Structure of workers organizations in foreign nations


Structure of workers organizations in foreign nations


German basic law guarantees the right of workers to form representative unions in every occupation.1 Representative organizations include individual trade unions, which organize strikes and collectively bargain, typically on a per-industry basis. Employees can voluntarily choose which union to join, and typically pay a tax-deductible fee of 1% of their gross wage. Some workers, such as students, may pay lower fees. Only union members pay a fee.2 Additionally, larger confederations exist as umbrella consortiums representing multiple smaller industry unions, advocating for their social, economic, and legal interests.3 Trade unions can collectively bargain for wages, scheduling, sick leave and vacation time, and termination conditions. Multiple collective agreements can be signed with one employer, as long as no employee is covered by more than one (tarifpluralität). If multiple unions conflict on bargaining aims, the largest union has discretion. Employees can form their own collective union, although this is rare and the conditions to do so are vague.

The largest association, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), is a confederation representing 5.9 million workers, at its peak representing a third of the workforce (8 million).4 The German Civil Service Federation (DBB) represents 1.3 million civil servants and connected public employees. This is an umbrella consortium of 40 member unions, each one representing a separate governmental department, including police, tax officers, social security workers, and justice officials.5 98%+ of public sector workers are enrolled in unions.6 In Germany, there is a distinction in the public sector between civil servants, who may not strike, and have their pay determined by legislation, and public employees, who may collectively bargain. In some but not all states (Landers) within the country, the collective agreements of public employees may extend to civil servants as well.7

Usually, the consortiums themselves however do not directly collectively bargain, although they do otherwise get involved politically.8 In the public sector however, the DBB itself bargains, alongside the verdi trade union belonging to DGB.9 The confederation and union form a negotiating bloc and together bargain with the national government, via the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Finance.


The right to form unions is guaranteed by the Italian Constitution (Art. 39 Sec. 1) and the 1970 Workers Statue. The country has a union density of 34.4% as of 2018. The three largest confederations each have between 1.3 and 2.7 million employed members. Each is constituted by a multitude of trade unions from a variety of industries.10

There are two separate but similar work-level representative institutions in Italy, representing the unified interests of a single workplace. These are the trade union representatives (RSA), and the newer and more common unitary trade union delegations (RSU). The function of each is to negotiate with employers on the individual company level, including via collective bargaining agreements.11 RSUs also provide the ability for workers to communicate without fear of reprisal, in addition to other protections.12 Employees in all public companies and in private companies with 15 or more workers have the right to form an RSU or RSA. A company cannot have both an RSA and RSU at the same time.13 RSUs are created in each company by election, of which a majority of all employees must participate in. Representative seats within an RSU are then proportioned based upon the general election.14 A single RSU can act as an RSA if elected by a majority of workers in the industry.15 RSAs however are a conglomeration of trade unions that are all signatories to the same collective agreement, and therefore only members of these trade unions are given representation in the parent RSA.

While RSUs represent the workforces of individual companies, confederations and their unions deal with industry-level negotiations. In these sectoral negotiations, eligible unions require at least 5% representation in the work-level RSUs or RSAs and at least 5% representation among all the union workers represented in the negotiations. Bargaining at this level deals with the adjustment of pay in line with inflation, holidays, leave, and other generalized issues.

Public sector

Multiple consortiums include trade unions representing civil servants. The trade union CGIL Public Function represents over 370,000 civil servants from multiple government agencies on the federal and local levels.16 A similar union is CISL Public Function, representing over 240,000 civil servants.17 These two unions represent employees from the same ministries in government, such as the ministries of justice, health, and labour. Each union also represents non-ministerial government departments like healthcare. These and other civil service unions together decide on a common platform to then bargain with the government about. Bargaining for managerial and non-managerial employees are done separately on the national level.18 The government as an employer is solely represented by the ARAN agency, which negotiates collective agreements with the civil service unions to determine national-level policy. Agreements made on this level can include provisions to allow for additional negotiations on a smaller scale, using RSUs for workplace-level negotiations.19


In France, union representation is legally derived from the French Labour Code. There are five large unions in the country, more than one of which could be involved with a single company.20 All employees have the right to or not to join a union. The union membership rate itself is low (8%), but since collective agreements are often extended to include the entire industry sector, total employee coverage is much higher (98%). Collective agreements legally can only be made between the employer and union representatives.21 Commonly lobbied issues are those of gender equality, salary, and other working conditions.22 Strikes also occur in response to political issues.

