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Social Democratic Trade Unions in the Knowledge Economy: Challenges, Pathways and Dilemmas

Social Democracy in the 21st Century

ISBN: 978-1-83909-953-3, eISBN: 978-1-83909-952-6

Publication date: 29 January 2021


Social democratic unionism has arguably been one of the most successful worker organisations in modern history. Through collective bargaining and political influence, this type of unionism has been effective in redistributing the gains from capitalist markets. This paper reviews the challenges, pathways and dilemmas social democratic unions face in the knowledge economy. Similar to industrialisation, the knowledge economy has the potential to fundamentally change the social fabric that trade unions derive their power resources from. There are three major and interrelated challenges: (1) technological change and the knowledge economy, (2) new socio-political coalitions and (3) keeping employers in. Focussing on Denmark and Sweden, it is argued that these three challenges strike the core of social democratic unionism, as they can undermine the ability to encompass the whole labour market because of polarisation or upgrading of jobs. The paper goes on to outline three possible pathways: ‘going radical’, ‘going academic’ and ‘going old-school’. ‘Going radical’ entails a sharper focus on fighting precarious work with other regulatory means other than collective bargaining. ‘Going academic’ entails a focus on education and lifting all occupational groups. ‘Going old-school’ entails adapting the principle of collective bargaining to new types of companies and occupations while sticking to the regulatory means as before. It is argued that none of the strategies is a silver bullet to the challenges, but that a key to the success of any of the strategies is that minimum wage levels are defended, as this will fuel investment in education for lower-paid work.



Ibsen, C.L. (2021), "Social Democratic Trade Unions in the Knowledge Economy: Challenges, Pathways and Dilemmas", Brandal, N., Bratberg, Ø. and Thorsen, D.E. (Ed.) Social Democracy in the 21st Century (Comparative Social Research, Vol. 35), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 69-90.



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