Unionising towards the future: Labour unions in the EU 

By Erin Ewen and Malena Ramajo

Labour unions are fighting to remain at the forefront of Europe’s social advancement.  

MEP Marianne Vind: “The goal is a decent life for everybody in Europe.” Photo: Erin Ewen

With average union participation across the European Union declining, some labour unions are urging the EU to “help trade unions remain strong and organise.”  

One area where unions are showing their strengths is wage negotiation. Recent debate over introducing EU regulated wage floors has reinforced the importance of “social partners,” to ensure adequate living wages within the EU.  

As the new European Commission takes shape, the debate concerning minimum wage legislation has reignited, highlighting the need for collaboration with workers unions within Europe.  

With the perpetually evolving labour market, do unions hold the same power they once used to?  

The European Trade Union Institute suggests that “unions themselves need to adjust to new realities. We have a changing workforce, more female employment and a new category of workers emerging with the gig economy. Unions need to adapt.” Said researcher Torsten Müller.  

Union density varies across Europe, but a downwards trend is evident. Withoutstrong participation, do labour unions offer a solution to building a more economically equitable Europe?  

Nordic member states including Denmark, Sweden and Finland act as the exception to this trend, with union participation remaining strong.  

Within these member states collective bargaining has resulted in a proportionately higher minimum wage, without regulation from government legislation.  

As a result, trade unions are fighting to protect this model.  

Dorthe Andersen, head of the Danish Trade Union Confederation said, “we have our system of collective bargaining in Demark that we want to preserve and not have a forced European minimum wage. 

“Of course, we support that at European level there are rules to ensure a salary you can live off and we might need the EU to regulate this. But how far should they go? We don’t believe legally the EU should interfere. There can be recommendations and guidelines, but what is really important is capacity building.”  

While Müller provides the understanding that some unions are too weak to support effective collective bargaining practices, and therefore may require legislation regarding minimum wage to produce social and economic change.  

More than just wages 

Particularly in the Nordic countries, labour unions have influence over working conditions, health, safety and education. Wage negotiations are just one aspect of what unions aim to achieve. Increasing union density within other EU member states has the potential to improve the quality of various aspects of working life for European citizens.   

Marianne Wind, Danish Social Democrat and new member of the European Parliament maintains that “the goal is a decent life for everybody in Europe.Minimum wage could be one of the tools to achieve this, but it’s not the goal.” 

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