Unions in united front against government

As parliament opens on Tuesday, public employees’ unions mount a campaign to protest proposed cuts in unemployment benefits

Ten unions representing more than half a million public workers including teachers, nurses, sanitation workers and other civil servants have united to send a clear message to the government: proposed cuts in public unemployment benefits (dagpenge) will result in a “social disaster” in Denmark. The unions have drafted an open letter to the government, placed ads in daily newspapers and plan on holding public protests to mark tomorrow’s opening day ceremonies at parliament.

"It's about waking this government up and making it clear that they need to choose a different path," Bodil Otto, head of the municipal’s employees union HK, told Politiken newspaper.

Although unions and a red government are usually seen as comrades-in-arms, representatives of the ten unions have signed off on an open letter saying that the government’s current path will destroy the nation’s social system and result in economic disaster for thousands of workers.

The ads slated to appear in daily newspapers around the country tomorrow read 'Godt Nytar' (Happy New Year) at the top and show a photo of a can of cod, implying that Danes will not be able to afford fresh fish for the traditional New Year's Eve cod dish, and will have to resort to using the canned stuff instead. Some have suggested that there is also a not so hidden message to the government implied in the ad. Calling someone a 'torsk', or cod, in Danish is the same as calling them a 'fool'. The ad’s copy warns that over 20,000 workers could lose their benefits at the beginning of next year and as many as 2,400 workers each month could lose their benefits in 2013.

The unions said that this is the beginning of the dismantling of a social system that has always provided public employees economic safety and security in the form of unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs.

Dennis Kristensen, the president of FOA, a union whose members include many social and health care workers, denied that the campaign is designed to make things tough for the government.

"We want to make life easier for the unemployed," Kristensen told Politiken.

Kristensen said that while it may be unrealistic to believe that the campaign will be effective in preventing unemployment benefits being reduced to two years, he hoped that the effort would result in additional benefits and make it easier for workers to reapply.

"The vast majority could be saved with our proposal," said Kristensen.

In the open letter, the unions stated that it is the flexibility of the labour market that has allowed Denmark to weather the economic crisis better than some other countries.

"In Denmark, we have a flexible labour market," the letter reads. "On the one hand, it is easy for Danish employers to hire and fire employees, allowing them to quickly adapt to current developments. On the other hand, the employees have a sense of security and safety in the form of unemployment benefits should they lose their job."

The unions said that in other European countries, getting rid of a public employee is an expensive and time-consuming process, and that by removing the security of unemployment benefits to its workers, the government is "cutting one leg off" of Denmark's system.

The union letter warned against trying to balance the national budget on the backs of civil servants.

"The public sector plays a key role – not in opposition to the private sector, but rather as a prerequisite for growth and job creation in the private sector."  In their proposal, the unions lay out a seven-part plan calling on the government to reduce waiting times for benefits and provide money for training, job rotations with full benefits, paid internships and initiatives that will create jobs immediately.

"A new study showed that Danes fear unemployment more than anything else," wrote the union leaders. "Having a job is the most important resource in our society."

Following PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt's (Socialdemokraterne) speech to officially open parliament tomorrow, union members have invited MPs to sit down and break bread with some of those workers scheduled to lose their benefits at the end of the year. The unions have also scheduled public protests for tomorrow afternoon.

  • How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    Being part of a trade union is a long-established norm for Danes. But many internationals do not join unions – instead enduring workers’ rights violations. Find out how joining a union could benefit you, and how to go about it.

  • Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals are overrepresented in the lowest-paid fields of agriculture, transport, cleaning, hotels and restaurants, and construction – industries that classically lack collective agreements. A new analysis from the Workers’ Union’s Business Council suggests that internationals rarely join trade unions – but if they did, it would generate better industry standards.

  • Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    The numbers are especially striking amongst the 3,477 business and economics students polled, of whom 31 percent elected Novo Nordisk as their favorite, compared with 20 percent last year.