An agitator. Louis Pio speaking at the
An agitator. Louis Pio speaking at the "Fælleden" in Copenhagen. Oil on canvas painted 1899 by Erik Henningsen (1855–1930), Danish painter and illustrator. Collection: Metalskolen Jørlunde, Denmark. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Om teksten

A brief history of the Danish labour movement. – “English summary: The struggle for a better life”. I: Knud Knudsen, Hanne Caspersen og Vagn Oluf Nielsen: Kampen for en bedre tilværelse: arbejdernes historie i Danmark fra 1800-tallet til 1990 (SFAH: Selskabet til Forskning i Arbejderbevægelsens Historie, 1991, p. 359-372).

A brief history of the Danish labour movement

Copy made online by Modkraft Biblioteket – progressive online library, with permission of SFAH, December 2014. Source: Internet Archive.

Illustration below: other paintings by the artist of the book cover, Erik Henningsen (1855-1930). Se article on Erik Henningsen




The aim of this text is to give a non-Danish audience a brief introduction to the history of the Danish working class and the labour movement. 

The text was originally published in print as a summary for the book “Kampen for en bedre tilværelse” (“The Struggle for a Better Life”), published by SFAH in 1990. The book, written by Knud Knudsen, Hanne Caspersen and Vagn Oluf Nielsen, is the first overall account of the development of the Danish labour movement from its early beginning in the 19’th century through to 1990. The book is primarily aimed at a non-expert audience. Readers who understand Danish can order the book directly from SFAH. Please make any enquiries via e-mail to

The summary is written by Gerd Callesen, and translated into English by Lena Fluger. It is reproduced here by kind permission from the author. Lars K. Christensen, who has also written a new chapter on the last period 1982-2000, has adopted the original summary for the web [October 2009].



Birth and breakthrough

The evolutionary process, which created the preconditions enabling a socialist labour movement to have its break-through in Denmark, took its beginning in the 1840s. 1847 saw the formation of the earliest independent workers’ associations with objectives beyond those of the guilds. From this organisation, and others established during the revolutionary years 1848-49, a tenuous but unmistakable evolutionary line can be traced to the formation of “The International Working Men’s Association” in 1871. The events leading up to the establishment of this socialist organisation can be seen as a process of constant interaction between, on the one hand, the experience of workers vis-à-vis the early bourgeois class-society, and, on the other, the political and theoretical response of workers to this type of society.

However, it was not exclusively the experience and development among workers which came to play a role; a small number of university men – and among them especially Frederik Dreier, a physician, should be mentioned – took up a position of solidarity with the emerging labour movement and contributed to the overall experience among workers. Dreier died at an early age, but some of his collaborators established contacts with the I. International in London, and a number of delegates from that body was sent to Copenhagen.

However, the establishment of the Danish section of the International Working Men’s Association took place independently of these contacts. From May 1871, Louis Pio, an official of the postal service, made preparations for the establishment of the Association by publishing a number of leaflets which, after July 21 were published in the form of the newspaper, the “Socialisten”. This paper is still being published under the name of “Aktuelt” and is owned by the LO – the Danish Trade Union Centre. On October 15, the Association was officially founded: the socialist movement had come to Denmark for good.

As its members the Association primarily organised those workers who had become familiar with the industrialised mode of pro­duction; workers who had gained experience with working in larger undertakings, etc. They had already become wage earners. But a considerable store of international experience and solidarity was instrumental in the foundation of the Association: the Paris Com­mune had just been suppressed, and the first issue of the “Socialisten” printed an excerpt of the International’s address (The Civil War in France), and the Association constituted the Danish section of the International.

Soon, the Association became a mass organisation numbering several thousand members, and already in October it was in a position to actively support strike activities which were spreading like wild-fire in the course of the autumn of 1871. It became a characteristic of the Danish section of the International Working Men’s Association that political and trade union activities were intertwined – at one and the same time it was a trade union and a political party. In this manner, Louis Pio attempted to combine par­ticular trade union interests with general working-class interests.

What distinguished the socialists working with Louis Pio and his friends from other workers’ associations was that the former had a strategy for their struggle, viz. that workers had to be organised and that strikes had to be well planned and prepared in advance. This provided the Association with a direct relevance in the eyes of workers. It made it seem obvious to workers that the theory of the socialists was also correct. All these things meant that the socialist movement – be it ever so small – seemed dangerous to the powers that be, and following a major rally in May 1872 the three leading figures of the Associa­tion were arrested and the following years were given very harsh prison sentences. At the same time, their organisation was banned.

