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A brief history of the danish workers’ movement

Building workers 1938 Copenhagen
Af Jakob Mathiassen

The danish workers’ movement took its first uncertain steps in 1871, under the name of The International Workers’ Association for Denmark, a subdivision of the First International. This early danish workers’ movement had three main characteristics which would influence political development for many years.

- First, the workers quickly took control of the movement from the young idealist academics who had started the project. The workers who took over were just as interested in gaining concrete improvements in the lives of their families as they were interested in an international socialist revolution. They therefore built strong unions that secured tangible results on the workplace long before, the movement was able to deliver political results.

- Secondly, the workers fully understood that the Danish working class, employed in industry and as craftsmen, was still a small minority within the still very backward and agraren Danish economy. They realized that the movement slowly but surely had to build up its strength, towards the day when the working class became the majority. And they understood that they had to work together with other groups in society. Particularly the small farmers' party became a strong partner.

- Third, the young workers' movement chose to swim with the national-liberal democratic tide, rather than against it. The Danish workers at the end of the 19th century was barely able to vote, but they understood that the democratic project of the national-liberals could be expanded and used.

This was the background to the slow growth of the danish workers’ movement from a small association in the capital of Copenhagen to a wide, diversified movement spanning the whole country, without any of the bloody confrontations with the ruling classes which characterise the rise of workers’ movements in so many countries all over the world.

The birth of the union movement

Membership of the party and trade union was quickly divorced so that the unions could organize all workers, no matter their political beliefs. However the two movements cooperated very closely, up to today.

The trade union movement grew rapidly, especially among the many skilled craftsmen. In 1873 the first collective agreement was reached, in 1875 the first countrywide trade union federation was founded by skilled tradesmen, in 1877 the union started its own unemployment insurance, in 1896 unskilled tradesmen founded their own union, and in 1898 the first countrywide organization for all trade union federations (LO) was founded with a membership of 49% in all of the sectors which it organized, possibly the highest in the world.

At about the same time, employers founded the Danish Employers Organization (DA), and in 1899 locked out two-thirds of LO’s members in an attempt to kill the fledgling union movement in its cradle. The lockout lasted three hard months, which ended up being referred to as ‘the hunger war’. Even though poverty was so abject that levels of child mortality in the workers’ families rose above all previous records, the workers’ movement stood together in a disciplined fashion. There were no riots and no looting. The worker’s movement managed to win the support of a majority of the population, and DA was forced to the bargaining table.

The negotiation resulted in the main agreement that by and large has come to function as the basis for the danish labour market ever since. The main agreement stated the employers’ right to lead and distribute the work; in return, the employers recognised collective agreements as the basis of any regulation of wages and working conditions within the danish labour market. The workers’ movement had the right to set in motion strikes, pickets and solidarity actions in order to reach a collective agreement, but once such an agreement had been reached it had a duty to act peacefully towards the employer. One of the points of the agreement was also the foundation of the first labour court to mediate any differences in interpretation of the agreement. The following year, the first collective agreement, which ensured that workers had the right to elect representatives, came to life, and in 1907 the state started financially supporting the union movement’s unemployment insurance funds.

In the space of a few decades, the danish union movement had laid the foundation for the danish labour market as we know it today, with strong unions and employers’ organizations that agree on minimum wages, working hours and more between themselves and without intervention from the state. Present are also local representatives who can negotiate local agreements on-site and a labour court that passes judgment in the case of discrepancies in interpretation or of a breach of the agreements. The unions’ unemployment insurance funds also exist today, and payout bigger unemployment benefits than the state during the first year of joblessness. The unemployment insurance funds or ‘A-kassen’, together with the collective agreements’ relatively short termination notices, form the model known as ‘flexicurity’.

The political workers’ movement

In 1884 the first two Social Democrats, a tailor and a shoemaker, were elected into the danish parliament. Some years later, in 1901, parliamentarianism was established in Denmark, and in 1909 the first government supported by the Social Democrats was elected. In 1913, the Social Democrats became the country’s biggest party, and in 1915 universal suffrage was introduced, extending the vote to servants and women.

The king attempted to put the brakes on this democratic development in 1920 when he dismissed the government, which was supported by the Social Democrats. But when the Social Democrats threatened a general strike, he bowed to the pressure and retired forever from the political scene. Four years later, during the elections of 1924, the Social Democrats won 36.6% of the vote and for the first time could form their own government. They kept on doing so, with very few interruptions, in the period between 1924 and 1982.

In this period, the workers’ movement created an incredibly diversified welfare society, funded by a high income tax and VAT. In the danish welfare society, healthcare and education are free, and adults are paid whilst they pursue an education. There is also a state unemployment benefit, which is given to all unemployed citizens and some residents.

The Social Democrats have always been the most prevalent force in the danish workers’ movement, but since the beginning of the 1900s they have faced an active leftwing opposition, primarily from socialists and communists, who did not believe that the Social Democrats had been radical enough in their reforms of society. The communists have traditionally been strong in the union movement, while the socialists have been strongest in parliament ever since the Hungarian Revolution of 1958 caused a split in the Communist Party of Denmark.

Communists, Socialists and Social Democrats could, between themselves, count on about 80% of the working class vote up until the middle of the 1990s, but only very seldom have they held a parliamentary majority. In a country with so many small and medium businesses, the working class has had a hard time getting a majority in the parliament and the Social Democrats have therefore primarily had to lean to the centre when a government was to be formed. The very few times when the Social Democrats have formed a government with the left, the two parts have not been able to agree on ends and means and their governments ended in bitter separations.

In spite of the political divisions, the union movement remained unified.