Strategies for Gender Parity and Greater Democracy in the Labor Movement in US and Europe

By Claudia Fezzardi, IRW Graduate Editorial Assistant

On June 18, 2003, the IRW hosted a roundtable with twenty-five Danish trade union women on the topics of gender parity and democracy within the labor movement (see Agenda). The roundtable was aimed at comparing perspectives from Europe and the US, highlighting proposals and sharing ongoing projects from both areas. Participants came from various union organizations in Denmark, among them the Danish Federation of Trade Unions (LO), the Women Workers’ Union in Denmark (KAD), and the Danish Union of Public Employees

After some initial remarks, Dorothy Sue Cobble (Director, IRW) invited all participants to introduce themselves and their organizations.

The first panel, chaired by Adrienne Eaton (Director, Labor Education Center, Rutgers University), focused on the progress and challenges of gender politics within the trade unions. Nina Roth, a consultant for the Ligestillingssekretarietat, discussed the use of gender mainstreaming in Denmark as a new form of union education. The goal is to encourage shop stewards and union members to define what gender equality means and what steps can be taken at their workplace to reduce gender discrimination. Discussing gender in small groups at multiple workshops also may reduce the gap between the large number of women union members and their relatively limited presence in union governing bodies. The second panelist, Jette Likke (LO), described three networking projects-–called Starlet, Victoria and FL--implemented by LO in Denmark, which are aimed at improving women’s involvement in union leadership. These projects address different target groups of women in terms of age and professional advancement, but they all focus on concrete projects--work, personal development and the production of printed material illustrating the projects, which gives participants an opportunity for further evaluation and reflection. A discussion session following these presentations focused on the role played by class in women’s attainment of power positions and on the myths of “classlessness” which challenge women both in Denmark and the US.

After a short break, the second panel was introduced by Dorothy Sue Cobble, who described the process known as “feminization of unions” in the US. She pointed out a discrepancy between the increase in women’s membership within the unions and the persisting need for a corresponding change in the institutions and culture of trade unions. Cobble discussed the current crisis of labor unionization in the US-–less than 15% of the labor force is presently unionized, compared to 85% in Denmark--and highlighted its potential for growth, rooted in women’s ever-increasing presence and participation. The next presenter, Tamara Østergård (KAD), described her experience as a shop steward for the Women Workers’ Union in the cleaning services sector and her interest in ethnic women’s participation and protection. She highlighted the special problems faced by ethnic women workers in view of a marked policy of assimilation implemented by the current Danish government. After discussion of the panel presentations, the participants were invited to a tour of the Labor Center at Rutgers University, where Debra Lancaster (Director, Occupational Safety and Health Program) gave a presentation about the Center’s most recent projects. 

During the day, I took the opportunity to interview some of the participants, asking them about their union work and, more generally, about labor relations and unionization in Denmark. Both Jette Likke and Tamara Østergårdhighlighted the crucial role of women in Danish trade unions and Danish unionism’s choice of a less confrontational, more cooperative relationship with public officials, which enhances the unions’ chances of success in collective bargaining. Jette Likke discussed recent trends in Danish politics, focusing on the growing autonomy of the Danish Federation of Trade Unions from the Social Democratic Party. She also remarked that the concept of class in Denmark is much less clear-cut than in the US, due to a very limited salary gap and to the absence of obvious class markers and extreme class polarizations. On the other hand, Tamara Østergård signaled a large presence of non–Danish immigrant women at lower social and professional levels and emphasized the importance of unionization for these women. Jane Egholm (KAD) illustrated some of the criteria for KAD’s projects in developing countries, such as those in Ghana, Nepal and the Philippines. She explained that often projects start with an expression of interest by a representative of a certain developing country or geographical area –for example, during an international conference- and project implementation is based on previous contacts between the area itself and union organizations in Denmark. The main challenge faced by such projects is the need to educate and organize women whose efforts are at times discouraged by their own communities and families. 

Some of the topics discussed throughout the day were further explored in more informal conversations during the buffet dinner which concluded the event. The roundtable constituted a valuable opportunity to identify points of contact and contrast between unionization in Europe and the US. Differences include the disparity in unionization rate, the amount of state-funded support offered to workers, and what can be obtained through union bargaining. On the other hand, women’s constant and growing interest and participation in union work may certainly be counted among the points of contact between the two geographical and cultural areas. 

For more on Danish unions and women: 

Website of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO):

Information on LO leadership programs for women in unions:

Website of the Women Workers’ Union in Denmark (KAD):

For more on US unions and women: 

Cobble, Dorothy Sue and Monica Bielski Michal. "‘On the Edge of Equality?': Working Women and the US Labour Movement.” In Gender, Diversity and Trade Unions: International Perspectives, ed. Fiona Colgan and Sue Ledwith. London: Routledge, 2002, 232-256. Available in PDF format at:

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