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The Development of Trade Unions in Western Europe: Global Convergence or Cross-national Diversity?

by Bernhard Ebbinghaus

Trade unions play an important role in Western Europe. They have been subject to, and agents of, social and political changes that reshaped the post-war industrial society. In recent years, trade unions have been facing the threat of membership decline and the challenges of global competition and European economic integration. This poses the question whether union movements are under pressure to adapt in a similar way or whether they differ in their responses. Do we find a trend towards global convergence or does cross-national diversity persist among union movements in Western Europe? Drawing on comparative data from an international research project, we will provide a short portrait of the main patterns in union density and organisational concentration. Instead of a general trend toward convergence, we find signs of persisting diversity across Western Europe in union responses to both social changes and global challenges.

Union Development in Comparison

Trade unions organising the collective interests of the dependent employed belong to the major social institutions in modern industrial societies. Today, when union movements come increasingly under pressure from social, economic and political changes at both national and global levels, it is time to look at their long-term development. Such a comparative portrait of union development in Western Europe shows common trends as well as persistent divisions. A comparison across countries and time reveals to what extent union movements have been moulded by and tied to the national society, polity and market from which they emerged. The study of union development is important for both assessing changes in industrial relations and for a broader understanding of modern industrial societies. For a long-term analysis, however, we need comparative indicators of union development which thus far have been difficult to collect for lack of comparable data. An international research project was organised at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES) with the collaboration of experts from a dozen Western European countries. The DUES project, initiated by Peter Flora, was funded by Stiftung Volkswagenwerk, a German non-profit research foundation.

One major aim was to create a comparative database where information from official statistics, union sources and primary research would be collected. The main findings and statistics are to be published in the forthcoming handbook on The Development of Trade Unions in Western Europe, edited by Bernhard Ebbinghaus and Jelle Visser (1996).

The database, which allows further and more detailed analysis, will be made accessible to the academic public through the MZES research archive Eurodata upon publication of the handbook.

The project applied a comparative approach, indebted to the late Stein Rokkan's macro-sociology of European societies, that stresses the long-term structural and historical origins of Europe's unity and diversity. A comparative and historical perspective allows us to study unions in the broader context of social, political and economic changes and variations over time and across Western Europe. Following Rokkan, we focus on Western European countries that share long periods of democratic stability, similar pluralist institutions and cross-border fertilisation and thus make comparisons fruitful.

The project includes most countries within the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with few exceptions. Some Southern European, Northern and smaller countries (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Iceland, Luxembourg) have not been covered as thoroughly due to practical considerations or to the short period of democracy in those countries. We abstained from incorporating the recent surge of post-communist and free union movements in Eastern Europe for want of reliable information and because of the still embryonic formation process. We hope that our project nevertheless encourages similar endeavours regarding these countries.

The Role and Strength of Unions

Historically, unions emerged as a part of a broad social movement, demanding political and industrial citizenship rights for labour (Ebbinghaus 1995). With the rise of organised labour, they became the prime representatives of worker interests vis-à-vis employers and the state. The societal role of organised labour was recognised in most Western European countries by the end of the First World War when universal suffrage, coalition rights and collective bargaining were legally enshrined. The "institutionalisation" of the class conflict was further advanced with the enlargement of the welfare states and full employment policies in post-war Western Europe.

With the post-war economic growth, organised labour gained in membership and organisational strength in Western Europe, though this varied significantly across countries. Given the party-union ties that had historically emerged in most countries, the union movement profited by and large from the political alignment to labour parties, especially in countries where these parties were in power for a longer time. Moreover, in most European countries, unions play an important role within the newly institutionalised forms of social concertation, and they helped to bring about post-war social pacts that have shaped the welfare state development until today.

Whatever the institutional environment and outside allied support, the main strength of union movements was situated in their ability to mobilise members. Union membership and density (the number of active members divided by the number of the dependent employed) are thus widely regarded as principal indicators of union strength. These measures of the level of organisation are important for evaluating the unions' claim of representativity and their potential capacity to mobilise financial resources and also collective action in industrial disputes.