However, the strike campaign continued in 1873 and was kept alive until 1876. This resulted in the foundation of further trade unions under socialist auspices. These unions set up a leadership in Copenhagen, and from then on the workers themselves ran the move­ment according to their own convictions. In 1876, delegates from all the unions, with a total membership of 6.000, were convened to hold their first congress. Here a socialist programme was adopted for which the 1875-programme of the German party served as a model – however with significant dis­tinctions: in the trade union issue, and in that the Danish programme included clauses on agrarian policies.

Shortly after the Congress, the European recession hit Denmark. Mass unemployment resulting from this in conjunction with a po­litical crisis in the movement, disrupted the work in its present form. As a consequence of this, it was decided in 1878 to separate the trade union movement from the political movement.

However, the crisis in the movement only lasted for a few years. Already from 1881 progress was once more perceptible, and what is more, the socialist labour movement was the only labour organisation to have survived the crisis. Society was slowly moving forward towards capitalism, and the industrial working class which was growing with it constituted the material prerequisite for this development. This is reflected by the degree of urbanisation: from 1850 to 1901 the urban population grew from 20% to 40%. By 1900 there were about 177,000 wage earners of which 37,000 were women of whom many carried out wage work in their homes.

The trade union movement made strides during the 1880s and 1890s; despite minor setbacks along the road the overall trend was that workers knew how to make use of improved business trends for establishing new organisations and for improving their pay and working conditions considerably. These results were not, of course, achieved without a struggle, and in the 1880s the industrial conflict of the widest scope ever was the lock-out of the metal workers in 1885. It was the aim of the employers to smash the union and for this purpose they hired an army of scabs. It was still one of the most serious problems that so many workers remained unorganized. The lock-out lasted for more than six months, and its result was a defeat for both parties. The metal workers did not get what they had fought for in terms of pay and had to accept working alongside of blacklegs, but the employers had to accept the continued existence of the trade union. However, many of the subsequent large-scale conflicts had to do with workers’ right to organise, they constituted a struggle against the autocratic position of employers at the places of work.

Another important prerequisite for the success of the trade unions was that they succeeded in organising large numbers of unskilled and women workers despite the fact that it was difficult for these groups to gain acceptance by their skilled colleagues.

In 1898 most of the existing trade union organisations, national and local, joined for­ces to form the LO – the Trade Union Centre. In principle this concluded the foundation process of trade unions in Denmark. The LO-structure was one of decentralisation, which means that the power to bargain, conclude agreements and take industrial action rested with the national unions. The LO could refuse to sanction demands made by a union, thus preventing the union from getting any sup­port from other national unions in the event of industrial action. Thus, after all, the LO had a position of considerable influence as a co-ordinator of the common demands of the trade union movement. The position was re­inforced by an agreement with the Social Democratic Party: the Social Democratic Party had representatives in the executive committee of the LO and vice versa. This arrangement constituted a guarantee that the labour movement could continue to work as a united trade union and political movement. This circumstance has proven to be of major importance at all times, including those when political unity in the labour movement was not a matter of course. From time to time the co-operation has met with criticism, but so far it has withstood all strains.

Already the following year, the Association of Danish Employers forced the LO into the most extensive industrial conflict Denmark had experienced up to that time. More than 50% of all organised workers were involved in a conflict which lasted from May to September 1899. It was concluded by a compromise which involved recognition of workers’ right to organise and employers’ right to manage. This General Agreement – albeit in a revised and extended version – is the foundation on which the Danish system of labour relations still rests.

For the Social Democratic Party, too, the two last decades of the century constituted a phase of grandiose building up. Virtually only in Copenhagen had the political movement survived the crisis, but from 1882 the movement once more started to spread to all parts of the country. In the course of the 1890s the party established local branches in many places, and in general elections it obtained a growing number of votes. In 1892 the first social democrat was returned at a local elec­tion, by 1900 social democrats were on the council in 25 localities all over the country, especially in the towns. Similarly, the social democratic press had expanded. The “Social-Demokraten”, the name of the principal newspaper after 1874, had the highest circu­lation in the country, and the 1890s saw the establishment of new social democratic newspapers all over the country. At the root of all this was the fact that workers saw the Social Democratic Party as representing the whole of the working class, and as constitu­ting the independent movement of the wor­king class. The politico-theoretical tenor of this concept can be summarised in the idea of “justice”, in consistent anti-capitalism and recognition of the fact that the liberation of workers rests with the workers themselves. On this basis the two first social democratic members of parliament were returned to the Folketinget (1. chamber of the parliament) in 1884.

