Battle for labour market’s future offers shades of past

One restaurant’s struggle against the labour establishment could herald a change to the Danish labour model

The year was 1984. Kim Larsen had just released 'Midt om Natten', Niels Kay Jerne was awarded a Nobel prize and Preben Elkjær blasted a penalty over the bar against Spain in the European Championship semi-final. And then there was Per Brandt.

A bus driver, Brandt singlehandedly brought public transport in Zealand to a complete standstill by refusing to join the SiD labour union (now 3F). The union subsequently organised a massive blockade that prevented a million people getting to work. And when Brandt still refused to buckle, the union turned up the pressure and finally got him sacked.

Nearly 30 years later and Denmark has a new Per Brandt. His name is Amin Skov. But this time the unions are on the back foot.

Skov, the owner of Restaurant Vejlegården, has faced union pressure that one politician called “Mafia tactics”, including no rubbish removal, threats against the local newspaper for publishing his advertisements, and picketing in front of his eatery.

The reason for the dispute is that Skov signed a collective bargaining agreement with the independent trade union Krifa, instead of 3F.

3F is within its rights to organise strikes and blockades, and in this case it says its actions are meant to protect the ideals of a labour model that traces its roots back to 1899, when widespread strikes ended with a truce between workers and employers and an understanding that each had rights and obligations in labour issues. They also agreed that stable labour relations was a key to economic progress.  

But even though both parties still agree to those basic principles, it was almost three decades ago that Brandt stood up to the union, and 3F may have the spirit of the age against it in the Vejlegården conflict.

Membership of 3F and unions in general is falling as the number of blue collar jobs declines. That has left the public's image of the unions in the balance as people increasingly become averse to the idea of being coerced into becoming a member of a union.

“A story about a person is much easier to tell than one about the labour movement,” Henning Tjørnehøj, from the union advisory board Fagbevægelsens Forskningsråd, told Information newspaper. “Amin Skov has already won the media battle, and it’s difficult for the unions to win public support when the media constantly portrays the issue as a drama that pits the little guy versus the big bad union.”

And while the drama unfolding between 3F and Skov may seem to be a simple labour conflict, nothing could be further from the truth. The dispute represents the clash between the freedom of organisation and the methods that brought about a labour market model that works on the ideal of industry-wide collective bargaining agreements.

But according to political scientist Søren Hviid Pedersen the system of one-size fits all labour agreements is out-dated and doesn’t adequately embody the current labour environment in Denmark.

“The socialist union movement still clings to the worst delusion of Marxism: the idea of class struggle. Employees and employers do not have competing interests, they have a joint interest in creating prosperity and labour in the nation they live in,” Pedersen wrote in Berlingske newspaper.

But Keld Holm, a former Konservative MP, argued that while the Danish welfare model may be obsolete, it is certainly preferable to the jungle that would ensue if the labour market were to become unregulated.

“The Danish model’s founding principles are about the right to organise and demand acceptable wage and work conditions, including the right to strike to obtain such conditions,” Holm responded in Berlingske. “On the other hand, it is also the right of the employer to manage employees and distribute work, as well as using lockouts in times of strife.”

The Danish labour model may be heavily praised in other countries, but one catch-22 of the current system is that Danish jobs continue to be outsourced because businesses simply can’t afford to pay the high wages that unions have been able to secure through the years.

And on top of that, the unions may have had the public’s support in the ‘80s when blue collar jobs were still plentiful, but this time, union tactics have led to a dramatic shift. Restaurant Vejlegården’s bookings are up by 15 percent since the drama began. Meanwhile, a poll shows 60 percent of voters are in favour of outlawing blockades as a union weapon.

And with public support for labour unions flagging, critical politicians have started to go for the jugular.

“We need to modernise the Danish model,” Ulla Tørnæs (Venstre), told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “Otherwise it will lose legitimacy and will not survive the 21st century, because Danes will no longer accept being forced into becoming a member of an organisation that they don’t wish to join.”

So even though 3F may well be within its rights to carry out its crusade against Amin Skov, with the public and politicians against it, it's not hard to imagine that this may be another instance where winning the strike winds up costing its members dearly in the end.