Paying dues to the wrong union

The revival this week of the controversy over the Vaxholm blockade pits the Swedish government against the European Commission. But it also raises the question of whether it is proper for a government to be sponsored by a special interest group – the union movement.

For those who haven’t heard about this one, a Latvian company, Laval, won the contract to build a school in Vaxholm, near Stockholm. The company paid its Latvian workers Latvian wages, but Byggnads argued that it should pay Swedish wages and sign a collective agreement. The union started a blockade of the site, leading to Laval filing for bankruptcy.

The government has supported the union all the way, but this week European Commissioner Charlie McCreevy said that he would oppose Byggnads when the case came to the European Court.

This issue is not cut and dry. There is an understandable desire on the part of Swedish building workers to protect their wages against cheap competition, or “wage dumping”.

Sweden also has a duty to allow people from other EU countries to live and work here. This is good for Sweden’s economy, and presents a challenges to Swedish companies to become more innovative and more competitive. More to the point, it is what Sweden signed up to when it joined the EU.

But perhaps the most interesting question the affair raises is this: with the enormous influence of the union movement on Swedish politics, how do we know whose interests the government is acting in?

The Social Democrats, who were founded out of the union movement have ruled Sweden for 64 of the last 75 years and received 85 million kronor from union organisation LO (of which Byggnads is a member) during the 2002 general election.

So when Sweden’s employment minister Hans Karlsson prefers to defend the protectionism of Byggnads rather than the principle of free movement of labour within the EU, it is reasonable to question his motives.

Again, when workers on the T-bana, Stockholm’s metro system, started illegal wildcat strikes this week, where was the condemnation from the Social Democrat administrations both in the City Hall and in central government?

A trade union organisation is just as much of a special interest group as any company. It may represent many of its members, but it does not represent the electorate as a whole. Therefore it should still be treated as one voice among many, like any other pressure group.

It could be that in the Vaxholm case Hans Karlsson is simply persuaded of the union’s argument. But his position would be a lot more credible if the organisation he is defending wasn’t the one that put him in his job.

Is the government too cosy with the unions? Discuss!

For members


EXPLAINED: Should I sign up with a Danish union and get unemployment insurance?

For those entering the Danish labour market for the first time, it is important to consider joining a union, as well as signing up for private unemployment insurance. There are several things to consider before deciding which provider is right for you.

EXPLAINED: Should I sign up with a Danish union and get unemployment insurance?
File photo: Niels Ahlmann Olesen / Ritzau Scanpix

Settling into any new job is a challenge, doing it in a new country even more so – you will need to gain an understanding of the way the labour market works, and it may be different to where you lived before.

In Denmark, the majority of employees are members of a union, and many take out private unemployment insurance through a provider known as an A-kasse (arbejdsløshedskasse).

It’s important to note that these are things that you are responsible to arrange for yourself and you should not expect them to be part of your formal employment process.


It is very common in Denmark for employees, including white-collar employees and management, to join a union. At the end of 2018, 1,862,700 working people in the country were union members – close to 70 percent of all people in employment.

Unions offer a variety of services and support to their members, such as reviewing employment contracts and other legal support, providing discounts on insurances and other products, and offering great networking opportunities. Unions are generally focused around a specific profession or trade.

They also negotiate contracts with state authorities over employment terms for their members, which can often constitute most of a sector’s workforce — so industrial disputes can become wide-ranging and serious.

READ ALSO: Danish labour dispute for public sector employees is resolved in 2018

It can be hard to know which union you should join, especially if you are new to the Danish labour market and aren’t able to read Danish.

The names of many of the unions themselves contain the profession that they are associated with, so you may want to ask a Danish friend for help or run the list through your preferred translation website.

Many of the unions have websites with a section in English, which give a description of the types of professions that they cover. A handful of them are also multidisciplinary. If you are still unsure of which to pick, you can always ask your co-workers for advice, especially those that are in the same profession or trade.


It is also very common and highly recommended for employees to join an A-kasse, a private organization that provides unemployment insurance. Membership involves paying a monthly or quarterly fee.

Payouts to A-kasse members, known in Danish as dagpenge, are funded in part by the state and in part by membership fees.

If you become a member of a union, they will often times recommend a certain A-Kasse and may offer a deal to join. However, you can join an A-kasse without becoming a member of a union.

It can also be difficult to figure out which A-kasse to join and while some are cheaper than others, it’s not just about paying an insurance premium. It’s a good idea to find an A-kasse that also fits well with your profession or trade.

In the event that you become unemployed, it’s good to have an A-kasse that is an appropriate fit for your background, so that they can better help you with your plan to get back into the workforce.

There are a lot of rules that you’ll have to familiarize yourself with, including when you will be allowed to apply for benefits and how long you can receive them.

In general, you have to have been an A-kasse member for a year before being able to apply for benefits in the event of unemployment. You also have to have worked for a certain period of time within the last three years, which varies depending on whether you were insured as full-time or part-time.

However, special rules, passed by parliament at the end of 2018, apply if you have lived abroad in the recent or medium-term past.

These introduced a rule that residency in Denmark or another EU or EEA country in seven of the last 12 years will be required for eligibility to receive benefits through the A-kasse system.

The new requirements took partial effect on January 1st, 2019 and will be fully phased in by 2021: residency requirements are five years of the last 12 in 2019, six of the last 12 years in 2020 and the full seven-year requirement from 2021.

You can read more detail (in Danish) about the introduction of the residency requirement (opholdskrav) on the website of the industry representative body, Danske A-kasser, here.

It’s also worth noting that the residency rules were implemented by the previous government, and the new government might change them — the ruling Social Democrat party has, in fact, suggested (prior to the election being called) that it would.

READ ALSO: Denmark passes bill to tighten residency requirement for unemployment insurance

Furthermore, if you decide to quit your job yourself, then there will be a waiting period in which you will not eligible to receive benefits.

There is a cap on the amount you can receive, so you are not automatically covered for your whole salary. You can check if your A-kasse offers a supplemental insurance plan, which you have to pay into for a certain amount of time before you become unemployed, in order to get the additional benefits.

These are just some examples of the rules. All of terms and conditions will be available from your A-kasse, so be sure to review everything carefully.

There may also be other great membership benefits from your A-kasse that you can use even while employed. Some offer additional packages for legal advice, which can be helpful if you don’t join a union.

There could also be networking opportunities, workshops or webinars that you can participate in, which can help strengthen your overall profile.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about vacation in Denmark – and how the rules are about to change

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