Organising for sectoral collective bargaining: dental assistants building power in Denmark

“In my 15 years’ experience of negotiating, this one was the easiest…because I had the members behind me” (Vice President of HK Privat Anja C. Jensen)

What happens when the demands of essential workers are shut down in the middle of a public health crisis? Danish dental workers and their union HK Privat were faced with this situation after the breakdown of the sectoral bargaining. However, with a comprehensive and robust organising plan the workers’ won their demands.

Why was the dental assistant campaign so successful? And what can we all learn and integrate to other campaigns around Europe and beyond? HK Privat laid out key elements of the campaign for which they recently received UNI’s Breaking Through Award in Europe at a recent meeting of the EPOC Network, an event co-hosted with UNICARE.

The campaign was structured with the aim of mutually reinforcing organising, external pressure on employers and bargaining capacity. Following the breakdown of negotiations, HK Privat set up a core campaign team, bringing in the negotiation expert, organisers together with press and communications expertise.

This team identified existing networks, including a public Facebook group where many dental assistants exchanged. Bringing them into a private group, where they could vet entrants to ensure a safe-space exclusive to workers, provide a pivotal early move. Here, they were able to enhance exchanges and identify leaders. The organisers could then provide them with one-to-one training to allow them to drive the campaign.

Early on, they identified the narrative. By framing it around ensuring safety and responsibility, concerns that were dominating the pandemic-focussed media at the time, they aimed to expose the employers’ irresponsibility in a time of health care crisis. By shutting out highly relevant demands, the employers were endangering these essential workers as well as members of the public. By drawing on real worker experiences that workers were testifying to in the closed Facebook group, HK Privat generated major press coverage and exposed employer fallacies and breaches.

Many of these workers were complete beginners in collective action. HK Privat organisers provided them with guidance and support. They also had regular video messages which addressed doubts and issues that were surfacing among workers by HK Privat’s Vice President Anja C. Jenson, a nationally recognised figure who was doing the negotiating. Through this, workers were able to build a personal rapport and gain full insight as well as understanding of how the escalation of their action was contributing to getting their demands over the line.

As Anja C. Jenson explained, the union needed to mobilise HK Privat dental assistant members without being able to meet in person, due to Covid restrictions. At the same time the union needed to demonstrate organisational strength and capacity in order to bring home a new collective agreement without giving in to the employers’ unreasonable demands.

Lead Organiser Esben Noël Hjort charted out the ten-week campaign plan that was executed by the organising team in close collaboration with the communications and bargaining teams. This resulted in hundreds of new members, the development of a cadre of leaders and the renewal of the sectoral collective agreement with a 98% yes vote by the members.

Press and Campaign Officer Tina Mellergaard detailed the two-track strategy for media & communications that they developed and integrated into the organising work. The first track focused on engaging members and potential members on the challenges in the sectoral collective negotiations while the second emphasised the Covid-19 threats at the clinics. HK Privat used every possible channel to communicate with members and politicians: social media, traditional media, newsletters, the union magazine, questionnaires, opinion pieces and press releases.

Head of UNICARE Adrian Durtschi concluded the session by paying homage to the great campaign: “It was never more necessary to organise care workers like dental assistants, nursing home and home care workers than now. HK Privat has shown how it its possible in their sector and as UNICARE we want to replicate together with our affiliates this success all over the world”.

The EPOC programme brings together unions from across northern and western Europe to organise in a coordinated and effective way by building workers’ power. Its remit is to defend, extend and (re)build collective bargaining by providing support to affiliates in building sustainable structures. Online meetings of the network take place monthly. If your union is interested in getting involved in EPOC, contact Erkan Ersoy or Ben Egan for more information.