For a union to have representativeness on the national level, it must represent at least 8% of union workers in its industry. Further, unions must be financially transparent, and so are required to release their financial records. Agreements can apply to workers across the nation if they are signed by an umbrella union consortium representing at least 30% of workers, and only if there is not opposition from multiple other consortiums with 50% or more of union workers. In these national negotiations, each of the five recognized unions has between 10%-30% of the vote.23

Public sector
Multiple trade union confederations represent France’s 5.5 million civil servants.24 Those in the public service sector are more likely to be enrolled in a union than those in the private sector.25

United Kingdom

Trade unions are governed by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, with further amending statutes. More than one union can represent workers in a company, and workers have the right to or not to belong to a union.28 In a corporation with 21 or more employees, a trade union can receive bargaining recognition by a specific employer with an election by employees wishing to bargain (“bargaining unit”). This can be done voluntarily with the employer or via an application to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC). The latter occurs when at least 10% of workers in the bargaining unit apply to be represented by the union, with majority approval.26 The majority of workers in the bargaining unit must agree to be represented by a union in order for that union to receive collective bargaining rights on issues such as pay and work scheduling. There are other alternatives to creating a trade union through the CAC if a certain percentage of workers in the bargaining unit are in the trade union.27 Collective agreements are not typically legally binding unless enforced in the terms of an employee’s contract. Instead, a system of trust is used.29 For industry-level negotiations with multiple recognized unions, unions will have an agreed upon common platform to negotiate with the employer.

Any union listed with the government can be required to release financial records, which may be made public. These records include spending on strike pay.

Public sector

There are multiple unions that state employees can choose from. The UNISON trade union is the largest, representing over 1.3 million government employees in sectors such as police, healthcare, utilities, and education.30 Fees for this union are about 0.7% of an employee’s salary. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), with almost 200,000 members, also represents government employees across multiple government departments.31 Another relevant union is GMB, a general union that represents workers of all sectors, including the public sector. In addition, the Prospect union represents engineers and scientists in both the public and private sectors. Some agreements are settled with individual departments and agencies, covering under 20% of public workers, while others are made with the national government. Many public sector agencies have their wages determined by pay review bodies, not collective bargaining.


Article 12 of Iceland’s constitution establishes the right to form trade unions, affirmed in the Act on Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes No. 80/1938. Any worker is entitled, but not required, to join a trade union representing the relevant industry in the district. Another entity is the federation, which makes more general agreements and consists of multiple local trade unions. The federations in turn can be represented by umbrella consortiums, whose role is to provide assistance to and promote the common interests of the subsidiary organizations.

Union and federations are empowered to negotiate collective agreements that apply to all relevant workers in the industry sector, including non-union workers.32 In total, 88% of workers are covered by collective bargain agreements in some form. All employees covered by a collective agreement must pay union fees, even if they are not union members. Fees are usually set to about 0.7-1% of the employee’s wages, and are not tax deductible. Employees above 65-70 typically do not pay union fees.
Collective bargains deal with issues of wages and working time, workplace safety, and proper implementation of the agreements. Collective agreements may prioritize the employment of union workers over non-union workers when feasible. One or multiple trade unions or federations can negotiate with an employer. If multiple unions are involved in collective bargaining, the majority of all workers represented by the unions must assent for the collective agreement to come into effect.33 A union can declare a strike after holding a vote, if at least one-fifth of union members participate and a majority of those votes are in favor. In the public sector, at least 50% of employees must vote, and a majority of those employees must be in favor of the strike.

Two-thirds of Icelandic workers belong to the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ), a consortium representing five national federations, themselves including numerous trade unions across a range of industries, such as construction, retail, office work, and other private and public sector practice. 46 trade unions in total are part of ASI, including the two largest in the country.

Public sector

Most public sector employees are represented by The Federation of State and Municipal Employees (BSRB) and its 23 member unions, representing categories such as civil servants, firefighters, municipal workers, and healthcare workers. It is the trade unions who each collectively bargain with the government, represented by the Minister of Finance.34 It is legally possible for multiple public sector unions to exist, with government employees having a choice between them.


Under the constitutional right of association, workers in Sweden have the right to or not to join a union of their choice, with the country having a union density of 68%. However, while multiple unions exist, not all have the same legal abilities – only some have signed collective agreements with employers that gives those unions the ability to negotiate with the employer on business decisions and other disputes. Those unions must be kept informed of business developments and be provided with relevant documentation. Other unions often exist as well, and are able to negotiate about working conditions on behalf of the represented employees. Swedish law, however, does not require employers to agree to demands from any union – the only obligation is to enter negotiations.35 Any agreements that are made must apply to all employees.

Unions are also divided horizontally, with multiple existing to represent the classes of workers: manual workers, non-manual workers, graduate employees, and managers. Therefore, unions representing each class may each have a collective agreement with the same employer. Often, these horizontal unions negotiate with the employer together on issues that affect the entire workforce. These horizontal unions are themselves part of confederations, each representing a different employee class across multiple sectors. The three largest confederations in Sweden represent the non-manual, manual, and graduate employees, respectively. There is a separate, smaller association for managers.36 On the industry level, all bargaining unions for the same sector will typically co-ordinate their platform and together negotiate with the industry employers.