At that time the political line of confron­tation in Denmark ran between the democra­tic farmers’ party, the “Venstre” (the Left) and conservative forces. Of course, the Social Democratic Party would support any democratic endeavours, but this was not unproblematic: the Danish election system was similar to that of Great Britain – a first-past-the-post system – which called for deals between the two parties in favour of parliamentarism not to run candidates in all provincial constitu­encies. In this way the social conflicts between the two political partners remained obscure. This led to widespread discussion in the labour movement, because, for instance, the local party branch in Århus saw the alliance with “Venstre” as something which would delay workers in their development to­wards becoming an autonomous class. This conflict proved to be significant for the next 20-30 years, despite the fact that in 1889 the most radical opponents to the alliance policy were expelled from the party. In this instance – as at many other occasions, e.g. at the Inter­national Socialist Congress in Paris – Peter Knudsen, the party president, maintained that the struggle for reforms had a revolutionary perspective.

By the turn of the century new ideas were emerging in the international labour move­ment. One was the concept of “ministerial socialism” which was rejected in Denmark, another was “gas & water socialism” which some social democrats tried to apply in local politics, and a third was placing emphasis on the political neutrality of the trade unions. This latter claim was made by the right wing forces arguing that the trade unions were to take care of their “proper” job and was turned into actual practice in Germany (Carl Legien) and the USA (Samuel Gompers). The same argument was also voiced by the left wing, viz. the syndicalists, who claimed that a poli­tical struggle could have no other result than a corruption of the labour movement. Both lines of reasoning were rejected in Denmark where the close co-operation between the trade unions and the political movement contin­ued to flourish. The trade unions knew perfectly well that their demands for immediate improvements in pay and working conditions were political demands. The unity of the movement remained intact.




Growth and radicalization

In 1901 parliamentarism finally won the day. Together with the September Agreement mentioned above, this implied a new situation for the labour movement. In terms of organising workers the movement was experi­encing a virtually unalloyed success. The membership of the LO rose from 80,000 (1898) to 160,000 (1914), and thus 50% of workers in manufacturing industry, commerce and transportation were organised. In 1913, the Social Democratic Party had 50,000 members corresponding to 50% of the electors who voted for it.

In the trade union field, the central features were the construction of a system for dealing with industrial disputes, including the establishment of the labour market tribunal/industrial court and the Conciliation Board. Opposition against these endeavours were indeed voiced, partly within the trade unions themselves and partly in the form of a minute syndicalist opposition after 1906 – a group which was to gain some degree of importance towards the end of the World War. In this connection, discussions began concerning the introduction of a new trade union structure – discussions which have gained renewed topicality in the late 1980s. The conflict concerning the structure of the trade union movement to a high degree was a conflict between skilled and unskilled workers – especially the metal workers became the spokesmen of the former. Their union very strongly favoured the concept of industrial unions while the unskilled workers rejected the idea. Furthermore, the metal workers soon began building up a shop steward system and were also the driving force behind the establishment of cartels with allied unions when it became clear that the idea of industrial unions could not be realised.

During these years there was lively discussion in the Social Democratic Party concerning the way ahead. For one thing, an experimental attempt was made to realise “gas & water socialism” in the West Danish port of Esbjerg where the social democrats won the majority in 1905, for another, there were continuing discussions of the dual role of the party in a capitalist society: on the one hand to demonstrate its opposition to the existing capitalist order, and, on the other, to work within the system and its political institutions to achieve specific advantages for the working class.

During the World War, the Social Democratic Party chose to maintain a truce with the system in order to contribute to keeping the nation out of the war and to safeguard the living standard of the workers in a time of increasing prices which was sure to come. However, the party was not passive; as early as 1914 it took the lead in attempting to mount a social democratic peace initiative. In 1915, a peace conference was held in Copenhagen which was followed by other similar conferences, and which later led to an attempt to hold a general peace conference for social democratic parties in Stockholm in 1917.

In 1916, the party president. Thorvald Stauning, entered the government during a political crisis. He did so in contravention of a prior congress resolution not to do so, but it was explained by referring to the seriousness of the current political crisis. However, Stauning remained in office even after the crisis was over and a general election held in 1918. Thus the party was following a new path. a path that might not have enjoyed the whole-hearted support of the workers, at least the party suffered a set-back at the 1918 election in that it dropped from a 29.7% of the votes to 28.5%.

This set-back was not reflected by the organisational advances made – trade unions almost doubled their membership to 300,000 in 1918; the membership figure of the party rose to approx. 92,000 in 1918 corresponding to 29% of the votes cast in its favour women suffrage having been introduced for the 1918 election, which might also partly explain the reduction in terms of percentage.

