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Sweden world leading in union membership despite declining union density

Anders Kjellberg

The proportion of unionised blue-collar and white-collar workers fell in 2022 after an increase in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. Despite this, Sweden has the world's second highest level of unionisation. This is shown in the report 'The Swedish model from a Nordic perspective: unionisation and the new basic agreement' by Professor Anders Kjellberg for the think tank Arena Idé.

The share of Swedish blue-collar union members fell between 2021 and 2022 from 62 to 59 percent, the lowest level in modern times. Professor Kjellberg points out that one of the reasons may be that real wage reductions have made it difficult for low-paid workers to pay their membership fees. Additionally, the proportion of foreign-born workers has increased. People born abroad do not always have a tradition of union organisation and often work in low-paid occupations, such as restaurants or taxis, where unions have weaker a position.

The unions are also having difficulties recruiting young workers. This is paradoxical, as young people are more likely to have insecure, temporary or part-time employment. To counteract the trend, Professor Kjellberg suggests that unions keep membership fees low, offer discounts, provide better information to those unfamiliar with union activities, and have representatives in the workplace.

The proportion of unionised white-collar workers also fell in 2022 from 74 to 73 percent.

Yet, almost seven out of ten workers in the Swedish labour market are union members, the second highest unionisation rate in the world after Iceland.

Considerable media attention

Some 50 newspapers have drawn attention to the "flagship report", as Arena Idé's director Lisa Pelling calls it, through an article by Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT).

The magazine Lag & Avtal writes about the trade unions' strike funds and how well-equipped they are for a major conflict. Based on statistics produced by Professor Kjellberg, Läkartidningen wrote that doctors' salary development lags behind that of nurses. The union magazine Vision published an article on the industry's normative role in collective bargaining.

Opinion pieces on the decline in union membership have been published in the newspapers Dagens Arbete and Arbetsvärlden. Evening newspaper Aftonbladet published an editorial on the same subject.

As the report's title indicates, it covers the new basic agreement from 2022. Professor Kjellberg also writes about the government's failure to live up to the tripartite agreements on transition study support and establishment jobs. In addition, he compares trade union membership levels, wage formation and the strength of white-collar unions in the Nordic countries.

An English version of parts of the Nordic comparison is found in Professor Kjellberg’s paper "The Nordic Model of Industrial Relations: comparing Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden". Read it in the Lund University research portal.

Download the report "Den svenska modellen ur ett nordiskt perspektiv: facklig anslutning och nytt huvudavtal" in the Lund University research portal.

Read more about Professor Anders Kjellberg's research on his page.