The "right of association" for service personnel: A view from Denmark

Written on . Posted in Forces Personnel News

We re-publish the article below from 2014. As everyone knows, BAFF is not a trade union and does not seek to be, but the article shows how even a trade union model of representation (without "industrial action", obvs) works well in an allied country whose fighting troops and skilled medics have served robustly alongside British troops in Afghanistan.

Parliamentarians revisiting the issue of representation for armed forces personnel may be interested in this article by Flemming Vinther, President of HKKF, the Union of Enlisted Privates and Corporals in the Danish Army. Flemming was one of the two Danish contributors to the BAFF parliamentary presentation in Westminster Hall in 2009.

Strength through rights

As President of the Union of Enlisted Privates and Corporals in the Danish Army, I experience the strength enjoyed by our organisation and our members, thanks to the fact that we have the same rights as all other trade unions and employees in Denmark, on a daily basis. From where I sit, therefore, it makes absolutely no sense that some countries are so ardently opposed to soldiers gaining union rights. And we are not talking about distant dictatorships. We are talking about countries such as Great Britain, France and Italy where soldiers are prevented, by statute, from joining a trade union. And about other European countries such as Portugal, where soldiers have this right in theory, but where in practice the political and military leaders make it impossible to exercise this right.

Denmark – a strong national defence with strong trade unions

In Denmark, trade unions have been part of the armed forces for more than 50 years. And since 1973 they have all enjoyed collective bargaining rights. This means that we are on an equal footing with the rest of the trade unions in the Danish labour market. On the other hand, this does not mean that we always have our way or that we suspend work or go on strike whenever we feel like it. We are, in fact, prevented from taking any industrial action at all as we are subject to the same rules and regulations as other Danish civil servants. And, as already mentioned, we do not always get our way – but to be honest that is not very important. What is important is that we have a formal right to be consulted and involved. And it is the strength of our arguments that counts. Rights are not to be taken for granted. They require hard work. It is often said that if soldiers are granted union rights, all hell breaks loose. Fighting qualities, the spirit of solidarity and not least discipline will be destroyed. But that is sheer nonsense!

Denmark boasts some of the strongest military trade unions in the world, and today our members endure some of the worst fighting ever in the Helmand province in Afghanistan. They are on daily patrols in areas still hit by the Taleban-led insurgency, and since April 2009 we have lost 22 soldiers and 44 have been wounded in Afghanistan. Our soldiers are praised and commended for their contribution, and even people in powerful positions in the US and UK have nothing but respect for the Danish soldiers. Today, Denmark contributes with soldiers who fight shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world and they are commended for it! That would hardly have been the case with an army whose fighting qualities, spirit of solidarity and discipline had been destroyed by the trade unions! In my opinion, resistance and opposition against the rights of military personnel go back to the days when soldiers were levied. It does – after all – make some sense that levied soldiers are not allowed to voice their opinions too loudly. Levied soldiers, however, would not be able to perform the very demanding tasks present-day soldiers are facing. All countries require highly trained, committed and professional soldiers. Consequently, they need soldiers who have chosen this job voluntarily for a shorter or longer period of time.

Today's soldiers only stay in the armed forces for as long as they find the job exciting, challenging and attractive. When this is no longer the case, they leave. Just like any other employee. Some argue that they are under a contractual obligation. That is correct, and some contracts are more binding than others. But take some time to think this through: Going to war with your fellow soldiers just because you are under a contract that you cannot get out of. Well, I am glad it is not me!

The fight for soldiers' rights

In many countries initiatives are being taken to guarantee soldiers union rights. Everywhere national organisations are being established, struggling to guarantee to soldiers the same rights as they already exist for well-established military trade unions. They need all the support they can get from us who have already seen the positive results and who regard rights as a natural part of our everyday lives. But also from other trade unions in countries where the military trade unions are popping up. Unfortunately, however, it is not uncommon for the established trade union movement to disassociate itself from military trade unions. They are seen as "the enemy" as their members are sometimes used by governments against protesters or strikers. It is crucial, therefore, that the trade union movement is able to distinguish between the soldier – or the police officer – carrying out an order and the person wearing the uniform who is just as entitled to trade-union rights as the protester he or she has been ordered to remove.

Citizen in uniform

If there is a genuine wish for the armed forces not to be a state within the state, it is important to see the soldier as a "citizen in uniform". Only by making sure that the individual soldier appreciates the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of association and respect for people who do not share his thoughts and beliefs, will we get soldiers capable of showing authority and empathy when solving complex tasks. As President of a Danish military trade union, I have just been elected chief negotiator on behalf of all central government employees in the upcoming collective bargaining process in 2011. My role will be to negotiate on behalf of military personnel, police officers and civilian colleagues, a total of 165,000 government employees. My deputy in the negotiation process is the President of the Danish Police Union. I am extremely proud that my colleagues in the Danish trade union movement have chosen me as their chief negotiator. Personally proud, but equally proud on behalf of my union. This is an unambiguous signal that Danish soldiers are considered employees. Employees holding an uncommon job, that is true, but nevertheless employees like everyone else. I hope our fellow European unionists will see this as a signal that soldiers are "citizens in uniform" and that we – in this field as well – are stronger if we stand united!

By Flemming Vinther, President of HKKF

Overseas examples