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Democracy / News & Next Events / Trade Unions

Why do Nordic countries have three times more trade union members than Scotland?

Why do Nordic countries have three times more trade union members than Scotland?

Nordic Workplace Democracy

This event on 20th February 2019 marked a rare trip outside Edinburgh for Nordic Horizons. Hosted by the University of Glasgow and introduced by Professor Chris Chapman, Director of Policy Scotland, University of Glasgow, the session focused on Nordic workplace democracy and was well attended by trade union activists and officials as well as the usual mix of students, researchers and policy officers.

So why do Nordic countries generally have three times more union members than Scotland? Obviously, a societal framework of mutual respect, equity, negotiation and compromise helps trade unions thrive, in contrast to the casualised UK where unions have never recovered from the Thatcher period, and find it hard to win collective bargaining rights over wages in Britain’s new zero hours society.

Britain’s enduring “us v them” workplace culture also deters unions from seeking involvement in day-to-day management of the workplace, leaving them mostly negotiating wages, terms and conditions in annual deals.

But somehow unions in Iceland and Sweden are managing to go further, bolted into the daily functioning of every workplace and recruiting members in sectors often considered too hard to reach here – especially women, part-time workers, immigrants and casual workers.

In the midst of the on-going dispute over equal pay for thousands of female council staff in Glasgow, Nordic Horizons was delighted to welcome two female speakers, whose experience cuts to the heart of that dilemma and the wider position of unionised labour.

Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir won a landslide victory to become chairperson of Efling, Iceland’s second largest union with 25000 members, arguing that the union had neglected the lowest paid and foreign workers. Three of the seven board members appointed by Sólveig are immigrants – for the first time in Icelandic history.

In the week of our event, long running negotiations between trade unions and employers in Iceland’s hospitality industry reached a tipping point, and Sólveig Anna had to cancel her trip at the last minute. We were fortunate to be able to pre-record an interview with her which was shown at the event in Glasgow –


Britta Lejon was a Swedish Social Democratic politician who worked for the Department of Transportations during 1987-1990 and the Department of Communication in 1990. She was Minister for Democratic Issues in the Ministry of Justice 1998-2002.

She is now President of the ST Civil Servants’ Union and active in the European Federation of Public Service Unions. Her presentation focused on the dynamics of trade union activism in Sweden and across the Nordics.

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