The syndicalists, too, made headway. Their organisation now numbered 4,000 members, but they were able to influence a far larger group which can be seen from the membership figures of unions under syndicalist leadership. By means of their direct actions, they generated a good deal of sympathy among the worst-off workers, and their efforts also contributed to putting the 8-hour day on the agenda. However, following large-scale industrial action in the spring of 1920, syndicalist influence soon evaporated. For the future, their place was taken over by the communists.

The end of the World War brought the revolution closer to Denmark, but it never crossed the border. However, some repercussions were felt: the social democratic youth movement and a few small groups within the party broke out, and after a number of complications formed the Communist Party of Denmark (the DKP). The new party tried to make its presence felt in the industrial conflicts that occurred in 1919 and 1920, but was too small and inexperienced to really make a difference. In the course of the 1920s, the party only gained limited influence on the trade unions – i.a. with the assistance of the Comintern envoi, Richard Sorge who later gained such fame as a secret agent.

However, in the course of 1919 the workers succeeded in securing for themselves the 8-hour day. This was achieved by means of well-co-ordinated trade union and political action; the social democrats introduced the 48-hour week in the localities where they had a majority on the councils, and syndicalist-influenced trade union organisations managed to battle through reductions of the working hours in “their” undertakings; thus the new working hours went into force from January 1 1920, however, with the exception of some groups in hospitals, shipping and agriculture.



Depression and labour government

1920 saw the most serious parliamentary crisis in Danish history. The King dismissed his government – without it having had a majority against it in the Folketinget (1. chamber of the parliament) – and appointed a new one. This made the Social Democratic Party issue a warning that it would call a general strike, and by means of skilful tactics, Thorvald Stauning managed to intimidate the weak King to such an extent that, against the wishes of his advisers, he dismissed the new government and left it to the Folketinget to appoint another. The Social Democratic Party responded so radically in this instance because it was convinced that its way to power would go via the conquest of a parliamentary majority. Any threat to parliamentarism was tantamount to a threat to the very foundation of social democratic strategy. This perception of parliamentarism as the  road to gaining power also made the social democrats reject the Russian Revolution. Furthermore, they saw the DKP as a party dividing the working class which, until then, had stood united, thus weakening its position in the confrontation with capitalism and its political parties. Throughout the inter-war years, the DKP pursued a very fluctuating policy in conformity with Comintern oscillations and, thus, the party remained weak and could easily be isolated and ignored. Its fluctuations made the party seem unreliable to most workers.

By 1924, the Social Democratic Party had become the largest in the Folketinget with 55 seats out of 149. This was by no means a majority, but in the Folketinget it could reckon on a certain amount of support from its old allies, the Radical Liberals. In the upper house, the Landstinget, the party confronted a solid majority. Nevertheless, the party formed a government, and thus was soon faced with the eternal dilemma of labour parties, that of administering a capitalist society at the same time as endeavouring to strengthen working-class positions.

As early as in 1922, through a major industrial conflict, employers had attempted to force back workers to their pre-1920 positions. This had been prevented, but only just. 1925 saw another major conflict in the labour market, which, however, also turned into a conflict within the working class itself – between skilled and unskilled workers; this conflict was resolved at the expense of the unskilled workers as they also incurred the displeasure of the government which felt threatened. The conflict was a text-book case of the problems with which a party is confronted when it has to consider the wider social implications as well as trade union interests, when it wants to be the government of the whole people and that of the working class at the same time.

In Denmark there is a separate national trade union for unskilled women, today it is one of the largest in the country. In the early 1920s when women accounted for about 35% of the labour force it was not yet so powerful. The organisation did not develop a policy of a sex-specific nature, rather it fought to gain any kind of recognition. But that such a sex-specific policy was in fact possible was demonstrated by the communist opposition within the national union. However, it never gained sufficient strength to influence the general policy of the union.

The government fell in 1926 and for three years an extremely liberalist government was in office; it pursued a policy of retrenchment vis-à-vis public employees, pensions and social security benefits. It also attempted to curtail the possibilities of trade unions to take industrial action and to organise workers -everything in the name of the liberty of the individual. This policy failed, and in 1929 the Social Democratic Party advanced to obtaining approx. 42% of the votes. Together with the Radical Liberals the party now formed a majority government which survived until 1940. Obviously this government did not pursue a socialist policy, the Radical Liberal coalition partner and the majority in the upper house saw to that. But the government could pursue a policy which had the effect of strengthening the working class, preventing the consequences of the economic recession having to be borne by the workers exclusively, fascism from gaining a foothold in Denmark and favouring further democratisation of public concerns.

