The great movements


Power to the people

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Popular organisation has left such an indelible mark on Denmark that the country's cooperatives have risen to become some of the world's largest companies within their respective industries, be it meatpacker Danish Crown, dairy producer Arla, furrier Copenhagen Furs, seed producer Trifolium or feed distributor DLG. And in no other country has a consumer cooperative gained as strong a position as Coop Denmark, which commands around 37 percent of national grocery sales. The same also holds true for the cooperative owning the OK petrol stations, which holds 19 percent of the market.

Coops in control
The prominence of Denmark's cooperatives is rooted in the country's strong parochial culture and its tradition for forming associations. Previously, manors served as the seat of rural power, but starting in the 1860s, and for the next century, nearly 1,800 rural parishes became the most important unit in national politics, economy and culture. Parish politics were dominated by medium-sized farmers. They were responsible for the organisation of nearly all aspects of rural life. Financial matters were taken care of by the local savings bank, and later by the new cooperative banks. Long-term mortgages were managed by mutual building societies, just as insurance policies were taken out with mutual insurance providers. The economy was controlled by collective organisations that were responsible for purchasing the means of production, consumer staples and for processing and selling agricultural goods. Prior to 1900, all forms of cooperatives, from dairies and groceries to feed distributors, were established in nearly every parish. Many private businesses converted to cooperatives, and regional cooperative slaughterhouses soon came to dominate the market. By 1900, most food was being sold by cooperatives.

Village hall people
Many of the country's buildings reflect the influence of the cooperative movement, and the Golden Age of the association movement from 1880 to 1940. The world's first cooperative dairy was founded in 1882 in Hjedding, north of Varde, Jutland. Today, many former dairies and cooperative groceries have been converted and now house other types of activity. Another characteristic of the movement was its focus on leisure activities, in the form of youth groups, exercise groups, lecture groups and more. Many farmers were also involved in the establishment of the uniquely Danish folk high schools – non-formal adult education. The strong religious currents of the day left their clear mark in the form of village halls and missionary halls. About 1,200 village halls still exist in Denmark and serve as a gathering place for local groups and family occasions.

A party of farmers
Politically, farmers were members of the Liberal Party, which came to dominate politics. Partisan newspapers began publishing in nearly all towns. Agriculture and cooperatives gained large political influence due to the importance of food exports, particularly butter and bacon. Exports financed the import of raw materials and consumer goods. Until the 1930s, food exports accounted for 80 percent of sales to the German and British markets. Not until the 1960s did industrial goods overtake agriculture's leading position. The effects of the cooperative movement on Denmark can still be seen today, even though many small cooperative businesses have disappeared. In many cases, mergers have helped to consolidate their industries, but Denmark remains the only country in Europe where the Liberal Party has been the country's largest during the new millennium. Denmark's Liberal Party has held political power since 2001.

Workers unite
While the cooperative and agricultural movements were organising themselves in rural districts, workers were concentrating their efforts to organise trade and political work in the cities. As in other European countries, the labour movement was operating on three fronts: the union, the political and the cooperative fronts. In addition, it also performed comprehensive cultural and social work. The labour movement's three fronts stood in contrast to the fragmented focus of the agricultural movement. Farmers were not bound formally, but ideologically.

Eight hours a dag - six days a week
Industrialisation took hold gradually starting in 1840. But by 1930, factory workers and skilled craftsmen outnumbered those working in agriculture. Many small and medium-sized companies emerged, and a number of them still exist today. Workers had to fight in order to organise themselves, but after years of struggle, workers compromised with employers in 1899. Employers recognised workers' right to organise. In the following decades, the Danish labour market became one of the world's most thoroughly organised. More than 90 percent of wage-earners belonged to a union. Labour disputes led to improved wage and employment conditions. In 1919, the eight-hour workday was established. People were still working six days a week, but their weekly total was now down to 48. Since 1991, the workweek has been 37 hours. Paid holiday has grown from two weeks in the 1930s to six weeks in 2000.

The social welfare party
With the Social Democrats at the helm, the government passed numerous laws improving the lives of the average worker in 1929-1940. From the start, the labour movement was closely affiliated with the Social Democrats. But unlike in Norway and Sweden, Denmark's Social Democrats never obtained an absolute majority in parliament and was always dependent on coalition partners. At the same time, the party was among the most moderate of European Social Democratic parties and was constantly held in check by the interests of the strong agricultural movement. After World War II and into the 1970s, the Social Democrats captained a broad expansion of the welfare state. It wasn't until the 1990s that the trade unions and the Social Democratic party that had represented the interests of the workers cut their formal ties.

Labour in decline
The labour movement has steadily lost influence since the recession of the 1970s. Trade union membership has shrunk, and today most young people view unions as old-fashioned. Only around 70 percent of employees are members of the original labour unions. Other non-trade specific unions, nicknamed yellow unions" are experiencing rapid growth. And while the Social Democrats used to be able to attract 40 percent of votes come election time, today their support has slipped to 25 percent. The cooperative front of the labour movement was always minimal, but today it has all but evaporated.