Public sector

The federation for non-manual employees, TCO, includes the Union of Civil Servants (ST). It represents employees of every government agency, as well as workers of other government-funded institutions.37 There is also the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), consisting of 14 trade unions, some of which public sector employees belong to. The government delegates its negotiating power to the Swedish Agency for Government Employers (SAGE), which represents 250 agencies.38 It can negotiate collective agreements on its own and can also give this power to individual authorities. National-level negotiations usually deal with pensions and collective insurance. Wage negotiating is somewhat decentralized and there is room for wage-negotiating on the local level for individual agencies, within the boundaries set by the national-level agreement.39


Denmark has a union density of 67%, with collective agreements covering 80% of all workers. Employees are free to join whichever union they wish, and non-union members do not have to pay union fees. Fees are typically under $636 USD a year, most of which is tax deductible. Workers can choose between traditional unions and cheaper “yellow unions”. Traditional unions perform common functions such as negotiating with employers on pay, working conditions, and pensions, in addition to providing benefits like holiday packages, credit card subscriptions, and unemployment wage insurance. Competing with these unions are the yellow unions offering cheaper membership fees in exchange for fewer protections and services. Significantly, they do not collectively bargain on behalf of their members.40 Despite this, yellow union members still receive protections under the collective agreements bargained by the traditional unions.41

Public sector

Public sector negotiations are conducted with three levels of government: local, regional, and national. Each acts as a separate employer. There are multiple public sector federations which all form a single bargaining committee to negotiate with the national government on framework agreements and high-level wage determination. The government is represented by the Agency for the Modernisation of Public Administration of the Ministry of Finance. Individual unions can further negotiate pay and employment conditions with the Ministry of Finance.42 Most wages are set on the national level, with only about 10% of government employee wages being negotiated locally.43

One such public sector federation is the Danish Trade Union Confederation (FH), which includes 79 unions across multiple sectors, representing private and public sector employees. FH unions represent court and parliamentary employees, social workers, customs enforcers, police, and other state employees. The Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (AC) also represents public and private employees, with 25 unions. The Djøf union for instance represents academics and students in both sectors. Another federation is the Organisation of Public Employees (OAO), representing 30 state trade unions and 14 municipal unions.44 Alternatively, public sector employees are free to join yellow unions, of which membership is open to workers of all industries.

General Information: Financial Transparency

International law on the freedoms of unions from their governments is found in the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (1948) of the International Labor Organization, signed by 157 countries. Signatories include Israel and all European nations. Article 3 of the Convention states “Workers' and employers' organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom, to organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.” As made evident by the varied implementations of the Convention, these rights are vague and subject to the interpretation of individual nations. In particular, multiple signatories have not been restricted from requesting and auditing financial records from trade unions. This lawful power has been exercised in at least two signatory nations, the United Kingdom and France. In France, any union wanting legal representativeness must by law be “financially transparent”, with large unions having their financial records audited and published in a public journal. In the UK, unions that are listed by the government can have their finances investigated and publicly released. This includes funds for strike pay. Unions must also make their financial records available to their members. The United States also requires unions to release financial records, although the country is not a signatory to the Convention.

~ ~ ~
Written by Eli Lichtenstein

1. Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany ( See Art. 9, Sec. 3. 1) All Germans shall have the right to form societies and other associations. … (3) The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession…
2., Trade Union Membership and Dismissals (
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4. German Trade Union Federation,
5. DBB,
6. Germany,
7. ILO, wcms_429795.pdf
8. Trade unions in Germany : organisation, environment, challenges (,
9. DBB,
10. Trade Unions / Italy – WORKER (
11. Living and working in Italy | Eurofound (
12. Employee representation and information, consultation and co‐determination rights in Europe (
13. Employment & Labour Law: Jurisdictional Comparisons – Google Books
14. Workplace Representation / Italy (
15. Compare Results (
16. What is the CGIL Public Service? (
17. About us – CISL FP – Civil service (
18. *wcms_429795.pdf (
19. After a 10-year freeze, Italian public service unions win new collective agreement for local and regional government workers | PSI (
20. *Labour Market Reforms and Collective Bargaining in France (
21. LEG_MEMO_France_24.11.20_compressed.pdf (
22. Role of trade unions in France.pptx (
23. Collective Bargaining / France / WORKER (
24. French civil servants take to the streets against proposed law to change their status (
25. T/ WORKER (
27. Statutory Recognition – Guidance on Part I of Schedule A1 – GOV.UK ( 2.2
28. Joining a trade union: Trade union membership: your employment rights – GOV.UK (
29. Living and working in the United Kingdom | Eurofound (
30. Our members | How we work | UNISON National (
31. Who can join PCS | Public and Commercial Services Union (
32. Unions | Í (
33. *Act on Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes (
34. English | BSRB (
35. The Employment (Co-determination in the workplace) Act (1976:580)
36. *Changes to the "Swedish Model" : trade unions under pressure (
37. The Union of Civil Servants | ST (
38. Organization & assignments (
39. *Government employers in Sweden, Denmark and Norway: The use of power to control wage and employment conditions (
41. *Trade unions in Denmark (
43. *Government employers in Sweden, Denmark and Norway: The use of power to control wage and employment conditions (
44. Merger results in new union for public sector employees | Eurofound (
45. Denmark: Industrial relations in central public administration – (

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