To a relatively wide extent these endeavours were successful, and workers supported social democratic policies which also had a following among salaried employees and other lower middle-class groups who joined the strongest political force in the land. At the general election in 1935, and even more so in 1939, a vague dissatisfaction with the government’s trade union policy and its efforts to combat unemployment – it meant that it entered into agreements with farmers’ organisations and their political representative, the Venstre – became discernible among certain groups of workers. The result was that some workers did not use their right to vote and that the DKP enjoyed modest gains, up to 2.5% of the votes cast; however, the social democrats continued to get about 43% of the votes.

What was important in this period of extremely high rates of unemployment was that a major complex of social legislation was enacted which had as a governing principle that social security benefits were a right and should not be considered as alms leading to loss of civic rights. This principle is fundamental for the development of the welfare state.

The government – and Thorvald Stauning in particular – tried to conclude agreements with the other democratic countries to enable the country to pursue a policy more independent of Nazi Germany despite its extreme dependence on agricultural exports of which a large share went to Germany. It was a failure as the western powers were not interested in establishing a firm alliance against Nazi Germany. Therefore, Denmark barely changed its military policy and was virtually defenceless against the German invasion in 1940.



Nazi occupation

The occupation of Denmark was different from that of any other country. The government was joined by the two large non-socialist opposition parties, the army and the police remained in place until 1944, free democratic elections were held in the spring of 1943; the occupying power did interfere with Danish internal matters, but to a wide extent it was possible to maintain normal conditions. To be sure, more than 100,000 Danish workers were more or less forced to take jobs in Germany, but all things considered the government pursued a very pragmatic policy of co-operation with the occupying power until the autumn of 1943. As the largest party, the Social Democratic Party later had to bear the responsibility and blame for this policy although farmers and capital owners reaped the financial benefits of it.

The DKP was banned in 1941 following the German attack upon the Soviet Union; the party then undertook an active part in the underground resistance and played a leading role in the resistance movement. It played a major part in connection with the two strike campaigns, one in August 1943 whose immediate result was the collapse of the policy of cooperation, and in July 1944. As a result of all this, at the end of the war communists had a strong position in the working class and enjoyed a great deal of sympathy in the rest of the population, whereas the Social Democratic Party had suffered a considerable political weakening. This was reflected by the elections in October 1945 when the Social Democratic Party obtained less than 33% of the votes and the DKP 12.5%.



Post-war dilemmas

During the months following the liberation, the leaderships of the Social Democratic Party and the DKP discussed the possibility of merging the two parties, something for which there were strong wishes among workers; however the distrust and great distance which existed between the two leaderships were too pronounced to permit the realisation of political unity. During that particular time there was no overwhelming differences in terms of programmatic stance as the social democrats had just prepared a new manifesto which – worded in a fairly radical terminology – built on the experience gained during the years between the wars; it called for full employment, social security, efficiency and democracy in trade and industry. These demands required a planned economy, and thus an extension of social regulation and control. In reality it came to function as a reform programme with the welfare state as its objective and a capitalism free of any recessions as a precondition.

1945-46 saw a number of large-scale rallies and strikes, but despite the fact that there was a great deal of correspondence between the demands made at such rallies and those propounded by the LO, they turned out to have very little impact. After all, the labour parties had been weakened in comparison with their pre-war election results, and the pronounced militancy among some workers led nowhere.

At the next general election, the DKP lost approximately half of the votes it had gained at the previous election, votes that were won by the social democrats. It must be assumed that many of the votes cast in favour of the communists in October 1945 now fell to the social democrats because voters saw no other way than voting social democrat to topple the non-socialist government. This having been accomplished, a social democratic government took office in 1947, which, however, fell in 1950. The next three years saw a non-socialist government, which succeeded in pushing through the revision of the Constitution for which the social democrats had worked so hard. From 1953 to 1968 all the governments were under social democratic leadership, although they were always coalition governments with non-socialist parties participating, and frequently they were minority governments. In other words, the Social Democratic Party bore the main responsibility for the economic and political developments during those years.

In 1949 Denmark joined NATO and gradually every idea of introducing a planned economy was scrapped, existing regulatory control systems were wound up, and the country was enrolled in the American dominated capitalist system. This was also a result of Denmark having joined the OECD, with all the consequences this entailed for economic policies. In 1960 the next logical step was for Denmark to enter into the free trade agree­ment of EFTA.