Yet the meaning of union membership varies over time and between union movements. The degrees of stability, ideological allegiance, financial commitment and personal support on the part of the members diverge considerably between unions. With professionalisation and bureaucratisation of most unions, the member-union ties changed from previously informal ad hoc social bonds to more formal bureaucratic membership relations. This development had been advanced earlier and was more pervasive in Northern than in Southern Europe.

Although survey data is now available for some countries for recent years, we had to rely on union reports, and were thus dependent on the accuracy of the unions' bookkeeping. We attempted to make membership figures comparable by extracting non-active members from union density calculations. Where we could not obtain internal information on non-active membership from the unions, we applied "informed" estimates in order to correct the otherwise inflated density figures.

In addition to union membership trends, we should also consider other aspects, such as organisational integration, the degree of centralisation and inclusiveness of union movements. For our short overview we will therefore look at the main confederations, their number of affiliates and their share in overall membership ("associational monopoly") as measures of centralisation and comprehensiveness. These are crucial indicators for evaluating to what degree the representation of labour interests is fragmented, which is of importance if one looks at organised labour's unity vis-à-vis employers and the state in both collective bargaining and pressure group politics.

The Global Rise and Divergence of Unionism

Since their early formation prior to the turn of the century, trade unions have become a major social movement and labour market institution. With the rise of trade unionism, the long-term increase in union membership and the formation of large-scale national union movements, organised labour gained an important role as representative of labour interests in politics and industrial relations. During our century, the overall level of unionisation increased considerably as unions became large mass organisations and recognised collective bargaining partners. The recent signs of a crisis in union membership have to be seen in a comparative and long-term context.

The rise in the level of unionisation (see Graph 1: Union Density in %, Western Europe 1900-90) occurred in several waves which also mark the main junctures in labour history. After a gradual take-off before the First World War, the end of the war brought a major surge in mobilisation as well as widespread union recognition. However, with the onset of mass unemployment during the Great Depression, the union movements came under attack and lost many of their new members. Moreover, Fascist and authoritarian regimes banned free unionism in parts of Central and Southern Europe.

Only after the defeat of Fascism and the end of the Second World War, a new boom in union membership occurred. This was followed by a new wave after the "hot summers" of the late 1960s, particularly in Italy. Yet after the first oil crisis in 1973 and the breakdown of full employment regimes, the signs of union decline loomed in most countries.

The new pressures since the 1970s led however to more diversity than convergence (see Graph 1: Union Density in %, Western Europe 1900-90). The level of unionisation still showed trends toward convergence until the 1950s, when most countries seemed to follow a similar path. However, we have witnessed a remarkable divergence in unionisation patterns since then. This contradicts the convergence prediction of modernisation theory that implies that the "logic of capitalism" affects union movements similarly. Following the immediate post-war period, when all democratic Western European countries enjoyed a boost in union membership, some movements have continued to grow, while others have shrunk ever since.

In the post-war period, three clusters of countries - showing continuing growth, fluctuating stability, or long-term decline - have emerged (see Graph 2: Union Density (in %), Western Europe 1950, 1970, and 1990). Included in the first group are Swedish, Danish and Belgian union movements which show remarkable long-term union growth. All three are leading the top European ranks, partly due to the unions' role in unemployment insurance that provides an incentive in times of unemployment.

In the large "middle field" there are the Norwegian, Austrian and Irish union movements which have achieved or maintained a medium position, while in Italy and the United Kingdom the unions have experienced considerable fluctuations around the average rate. Germany and Switzerland also have relatively stable, but somewhat lower levels of unionisation. (Since the unification, the German DGB has profited from the higher level of unionisation in the East, although the membership boost seems to recede again).

The last group of "losers" is comprised of the Dutch, French and (since the late 1970s) the British union movement. They have witnessed a relatively severe membership decline, however, starting from very different peak levels. Like the French, the new Southern European union movements (Spain, Portugal, Greece) have a relatively low unionisation level and unstable membership bonds since the democratisation in the late 1970s.

Social Changes and Union Decline or Adaptation?

Prima facie the signs of the "crisis" of trade unionism, in particular the loss in membership, could be attributed to recent changes in the social and economic structure of Western societies. Some observers claim that a break with the post-war welfare state and industrial relations regime occurred due to major political changes in the national and international environment. Indeed, a dramatic decline in unionisation set in under the Reagan Administration in the USA and the Thatcher government in the UK. Moreover, other union movements experienced a long-lasting downward trend over the last two decades, most notably in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and beyond Europe in Japan.

