The new first lady of the Danish trade union movement, Lizette Risgaard, is a staunch defender of Nordic cooperation and has already proven that she will fight to the bitter end in defence of the Nordic collective bargaining model.
A fighter has taken the helm at Denmark’s trade union movement. Many knew she was one before 55 year old Lisette Risgaard was elected the new President of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) on 27 October 2015, the first woman to hold the post. But it became clear to everyone when she sacked the entire top management only four days after taking the seat as the new President of Denmark’s largest trade union confederation.
The LO head of administration, chief economist, head of communication and the head of development were all sacked, because the new President wanted to appoint her own team. Most labour market experts agree the trade union movement needs new blood, and refer to falling union membership, partly because young people don’t see the point in being a trade union member.
Lisette Risgaard does not welcome that interpretation, she tells the Nordic Labour Journal:
“It is not the case that young people don’t want to join the trade union movement. Many surveys show that young people would like to join, if we make sure we give them space.”
She believes both the trade union movement and all of society could become much better at demonstrating for young people the major benefits trade unions and the Nordic model can have.
“We have a unique model in the Nordic region. It is important to communicate this, and it can be done by parents at home as well as in school, for instance as part of social science teaching.”
The new President takes the helm at an organisation she knows like the back of her hand. She was born and raised in LO, so to speak — the umbrella organisation for 18 trade unions with more than one million members. Lizette Risgaard trained as an office assistant and has a master’s degree in public administration, but trade union work has taken up most of her adult working life. She has worked her way slowly up the ladder to reach the position of first ever female President for LO-Denmark.
Lizette Risgaard herself isn’t particularly preoccupied with the fact that she is LO’s first female President, but gender equality does concern her, she says:
“I stand out because I don’t wear a tie, but I am elected President because I am me, not because I am a woman. I am happy and proud of this. I have been working for gender equality for as long as I can remember and will continue to do so with a focus on equality no matter the gender. We must also fight for men in several areas where they are facing discrimination.”
During the election process several media described her as very insecure during the start of her time as LO’s deputy leader, but that she had grown with the job and turned into a proper fighter. Being portrayed as weak is not unusual for a woman, Lisette Risgaard says with a smile:
“I choose to smile at that and take it as confirmation that female leaders face more scrutiny than men. We must address this in a calm and collected manner.”
Her reputation as a fighter has come partly as a result of her central role in the so-called Ryanair case, when Danish trade unions with Lizette Risgaard in front went into battle with low-cost airline Ryanair, and secured a court ruling saying Danish salaries and working conditions must be followed in Denmark.
She is a keen defender of the Danish and Nordic model, where the social partners enter into agreements about the labour market. The new LO President will fight tooth and nail any attempt to introduce a legally binding European minimum wage:
“We do not want a legally binding minimum wage. It does not work in a Nordic setting. If trade union movements and employers in other European countries want to go down that route, like what has happened in Germany, it is their business. But it is not something which the EU treaty should make compulsive.”
She is full of praise for the cooperation between Nordic trade union movements. This is an important supplement to European cooperation, she thinks.
“It is not an alternative to European cooperation, but Nordic trade union movements cooperate in many areas, inspire each other, enjoy a good network and can send very clear signals together, for instance in European and global fora.”
One area where the Nordic trade union movements can cooperate is defending the Nordic model, say Lizette Risgaard. One example, she says, is when the Nordic trade unions recently joined forces and sent a letter to the Finnish government, strongly criticising a plan to introduce legislation which would impose cuts that limit the negotiating principle and weaken collective agreements between the social partners.
Lizette Risgaard finds it harder to see how the Nordic trade union movements can cooperate on a different major and current pan-Nordic and pan-European challenge — the integration into the labour market of the many refugees who are coming to Europe. Danish employers have proposed the introduction of a lower integration wage to encourage businesses to hire refugees who might need training. To that, the LO President says a firm no:
“We will gladly help these people gain access to the labour market, but an integration wage will be discriminatory and create a gap. Neither refugees nor other groups of people should only function as cheap labour.”
She points to the fact that the Danish labour market already has tools which cover some of a company’s costs connected to hiring workers with special training needs, for instance the so-called staircase model.
The LO President watches the current refugee situation in Europe with “concern” and expresses hope that European countries will cooperate and find ways to share the many refugees who are in need of help, making the situation less chaotic — and that the social partners will be involved with helping find solutions.
President for LO-Denmark
Spent eight years as deputy leader of LO
Started her trade union career in 1980
Trained to be an office assistant, has a master’s degree in public administration
55 years old