Growth of the welfare state

Discussions going on at the places of work during the 1950s were dominated by the rationalisations that had become a necessary prerequisite for recreating the worn-out productive apparatus. For this reason, the LO took a positive attitude to rationalisations, despite the fact that they entailed considerable drawbacks. For the very same reason, the system of consultative liaison committees at the places of work was established, but only with qualified success. Consultative liaison committees were only set up in 1/3 of all undertakings employing more than 25 workers. Furthermore, the committees turned out to be of very limited importance.

Gradually, dissatisfaction grew to considerable proportions in the work places, and in 1956 the draft proposal for a collective agreement was rejected by a clear majority of workers. The employers agreed to the proposal. The government was now faced with a dilemma identical to the one it had been faced with by the large-scale strike of 1925. But this time the government unequivocally turned against the majority of the working class, and based on the assumption that if it did not do so itself, the non-socialist parties would, it gave the proposal for a settlement the force of law. Thus, the government avoided being felled, and the majority in the Social Democratic Party considered this a primary objective.

For a time the conflict led to increased support for the DKP, which was reflected by the results of the shop steward and other trade union representative elections. The autumn of 1956 saw the insurrection in Hungary, and this event together with the CPSU’s 20th Party Congress revelation of Stalin’s crimes led to renewed weakening of the DKP positions. This in turn led to intensified discussion within the DKP concerning the way ahead. Aksel Larsen, who had been party president for more than 25 years, took the initiative in a move towards a regeneration of the party, but was opposed by a majority within the party leadership, and was expelled. However, large numbers of trade union and party officials joined him.

By the turn of the year 1958/59 this group consisting of highly experienced labour representatives made an effort to find a basis on which to work, and in the spring of 1959 they founded the new Socialist People’s Party – the SF. The new party wanted to become a catalyst for a turn to the left within the working class and the Social Democratic Party. At the general election in 1960, the SF obtained 6.2% of the votes while the DKP only achieved 1.1% which meant that the party was no longer represented in the Folketinget. At the same general election, the Social Democratic Party made further advances to 42.1 % of the votes – in terms of votes, the three labour parties were close to a 50% share of the votes cast. In most elections held since then, the labour parties have obtained between 45% and 49% of the votes; a few times they have had a majority in terms of seats in the Folketinget, the first time being 1966.

In the labour market a break-through was achieved in 1958 in that the collective agreement provided that, over a three-year period, weekly working hours were to be reduced to 45 – but it was only now that agricultural labourers obtained the 48-hour working week – till then, it had been 56 hours. Thanks to increased mechanisation there had been a strong decline in the number of agricultural labourers since 1920. In the following years this decline continued. In terms of GNP, Denmark was now an industrialised country. In 1990 far less than 10% of the population worked in agriculture.

In the 1950s, reforms to the benefit of the working class were not prospering; this was a result of adverse economic conditions and the relatively weak parliamentary position of the labour movement. But with improved business trends after 1958 and the increased strength of the labour parties in the Folketinget in the early 1960s, conditions for building up a welfare society improved. The Social Democratic Party, the SF and the trade union movement took advantage of these conditions for building up a strong society with a large public sector whose aim was to ensure social security and prosperity for the working population.

The extension of the welfare state, however, was not without its problems. The non-socialist parties, which generally had a parliamentary majority, opposed most reforms. The labour movement was divided into several parties which did not see eye to eye concerning political goals and means. There were limits to the speed with which reforms could be implemented in a country with a strongly dominating bourgeois press. And it soon became clear that the combination of economic growth and social welfare led to unforeseen problems, such as destruction of the environment, general stress and a bureaucratic public sector. In addition to this, Denmark’s relationship with the Common Market further divided the labour movement.

The period 1958-1973 was characterised by fundamental changes in the Danish social structure and by considerable improvements in the living conditions of workers. Nevertheless, the general election in 1973 resulted in the biggest defeat for the overall labour movement since the war.

To a high degree this was a result of the structural changes which had led to the emergence of a completely new working class – a class in which, once again, first-generation industrial workers, including large numbers of women, became very important. This development had created a very heterogeneous wage earning class whose ideological and political stance fluctuated strongly. They were generally influenced by their previous life experience, and when, at the same time, the old worn out working-class slums were cleared and workers moved to new neighbourhoods, it was impossible to maintain the old types of working-class cultures. New forms were not established, one reason being that the after-effects of the Cold War prevented the emergence of a new working-class awareness. This prevented, or at least delayed integration between the old and the new working class.