Some observers pose the question whether union decline can be attributed to social changes and will thus also affect other countries. Major social changes that are often quoted are those from an industrial to a service economy, the shifts from manual to white-collar work, increased female labour force participation, and a rise in the number of part-time and flexible work contracts. These changes will lead to a more heterogeneous labour force. Female, part-time, white-collar or service employees are often taken to be less collectively oriented and thus more difficult to organise in trade unions. To the degree that all societies are experiencing these secular social changes we would expect them to be facing the same challenges.

However, we find that unions respond very differently to these social changes, some being more capable of adapting to the new situation, others remaining inert and locked into shrinking sectors. Indeed, the changing labour force does not only have consequences for the level of unionisation, but also for the internal unity of organised labour. Depending on the openness of the established unions, these new social groups are more or less inclined to join them; otherwise they may form rival sectional unions. Both the level of unionisation and the degree of integration within the main union movements varies considerably across Europe.

There is evidence in several countries that the rise of new social groups and female employment does not always pose a problem for union organisation. Traditionally, male industrial workers are the group most likely to organise in collective organisations. With the rise of the welfare state, the union movements also made great inroads into the public service sector (see Visser 1991). The Scandinavian unions were also successful in organising female and part-time employees, as they tended to be employed in the well-organised public service sector. As a consequence, nearly half of all union members are female in Scandinavia, whereas in countries with late and still low female labour force participation, like the Netherlands and Switzerland, not even one in five union members is a woman (see Table 1).

Table 1: Union Density (in %) by Sector and Gender, Western Europe, 1970 and 1988/89

Indeed, looking at membership trends and composition, we find that the occupational transformation contributed only partially to union decline. Employment shifts, in contrast to widespread believe, have only accounted for a small proportion of union decline over the last two decades. A study prepared for the OECD found that there is little correlation between structural shifts in employment measured at the one-digit sector level and the changes in union density (Visser 1991).

Similarly, the argument that increased female labour force participation has led to a decline in unionisation does not hold true. In most countries for which data is available union density rates for women have increased or remained stable, whereas union decline was mainly the result of a drop in male unionisation (see Table 1). Certainly, part-time employment in small-sized non-organised firms increased along with female employment over the last decades; however, the success of Scandinavian unions shows that it is very well possible to recruit these groups.

Since the first oil crisis, the economic and political environment has certainly become more adverse to unions: long-term unemployment, sluggish growth, an anti-union political climate and public austerity policies (including privatisation and pay-stops in the public sector) have all prevented further union expansion. While the beginning of an unemployment cycle may have a positive impact on membership recruitment, long-term unemployment is a drain on union membership and financial mobilisation.

However, where unions are involved in the administration of the unemployment insurance (Belgium, Denmark, Sweden), membership has remained stable. Yet this involvement may also constitute long-term financial strains on unions and increase their dependency on state subsidies. Again, we see that global trends induce diverse responses due to cross-national differences in the institutional environments and also in union strategies.

The Global and European Challenges

In all advanced economies, labour relations have come under pressure in recent years as a result of changes in flexible production, employer strategies to decentralise and deregulation policies by the nation-state and the EU. In addition to these "global" challenges, the increase in economic and political integration within the European Union nurtured doubts amongst European unionists as to whether the EU's "Social Dimension" will be able to guarantee basic social rights for Europe's workers. Some observers predict a general convergence or a global crisis of European unionism, while others claim that national union movements differ significantly in past, current and future responses to these pressures.

In the light of these challenges, we may ask what the consequences of union diversity on European level coordination are. But we may also ask whether these pressures have an impact that will lead towards convergence of European union movements. Thus a study of union development can provide some understanding of the conditions for European unity amongst organised labour. If we take union density again as a measure of mobilisation, we can make two observations concerning global trends and European union cooperation (see Table 2).

Table 2: Union Density (in %) in Western Europe, USA and Japan, 1970-89

First, the levels of unionisation and membership stability remain much higher in Western Europe than for the two other "global players" USA and Japan. In Japan, one in four employees is organised today, compared to one in three before the oil crisis. The decline in union membership is even greater in the USA, where the level of unionisation shrank from 30% (1970) to less than 15% (1992). On the other hand, the level of unionisation was always higher and union decline was in general less remarkable in Western Europe as a whole with few exceptions. In contrast to the weakened union movements of the two other global players, the Western European union movements have become by and large an integral part of Europe's social dimension.

