
 See table below for details of sources.
 This is taken to be figures from 2012 onwards.
 Trade Union Membership 2013: Statistical Bulletin, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2014
 Le paradoxe du syndicalisme français: un faible nombre d’adhérents, mais des syndicats bien implantés, DARES April 2008
 Organisasjonsgrader, tariffavtaledekning og arbeidskonflikter 2013, by Kristine Nergaard, Fafo, 2014
 Industrijski odnosi u Hrvatskoj: društvena integracija ili tržišni sukob (Industrial relations in Croatia: social integration or market conflict) by Dragan Bagić, 2010
 Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2014,Table 3.5 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Medlingsinstitutet, 2015
 Encuesta de la Calidad de Vida en el Trabajo (ECV) (2010)
 Związki zawodowe i prawa pracownicze, NR106/2014, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS), 2014
 See Szakszervezeti stratégia és megújulás (Trade union strategy and renewal) by Ágnes Szabó-Morvai, November 2010
 Avtalsrörelsen och lönebildningen 2012,Table 1.10 Medlingsinstitutets årsrapport, Medlingsinstitutet, 2013
 Quarterly National Household Survey, Union Membership, Quarter 2 2014; CSO
 Trade Union Membership 2013: Statistical Bulletin, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2014
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). This pattern may be changing in Denmark and Finland (see below).
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 others 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 unions – 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 vcp, which was originally set up to represent more senior staff, although a split in its membership in 2013, means it is now only half the size it was. In Spain there are important union confederations that are purely regionally based, reflecting a demand for greater autonomy and, sometimes, independence.
Until recently, there had been little indication that in most countries, these organisational divisions would disappear in the near future. An 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 and in 2014 potential merger plans were announced in both Denmark and Finland.
In Denmark, the two confederations representing the bulk of manual and non-manual workers (LO and FTF) produced a joint document, which specifically raised the prospect of setting up a new single union organisation. However, Akademikerne, representing those in graduate level jobs, has remained outside. The position is similar in Finland, with SAK and STTK (the confederations representing most manual and non-manual workers) in favour of a merger, while the bulk of the graduate-level AKAVA is opposed. However, the Finnish timetable seems shorter than that in Denmark, with the new body planned to be in place by 2016.
Within confederations there has been an ongoing tendency for individual unions to merge. Some of the largest unions in Europe are direct products of large-scale mergers over the last 15 years. They include Ver.di – 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, while there were important mergers in Spain in 2014.
However, the most dramatic recent union merger has not followed this pattern of large individual trade unions coming together to create a larger union, but leaving the formal relationship with the confederation untouched. In the Netherlands, a different approach has been attempted. From 1 January 2015 five unions in the FNV confederation, including the three largest, merged directly into the FNV, which now becomes a union itself, as well as remaining a confederation for the 12 unions, who remain affiliates but are outside the new merger.
In some countries, union mergers are less likely, as the structure is not based on strong individual unions at national level. 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 (2015) 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.