A Danish construction worker reflects on attempts to organise migrant workers in Denmark. He argues that Danish unions made a mistake by focusing on enforcing collective agreements, instead of organising migrant workers.

Union members illegal blockade of unorganised Germans. Copenhagen 2007. The Banner says: “ATT Claus Hjort (finance minister) and Børge Elgaard (Danish Employers’ Association director) We stand on guard for the Danish model, What are you doing?”

Right from the beginning of the eastward expansion of EU on 1 May 2004, the Danish unions had a clear policy on how to deal with the new migrant workers from the east. They would welcome them to the Danish labour market, but on collective agreement terms. A confident President of  the union confederation the LO, Hans Jensen, had already formulated a strategy in November 2002: “If Polish or other East European labour comes to Denmark, is it going to be on the Danish collective agreement terms. We will make sure of that.” Construction unions backed the strategy and prepared themselves as best they could for the coming battle. They did not have long to wait.

In Copenhagen, the first conflict came only a few weeks after the eastern enlargement. Local businessman Peter Tholstrup used the Polish construction company MAR on a small renovation of one of his houses. The local Carpenters Union TIB initiated blockade to achieve a collective agreement, and on 3 June 2004 they held the first demonstration against social dumping in Denmark. The conflict was dropped shortly after because the renovation was almost done.

The city of Aarhus got their first action almost simultaneously with Copenhagen. Aarhus Municipality had business with the Polish company Biomax. TIB Aarhus pressured Aarhus municipality, and on 21 June 2004 Biomax had to sign the first collective agreement of the eastward expansion. Nine months later, Biomax, as the first East European company in Denmark, was sentenced to a fine of 350,000 dkr, for breach of the collective agreements. Biomax then changed its name to AWD, and the money was never paid.

So we cannot say that the trade union movement was sleeping back in 2004. The unions, and particularly TIB, made a strong and in many ways successful effort. How ever it quickly became clear that the strategy had a number of fundamental errors, that has characterised the actions of the construction unions ever since.

  1. First, it became clear that the unions were unable to organise the East Europeans. Without their active participation, it was very difficult to get any collective agreements, and almost impossible to enforce it when the unions finally managed to get one.
  2. Second, the number of Eastern companies and workers quickly exceeded trade union resources. Already in 2005, it became necessary for the Copenhagen building trade unions to prioritise between cases. It was simply not possible to block all the sites where there were no agreements.

As a consequence of the failure to organise the migrants, the trade unions assumed a role as a kind of work-police that forced and enforced collective agreements over the heads of the East Europeans. I do not think there was anyone who consciously made a decision on the strategy, I think it just happened without anyone really wondered if there was an alternative route. But in my opinion, this strategy changed the trade movement’s basic role when it came to the East Europeans. The trade union movement came to resemble some sort of work-police.

Many will argue that there was no alternative. It was not possible to organise the East Europeans. Experienced union organisers have argued that the trade union movement’s problems with organising East European migrant workers stems from the paradox that the workers have no financial interest in being organised. They often do not live in Denmark and can therefore be indifferent to wage developments in Denmark, and they are perfectly aware that they are only in Denmark because they are cheaper than Danish workers. I must admit that I myself was quick to agree with this analysis of the Eastern migrant workers interests, but today I do not think it holds.

The construction union movement was as explained very quick to push for collective agreements with Eastern companies, but they were not as quick to hire Polish-speaking organisers and interpreters. The first Polish-speaking interpreter was employed one year after the eastward enlargement, in Copenhagen. Nationally the first Polish-speaking interpreters were employed three years after eastward enlargement. Today, there are four Polish speaking consultants to be shared between all the country’s construction unions. There has never been employed a consultant that speaks any other language than Polish. As far as I can see, it is self-evident that no one can organise people if they do not speak the same language as them.

In Switzerland they have three languages, and their trade union movement has a long tradition of organising in more than one language. Rita Schivi is responsible for the organisation of migrant workers in the trade union Unia, and she says that almost 80% of construction workers in Switzerland are migrants. Most of them are from other Western European countries, but there are also many Eastern Europeans. According to Rita, Unia organises 60% of construction workers, and most of them are migrants. Rita explains Unia’s organising effort: “We organise them on construction sites, with trade unionists coming from their culture. We always talk with them in their language. It is one of our principles. ”

Unia’s strategy has been tried on a small scale here in Denmark, but I would argue that the emphasis has always been on obtaining and enforcing the collective agreement, not on organising the workers. In fact I would venture to say that the focus on the agreement has decidedly obstructed the organising effort.

The Norwegian trade unions have also had some remarkable experiences with organising workers from Eastern Europe. In Norway East European workers are mostly employed in temporary work agencies such as Adecco, which has well over 1,000 Polish employees. In the period 2004 to 2006, the Norwegian construction unions managed to organise more than half of Adecco’s Polish employees. The Polish workers chose their own shop stewards, and they negotiated their own local agreement.

Julia Maliszewska is Polish-speaking organisern in Oslo construction worker unions. She explain that the trade unions in Norway are always waiting to demand agreements until they have 50% of the members of a company. This means that they have far fewer agreements than their Danish sister unions, but it also means that the agreement is always rooted in the workers. For Julia, it is inconceivable that you should be able to enforce an agreement without members: “It’s not like that everything is in order, they get better pay, and the boss is happy when there is agreement. (…) They gotta to have their own representatives who can negotiate their own salaries, and solve their own problems when the union is finished with its work.”

I think the Danish trade union movement could learn from Norwegian trade unions patient organising strategy.

Now I am far from the only one who has caught sight of the need to prioritise the organising effort. The problem for the Danish trade union movement is that they can’t really afford the extra effort. If they were to recruit several Polish, Latvian, Hungarian, Romanian and so on organisers, they would have to fire Danish organisers – Danish organisers that are much needed to service the Danish members. It is a matter of hard priorities.

An alternative could be to systematically involve the members more in the fight. A brand new study amongst 3F’s construction workers shows that 74% of them would like to participate in the fight against social dumping, but only 15% have tried to contact their foreign colleagues, to discuss wages and working conditions. There is a huge untapped potential here.

In any case, the trade union movement in Denmark is at a crossroads.

Should it continue to act as a work-police, or should it find it’s way back to its roots and prioritise the organising effort?

Personally, I hope for the latter.

– Originally published in Arbejderen


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Jakob Mathiassen

Jakob Mathiassen is a construction worker from Copenhagen, Denmark, and co-author of the book Battle Sites.

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