Second, we have nevertheless to acknowledge that there is considerable variation across Europe with important consequences for European unity. The union movements of the first Common Market countries (Benelux, France, Germany and Italy) had and still have medium to low levels of union density and are in some cases politically more fragmented than the next group that joined the EC in 1974 (Britain, Ireland, Denmark) or the EFTA countries (of which some recently joined the EU: Austria, Sweden, Finland).

In contrast, the Southern European countries as well as the new unions in Eastern Europe show a much lower capacity to mobilise membership and hold on to it. Thus, while the former more "narrow" economic blocs (Common Market vs. EFTA) also represented differences in unionisation, the enlarged EU encompasses more diversity. The countries with strong union movements, such as the Scandinavian countries, remain in the minority within the European Union, which explains some of their reservations about European integration.

Both a global trend towards union decline and persistent diversity regarding the level and pattern of unionism could hamper the strength and unity of labour at the European level. Indeed, the major European peak organisation of labour, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), founded in 1973, organises more than forty national union confederations from more than twenty countries (Visser / Ebbinghaus 1992). The ETUC represents a multitude of unions from small to large, from encompassing to sectionalist organisations, and also a number of transnational European Industry Committees. Although the ETUC speaks for the majority of unions and the overwhelming share of all union members, it represents only one-third of all dependent employed in Western Europe (including even some countries outside the EU).

Union Concentration or Organisational Differentiation?

Have unions become more alike due to global challenges, even though they differ regarding membership trends? An effort to concentrate forces seems to be a relatively rational strategy given the more adverse economic and political situation, the increased efforts necessary to mobilise members and resources, and the need for transnational coordination. Yet, union movements vary considerably as regards the degree of centralisation, unity and inclusiveness (see Table 3). Again, many observers noted a post-war trend toward concentration, though others point out the crucial differences in union systems across Western Europe, especially with respect to political and sectionalist splits.

In several continental countries we find politically divided union movements with a schism along religious-secular lines (Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland) or Communist-religious lines (France, Italy). The unitary German DGB and Austrian ÖGB, however, have succeeded in overcoming the pre-war schism due to particular historical circumstances. Later efforts to unite the already entrenched rival unions elsewhere have had only partial or temporary success (Dutch FNV merger and the Italian efforts to a CGIL-CISL-UIL federation in the late 1970s).

In Scandinavia as well as in some continental European countries we find different (largely non-political) cleavages that lead to independent peak associations. They distance themselves from industrial manual worker unionism, which tends to align themselves with the allied labour party. In these countries, a number of white-collar unions, civil service organisations, and / or professional associations founded their own peak organisations (most notably: Danish FTF, German DBB, Dutch MHP and AC, Swedish TCO and SACO, Swiss VSA). The British and Irish union confederations have no direct rival peak organisation; however, some individual unions have abstained from political alignment with the Labour Party and / or affiliation with TUC and ITUC respectively.

A cursory look at the main confederations, their number of unions and shares in overall membership ("associational monopoly") reveals paramount diversity. While there seems to be a general trend towards concentration regarding the number of unions, we still find considerable variation and exceptions. In a number of countries we find a multitude of unions divided by political orientation (France, Italy) or organisational principle (Britain, Ireland), and in others a more rationalised system with few unitary industrial or inclusive unions (above all: Austria and Germany).

The relative decline in union fragmentation is most striking in the United Kingdom with its over 700 unions (nearly 200 affiliates within TUC) around 1950. The number of unions has been cut considerably within the TUC and in general. This was partly the result of several merger waves leading to larger unions but not necessarily to industrial unions as in Germany or Sweden.

Also in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, all of them countries with more than 100 unions in 1950, concentration waves occurred during the last decades, particularly within the major union confederations. Yet in some cases, sectionalist unions mushroomed as a counter-reaction to the solidaristic "inclusive" unionism in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway (note also the rise of "autonomous" unions in France and Italy).

