Trade unions play an important role in all of the countries examined, although the proportion of employees who are union members (union density) varies widely, and density is not the only indication of unions’ capacity to mobilise workers. 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. And many confederations contain powerful individual unions.

Union density

Union density, defined as the proportion of employees who are union members, is a key factor in assessing union strength and influence, although other aspects are also important. Unfortunately, despite its importance, there is no common method for collecting information on union density across countries, with the available information coming from various sources, including regular labour force surveys, ad hoc enquiries and administrative data from the unions. The information also varies between countries in terms of its accuracy and frequency with which it is collected.

However, the broad picture is clear. This is that, on average, around a fifth of employees in the EU are union members, with the Nordic countries having the highest levels of union density and some of the newer EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe having the lowest. Among the largest European economies there are significant differences in union density, with Italy on 32.5% and the UK on 23.5%, both above the EU average, while Germany on 16.5% and France on 10.8% are below. The individual national density statistics, relating in most cases to 2019, are set out in Figure 1. They are taken from the OECD/AIAS database, although this does not mean that they are all on the same basis.

Figure 1: Union density in EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom (%)

Other factors

Union density is not the only factor indicating union strength and influence. In France, the unions have repeatedly shown that despite low levels of membership they are able to mobilise workers in mass actions, and, as in Germany and in Spain, two other countries where density levels are relatively low, support for the unions is shown in the election for workplace representatives.

Competing confederations

In most countries, there are several union confederations, the peak structures of unions at national level, which to a greater or lesser extent are competing against one another for members.

The most common pattern is where there are several confederations, whose rivalry at least initially was political or religious. This is the position in 18 countries, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czechia, France, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland. However, generally the political connections that led to the initial antagonism have weakened over time. As well as these political differences, in some of these states there are also other factors, such as industrial occupational or regional difference, explaining the existence of multiple confederations.

In another five states, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and 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, although this pattern is not rigid as there are now only two confederations in Denmark and Estonia and there are four in Norway. There are five states, Austria, Ireland, Latvia, Slovakia and the UK, where there is a single union confederation for all, or almost all, union members (see Figure 2). In all countries, the confederations play an important role and, in some countries, unions affiliated to them have greater rights than non-affiliated unions, provided the confederations themselves meet certain conditions. It is also generally the confederations that are members of official tripartite consultative bodies, where such bodies exist.

Figure 2: Union confederations in EU Member States, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom

Individual unions

However, individual unions themselves are also important and, in some countries, the largest unions overshadow the confederations. To some extent this is the case in Germany, although not in France, Italy or Spain.

Other issues relating to unions, such as the extent of female membership, their relative strength in the private and public sectors, and their links to political parties a dealt with in the national reports.

Across Europe