During these years, the Social Democratic Party made a number of proposals for “Economic Democracy” whose aim was to change ownership patterns in favour of workers. This plan was not greatly supported by workers, nor by the other labour parties. It was impossible to get a fruitful dialogue going concerning this reform which was aimed at democratising ownership in industry. Thus it could not be implemented in its present form, nor in any subsequent modified form, but it did deepen the split in the labour movement as did the struggle for or against accession to the EEC. By now three or four left-wing parties were represented in the Folketinget as the Socialist People’s Party had split in 1968 over the issue of this party’s policy vis-à-vis the Social Democratic Party. The new party, the Leftwing Socialists, was a typical new-left party which had a not insignificant following in Danish universities while its support in the working class remained minute.



From left to right

In many ways, the year 1973 constituted a watershed. From the turn of the year Denmark had joined the EEC, and in December both the Social Democratic Party and the SF suffered major defeats in the general election. The social democrats went from a 37.3% share of the vote to 25.7% and the SF from 9.1% to 6%. The DKP had 3.6% and remained in the Folketinget until 1979. The Leftwing Socialists were returned to the Folketinget in 1975 and remained there until 1987. The Social Democratic Party had a come­back in the course of the 1970s, but characteristically the long-established nexus between this party and the working class has been broken and it remains to be seen whether it can ever be re-established. In the course of the 1980s, the SF obtained a large share of the votes, but was unable to build up an equivalent organisation – it remained a parliamentary party without an organised membership. However, from the late 1980s the oppositional forces to the left of the Social Democratic Party convened in the SF, which with a degree of success appealed to various grass-root movements and social groups who had difficulties in joining the traditional labour movement.

A recessionary period began and unemployment figures rose alarmingly. This led to serious problems and challenges for the labour parties. In the SF an ideological and strategic process of clarification took place, and the Social Democratic Party, too, went through a serious crisis during which, for a time, the trade union movement and the political movement were rather sharply divided in their respective assessment of the scope and tenor of the “necessary” incomes policy.

The substantial structural changes of Danish society continued during the 1970s and 1980s despite the recession. More and more women came unto the labour market (approx. 85% of all women have a job, women account for approx. 50% of the LO membership, and the rate of unionisation is more or less the same for men and women today) and this fact, among others, necessitated a further extension of the public care sector which, consequently, continued to grow. Moreover, the labour movement succeeded in having a number of important reforms implemented, reforms that improved social security and strengthened the position of workers in the labour market.

Various grass-root movements put new points on the political agenda. The pace of the technological development increased and led to structural unemployment on top of cyclical unemployment. Manufacturing industries moved west, and particularly in Jutland new industrial enterprises emerged. This meant an increase in the number of first-generation wage earners who did not automatically find their way to the labour movement, and some of whom could only reluctantly be organised by the trade unions. This goes to explain the growth experienced by the Christian “trade union” movement: in 20 years its membership has risen from 1, 000 to approx. 40, 000 – the LO membership figure is approx. 1,400,000 and other national trade unions outside the LO organise approx. 600,000 members. These factors created serious problems particularly for the labour parties that had difficulty in formulating up-to-date policies which carried conviction vis-à-vis the new – and the old – strata in the working class.

In September 1982 the Social Democratic Party left government responsibility in the hands of the non-socialist parties. The price that had to be paid for working with a non-co-operative non-socialist majority had become too high.  A coalition government, lead by the Conservative People’s Party, came into power.


1982 – 2000

The recent years

The first years of  Conservative-Liberal government was marked by several severe conflicts on the labour market. In 1982/83 the dock-workers went on a nationwide strike, which evolved into a direct confrontation with the government. During the strike there were violent confrontations with the police. The strike ended with defeat. The most important conflict in these years though, was the so-called “Easter-strikes” in march-april 1985. In the beginning of this year, several collective agreements between the trade unions and employers organizations was running out, and had to be re-negotiated. The left wing in the trade union movement had success in mobilizing the rank and file members for the popular demand for a 35 hour work-week. But the employers organizations gained support from the conservative-liberal government: the government simply dictated new collective agreements by law, which was very favourable to the employers. This resulted in massive strikes and demonstrations, mobilizing more than 500.000 workers. But also these strikes were defeated in the end.

Though these strikes ended with defeat, they probably had a significant indirect impact on the political course of the government. Programmatically, the conservatives and the liberals had a vision of cutting back on the welfare state and making the public sector smaller through privatization – not unlike the British conservative government under Thatcher. But in the day-to-day politics the government was more pragmatic and moderate – the Conservative prime-minister even declared that “ideology is crap”. It seems reasonable to argue, that the strikes of 1982-85 helped moderate the politics of the government.

Another important aspect of the “Easter-strikes” was that they brought workers from the public sector as well as the private sector together in the strike committees. From the mid-1970’s trade unions for public employees had grown in membership, and some of these unions also had a leadership that was clearly more radical than the traditional trade unions.