The question remains open to what degree the concentration waves have led to a decline in union fragmentation and the integration of sectional interests within encompassing non-rival unions. The indicator of "associational monopoly", a peak association's share in overall union membership, provides a handy measure of the representativity of a union confederation.

The unitary union movements (Austrian ÖGB and German DGB) and the British and Irish union confederations (TUC, ITUC) have achieved by and large a high level of associational monopoly. To the degree that they decided not to, or were less able to, organise non-manual employees, the Scandinavian LOs, but also the Swiss SGB, witnessed a decline of their initially dominant majority, as white-collar unionism increased outside their own ranks.

Table 3: Number of Unions and Associational Monopoly (in %) by Major Union Confederations, Western Europe, 1950, 1970 and 1990

The Belgian union movement is outstanding due to the fact that the Catholic union confederation (CSC) became the largest Christian union movement in Europe. The neighbouring Dutch catholic union movement (NKV), after facing decline, merged with the Socialist unions (NVV) to form a unitary union centre (FNV) two decades ago. The other politically divided union movements, the two Communist union movements, experienced a more dramatic decline (France) or a more gradual balancing out (Italy), though taking very different ideological routes.

Although we are witnessing some overall concentration and a decline in political schism as well as attempts towards European cooperation, these changes have not eliminated union diversity. Instead, union diversity seems to be renewed across Europe. Some political union movements, such as the Belgian catholic unions, have fared very well, while others like the inert French Communists retreated to their shrinking strongholds.

Union movements thus vary across Europe most notably in terms of their capacity to integrate the more heterogeneous interests of today's modern society within their own ranks. Both the disparate membership developments and the diverse patterns of concentration and representation show major differences across countries. Rather than finding indications for a trend toward global convergence, cross-national comparisons indicate that there are many signs of a renewed diversity in labour's organisational strength and unity.

Graphs: Union density figures before 1945 (union membership in percent of dependent labour force) are taken from Visser 1989 and updated database; since 1945 figures are net union density rates (without pensioners and other non-active members), taken from the DUES database (see Ebbinghaus / Visser 1996: Country Tables 13 and 14). For further notes on methodology see Visser (1989, 1991). Table 1 and 2: Union gross density figures (including non-active members) see notes to tables. Table 3: The number of unions (including independent local unions) have been compiled from the DUES database (see Ebbinghaus / Visser 1996: Country Tables 8). Associational monopoly (share of confederation in overall membership) is calculated from Ebbinghaus / Visser (1996): Country Tables 10 and 17.


Ebbinghaus, Bernhard (1995): "The Siamese Twins: Citizenship Rights, Cleavage Formation, and Party-Union Relations in Western Europe", in: Ch. Tilly (ed.): Citizenship, Identity, and Social History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (forthcoming).

Ebbinghaus, Bernhard / Visser, Jelle (1996): The Development of Trade Unions in Western Europe, 1945-92 (forthcoming).

Visser, Jelle (1989): European Trade Unions in Figures, Deventer: Kluwer.

Visser, Jelle (1991): "Trends in Trade Union Membership", Ch. 4, pp. 97-134, OECD Employment Outlook 1991, Paris: OECD.

Visser, Jelle (1992): "The Strength of Union Movements in Advanced Capitalist Democracies: Social and Organizational Variations", pp. 17-52, in: M. Regini (ed.): The Future of Labour Movements, London: Sage.

Visser, Jelle / Ebbinghaus, Bernhard (1992): "Making the Most of Diversity? European Integration and Transnational Organization of Labour", pp. 206-237, in: J. Greenwood / J. Grote / K. Ronit (eds.), Organized Interests and the European Community, London: Sage.

The Development of Trade Unions in Western Europe, 1945-92. A Data Handbook
If you are interested in being notified upon publication of the handbook, please send a short note (RE: "DUES Data Handbook") with your name and the address of your institution to:
or via mail:
MZES / Eurodata,
University of Mannheim,
D-68131 Mannheim, Germany
or via fax: +49-621-292-1735

Bernhard Ebbinghaus is assistant professor in sociology at the University of Mannheim and associated researcher at the MZES. He coordinates the database and co-edits the data handbook of the DUES project together with Jelle Visser (University of Amsterdam).

EURODATA Newsletter No.2, p.1-8