Economic Development in Denmark Before and During the World War/Development of the Labour Movement

Development of the Labour Movement

In the meantime the labour movement in Denmark lingered along sluggishly. It was not long, however, before it received a fresh impetus. In the eighties the trade unions began to flourish. They aimed at first at higher wages, which were to be obtained, if necessary, by strikes; but soon other aims, such as relief, sickness and burial funds, were also taken up. Local unions were formed in the several towns, each for a certain trade, and all were united in Federated Trade Unions. These, in turn, were connected with the Social-Democratic Society, the chief aim of which was to spread socialistic doctrines.

In the middle of the eighties the membership of the trade unions had grown to about 20,000. This was but a fraction of the total number of workers in Denmark, to be sure, but it was nevertheless sufficient to secure for the working class as such a considerable political influence. From that time on the labour movement advanced rapidly.

As stated above, it was especially from Germany that socialistic ideas spread to Denmark. The German Gewerkschaften, rather than the English trade unions, served as our model, and it was particularly the teachings of Lassalle and Marx which were set forth in our socialistic press. No really new and independent ideas were developed. On the whole it may be said that the labour party had less need of learning socialistic theories than of adopting an efficient policy which would gradually bring it into effective co-operation with the other political parties in Denmark.

We may form an idea of the progress of the Danish labour movement in two ways: first, by following the growth in the membership of the trade unions; second, by noting the results of parliamentary elections. At the close of the last century the total membership of the trade unions was about 100,000. During the first years of this century the number decreased a little, but it soon rose again during the great revival of trade. In 1913 it was 150,000; in 1917, about 200,000. In 1886 the trade unions were consolidated in the Federative Trade Unions of Copenhagen (Samvirkende Fagforeninger i Köbenhavn), and twelve years later there was formed a national organization called The League of Federated Trades, which enrolled most of the members of the older association. There were a few trade unions that declared for greater independence and stood apart from the federation; but all together they formed a compact and solid body which was arrayed, politically and socially, against all the other classes of society. In 1892 the Federative Trade Unions of Copenhagen had introduced into its constitution a clause providing for mutual support in case of strikes, and this principle was also included in the constitution of the League of Federated Trades. If the members of one trade union resolved to go out on strike, and the chief organization approved the action, contributions were exacted from the other trade unions and used for the support of the strikers. Moreover, the trade unions also maintained certain international connexions, chiefly in Scandinavia, through which they might expect assistance in case of a conflict with 'capital'.

The procurement of higher wages was of course the main object of these organizations; but they also interested themselves in other matters in behalf of labour, such as support of the unemployed, exchange of labour, regulation of apprenticeship, etc. Some of these objects have now been taken over by other institutions, as we shall see further on, but the trade unions have nevertheless remained in close touch with the work.

The second standard by which to measure the growing strength of the labour movement is furnished by the parliamentary and municipal elections. As early as 1872 the workmen of Copenhagen nominated candidates for election to the Folketing (Lower House), one of whom was Pio, but they received very few votes. Nor did they fare much better at the next elections. Still, they received an increased number of votes, and it was becoming apparent that several constituencies would eventually become socialistic. Finally, in 1884, the social-democrats seated two representatives in Folketing; and steady progress followed thereafter. In 1892 some 20,000 social-democratic votes returned only two members, but in 1901 the number of votes was nearly 40,000 and fourteen socialists, out of a total of a hundred and fourteen representatives, took their seats in the Lower House. In 1910 twenty-four socialists were elected by 99,000 votes (28 per cent, of all the votes cast). Had the number of candidates elected corresponded exactly to the number of votes received, the party would have seated thirty-two representatives; but the social-democrats voted chiefly in the urban districts, where the number of electors was generally greater than in the country. In 1913 the social-democratic candidates received 107,000 votes (nearly the same proportion as before), and this time won thirty-two seats. The social-democrats now stood second, numerically, in the Lower House. The new Constitution of June 5, 1915, made no essential difference in the comparative strength of the party. In 1918 the social-democrats obtained 262,000 out of 921,000 votes (men and women), or 28 per cent.; and they elected thirty-nine of the one hundred and forty members of the Folketing—likewise 28 per cent. The party now stood second to the 'Left' with its forty-six members, and the 'Radical Left' stood third with its thirty-nine members. Simultaneously with this increased membership in the Folketing the social-democrats also succeeded in entering the Landsting (Upper House), in which the election of 1915 won for them four of the sixty-six seats; and in 1918 they won fifteen seats.

It is almost needless to say that evidences of the growth of the social-democratic party are also to be found in the municipal boards of several towns, not the least in Copenhagen. At the election in 1917 for the municipal board of the capital the social-democrats won thirty out of fifty-five seats; in Aarhus, the second largest town in Jutland, eleven out of nineteen; in Esbjerg, nine out of nineteen, and so on.