The 1980’s also saw an upswing in the peace-movement. Quite a lot of people were mobilized in protests against the NATO-decision to deploy more than 500 tactical nuclear missiles in Europe. The peace-movement grew strong enough to influence the parliament. At several occasions a majority in the Folketinget forced the government to act critical towards NATO, contrary to its own politics. The government decided to consider these issues as  non-cabinet issues and, thus, remain in office. It was also able to survive several elections. In the 1990-election the Social Democrats advanced considerably and won 14 seats. But this was partly at the expense of the SF, which lost 9. Thus the conservative-liberal government was able to continue.

In the spring of 1992 the Social Democratic party went through a fierce internal debate, which resulted in the removal of the party chairman Svend Auken at the party congress in april. The congress elected Poul Nyrup Rasmussen as new chairman. The reason for this was a source of much public debate. Some observers saw Poul Nyrup Rasmussen as politically more moderate and pragmatic than Svend Auken. Others stressed differences in personality between the two: the small social-liberal Radical party, whose support was needed to gain parliamentary majority, seemed to dislike the “impulsive” style of Svend Auken. Some saw the removal of him as chairman as an “offering” to the social-liberals.

But what finally brought the conservative rule to an end was not as much the opposition, as its own arrogance. In the late 1980’s Denmark had received a number of Tamil’s, who came to the country as political refugees from Sri Lanka. When some of these refugees applied for permission to have their relatives come to Denmark too, it was denied. The press reported that the Minister of justice personally ordered this denial, which was in fact against Danish law. The prime minister denied that anything unlawful had happened. Finally an independent investigation commission was set up. In January 1993 this commission concluded that the ministry of justice had acted against the law, that the minister himself was responsible and that he, the Prime Minister and other conservatives had mislead the Parliament. Immediately after the publication of the so-called “Tamil-report”, the Prime Minister resigned, bringing the government down with him.

A new majority government was formed with Poul Nyrup Rasmussen as prime minister, with participation from the Social Democratic party and 3 small center-parties. Two of these later resigned from the government, but the Social Democrats and the social-liberal Radical party has stayed in power since, even though the two parties together does not control a majority. The government has been able to gain support through shifting alliances with both the left and the right part of parliament.

The governments lead by the Social Democrats has had considerable success in the economic politic. They have been able to cut the unemployment rate, which was more than 10% during the conservative government,  down to 5%, and in the same time keeping inflation low.  Newer the less the electoral support for the Social Democratic party has been declining, and in february 2000 opinion polls is reporting a historically low 21% support.

One of the main reasons for this apparent paradox is probably the inability of the Social Democrats to show a clear leadership, in a situation where the welfare state is challenged by the process of globalisation. This challenge is felt in several areas: in the labour-market, where workers are met with demands for more “flexibility”, new types of jobs are created – especially in the information technology sector, and Danish companies are sold to foreign investors. In the public sector some functions in health-care etc. has been  “outsourced” to private entrepreneurs, and management-theory and cost-benefit analysis has gradually replaced traditional values, such as solidarity. Last, but not least,  the relationship between Denmark and the European Union is a source of much controversy.

In 1992 a small majority voted “No” to ratification of the Mastricht treaty of the EU in a  national referendum.  A so-called “national compromise” was put together, stipulating that Denmark could partially accept the treaty, with reservations in some important areas such as the monetary union and others. With these exceptions the treaty was finally accepted by a small majority at a new national referendum in 1993. The Social-Democratic leadership has now declared its willingness to abandon the reservations towards Denmark becoming a member of the European Monetary Union. But apparently they have failed in convincing the “euro-skeptical” social democratic voters into accepting this pro-EU politic.

Generally speaking, the impact of globalisation is seen as something positive, creating new possibilities, by some parts of the population – especially those who have the educations and qualifications needed to take advantage of new job-types. But for a large part of traditionally social democratic voters, globalisation is primarily felt as a threat to the welfare state and to stability in the workplace or in the everyday life, creating insecurity. In lack of alternatives, some of these voters turn their anger on everything “foreign”. Even some Social Democratic leaders on local levels have resorted to campaigning against immigrants and ethnic minorities.

The so-called Danish Peoples Party has exploited the situation very skilfully. This right-wing party combines nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric with claims for more spending on healthcare and especially eldercare. The party has gained 15% support in election-polls – a great deal of which is probably former Social Democrats.

The future of the Danish Labour movement – as well as the whole Danish society – is greatly depending on the ability of the Social Democratic party to overcome its present crisis, and to reclaim political leadership in this era of globalisation.