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Dialogue and engagement for Nordic white-collar workers and engineers

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2 May, 2024What can we learn from exploring how unions in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland handle the needs of white-collar workers and engineers? From discussions on STEM (sciences technology engineering and mathematics) education to the implementation of AI regulations, unions are actively engaged in shaping the future of work in the region.

In recent meetings with white-collar and engineering unions in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway, a common theme emerged: the need to organize more workers, including youth, and adapt to evolving work environments and technological advancements while advocating for fair, sustainable, and inclusive practices.

The Association of Nordic Engineers (ANE) and its affiliates are behind initiatives to support the transition to fair, sustainable, and inclusive tech use. Using technology responsibly, particularly related to AI, data ethics and cybersecurity, are key areas of concern for the organizations representing engineers who develop the new technology. Unions are actively involved in advocating for regulations like the AI Act and preparing their member organizations for compliance. Trade unions, like IDA, are equipping their representatives and members to be able to respond to challenges posed by AI when it comes to monitoring and surveillance.  There's a push for representation on governing bodies to ensure that workers' interests are adequately represented in policy discussions.

Generative AI will highly impact qualified white-collar workers and engineers. However, the unions in the region are quite confident that, thanks to their joint engagement with employers and the protection of collective bargaining, the development will not have a disruptive impact on the level of employment for their members. Studies reveal that most of the jobs exposed to AI will be augmented rather than replaced.

The development of STEM skills is key in this context. A prominent focus of the Nordic unions is the promotion of STEM education, the re-skilling of workers and the development of future skills. There's a concerted effort to ensure that the workforce is equipped with the necessary STEM skills for the future. So far, Finland is the only EU country that has adopted a STEM strategy, however the government has just suppressed financial support for workers following re- or up-skilling programs.

As a result of union efforts, the Swedish government, has adopted a major law reform which establishes a new grant system for workers to up and re-skill.

Norwegian union NITO has developed specific training workshops and reskilling programmes designed to help their members adapt to changing industry demands. In Norway, effort to increase competencies have been developed at sectoral level with the industry programmes for competency development.

White collar and engineering unions are lobbying for a just transition, advocating for a proper mapping of the impact of the green transition on employments including in energy sectors, and skills forecast. ANE and Finish engineers are studying the impact of the transition on engineers’ competencies and work.

The efforts are important as the Nordic countries are facing a STEM skill shortage. In Norway alone, the battery, hydrogen and ocean wind sectors lack around 6,000 engineers. ANE is advocating for the development of an EU Strategy on STEM skills.

One of the questions frequently raised is how Nordic unions maintain high levels of membership. Creating a sense of community among members, particularly through social events and shared interests, are part of the strategies. Union strategies for membership growth vary, with a focus on engaging students at universities, offering incentives such as free membership and add-ons like home insurance, and leveraging social media platforms for targeted outreach.

Student organizers employed by the trade unions are present at social events, organize specific events and mentoring for union members. In the Swedish engineering union, student representatives, are represented at congresses and on the board. Student membership is often free of charge, aiming to create an early link with the union and the professional life that follows graduation. Once graduated and in employment, unions work hard to retain the members as they start paying fees. PRO in Finland offers reduced fees for young working members.

Union membership, even among white-collar workers, is no longer always automatic, forcing unions to adapt and develop more systematic unionization strategies. Since the early 2010s, Danish union HK Privat has adopted a strategy based on the north American organizing model with systematic mapping the workplace and identification of workplace leaders. 12 years ago the union was losing members, but has now managed to revert the dynamics through the development of a national and local organizing team and strengthening the education for shop stewards.

After a very successful organizing campaign, Swedish union Unionen is focusing on developing and institutionalizing its presence in workplaces. The union is aiming to increase the number of worker representatives from 29,000 to 50,000 in a few years' time. Communication is at the heart of the organizing campaigns to attract, retain and educate members. With a strong presence on social networks, engineering unions are communicating on issues at the heart of their members' concerns: wages, job security, social insurance, diversity and inclusion.

Says Corinne Schewin from French union CFE-CGC Métallurgie and sector co-chair:

“How the unions work with their young and student members has been eye-opening and inspiring; everything from how they address the students to the activities that are organized is impressive.
“AI is prevalent for white-collar workers all around the world and how we address it is a key part of our work. In that context it was motivating to see that the Swedish unions are really engaging.”

Unions in the Nordic region prioritize issues related to work-life balance and mental health. Unionen regularly conducts surveys on work-life balance and the psycho-social working environment, with findings influencing advocacy efforts and collective bargaining agreements. Increased stress among young and women workers is one of the outcomes of trade union surveys. In Finland, one of the groups with the highest likelihood of occupational burnout are women under the age of 35. PRO is very active in addressing mental health. The union has launched a series of myth busting podcast on burn out.  In addition, with the support of the Finnish centre for occupational safety , the trade union provides specific well-being card training on mental health to workers and health and safety representatives. Through these trainings, representatives are better equipped to address wellbeing at work.

In all countries, the pandemic has further emphasized the importance of flexible work arrangements, with a significant portion of respondents indicating a preference for remote work.

Collaboration among unions is crucial for amplifying their advocacy efforts and reaching broader audiences. Whether it's organizing campaigns, addressing specific industry challenges like the battery supply chain, or focusing on diversity and inclusion, unions in the Nordic countries are united in their commitment to improving working conditions and advocating for the rights of workers.

Patrick Tay Teck from Singaporean unions the NTUC and United Workers of Electronic and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) and sector co-chair, is impressed by the level of awareness in Scandinavian countries as to how unions work, along the strong level of camaraderie and community, something which is not the case in many parts of the world.

“One of my main take aways is the need for a close collaboration with schools and university to catch union members early. Being there as they transition between education and the work life is important for unions. And providing a suite of services, like career counselling, legal advice, industry networking, insurances etc, is an attractive part retaining our white-collar workers as members.”

As the Nordic countries navigate the complexities of a rapidly changing global economy, unions play a pivotal role in ensuring that workers' voices are heard, and their rights protected. Through strategic engagement, advocacy, and collaboration, Nordic unions are poised to address the challenges and opportunities of the future, driving towards a more equitable and sustainable work environment for all.