Strike?! Lockout?! What in the world are my Danish colleagues talking about?

What in the world is going on with all this talk about labour disputes, lockouts, failed negotiations and collective agreements?

Graphics: Astrid Reitzel

While Omnibus can’t explain the entire context in just a few paragraphs, we can give you a short introduction to ‘the Danish model’, which is a term for how the Danish labour market works.

Voluntary agreements between employers and employees 

What’s special about the Danish model is that it’s built on voluntary agreements between employers and employees. For example, there is no national minimum wage in Denmark; instead, wages for different sectors and industries are agreed through negotiations between employers and unions. The wage and employment conditions agreed on through these negotiations apply to everyone employed in a particular industry, regardless of whether they are members of the unions themselves. 

READ MORE: Lockout: Dos and don’ts for AU employees

The foundation for this approach to regulating the labour market was laid all the way back in 1899, when employers and employees negotiated a compromise which ended a damaging general strike. As a consequence of the compromise, employers were granted the right to manage and allocate work, while the unions were granted the right to negotiate wages and working hours for the employees. This is particularly important in the public sector, where very little of an individual’s salary is subject to individual negotiation in the annual salary negotiations – instead, almost everything about your salary and other working conditions is decided through the central negotiations between the employer (for AU, the Agency for the Modernisation of the Public Sector) and the union cartels which represent all of the professions and trades at a particular workplace. 

The employees’ right to strike and picket and the employers’ right to lockout and boycott are also features of the Danish model. These actions are actually instruments intended to motivate both sides to negotiate a solution rather than engaging in labour disputes, which are expensive for everyone.

This is where the conciliation board comes in

But in connection with this year’s negotiations (the so-called ‘OK18’ negotiations), which broke down before an agreement could be reached, it appears that both a strike and a lockout could become reality: both sides have given up on negotiating a new collective agreement for the public sector labour market (which includes the municipalities, which run nursing homes, daycare and primary schools, among other services; the regions, which run the healthcare sector; and the state, which includes the universities).

READ MORE: Information meeting on labour dispute for members of AC unions at AU

This is why representatives for public sector employers and employees are currently involved in negotiations moderated by the conciliation board (forligsinstitutionen).  The job of the head of the conciliation board (forligsmanden, ‘the conciliation man’ – who is actually a woman) is to help the parties find a compromise after their own negotiations have failed. 

READ MORE: PhD students are worried about the consequences of a lockout

The head of the conciliation board has a number of tools at her disposal to force the parties to continue negotiations if she thinks that this will result in a workable compromise at the end of the day. For example, she can postpone the strike/lockout by two weeks – twice. But there is no guarantee that this process will succeed – and that’s when the strike and the lockout will become a reality. 

The government can intervene

A lockout would have dramatic consequences for Danish society – and for Aarhus University. At least theoretically, the point of a lockout is to force the unions back to the negotiating table. But the government has another card up its sleeve: it can end the labour dispute by passing back-to-work legislation. This is what ended the last major industrial dispute, the teachers’ lockout in 2013. When this happens, the normal negotiated collective agreement is replaced by a piece of legislation passed by the government, which must be adopted by the Danish Parliament.