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Is Joining a Union Worth the Money?

And What's the Difference Between a Union and an A-kasse? Listen to a podcast told by Kay Xander Mellish, an American who has worked for several years in Danish companies.

When you first arrive in Denmark to work or look for work, the last thing you need is another monthly expense. So many foreigners "save money" by not joining a union.

And I was one of them. To be honest, joining a union never even occurred to me.

In the US, unions are either for hands-on workers – steelworkers, hotel maids – or for civil servants, like schoolteachers and cops. Knowledge workers and creative types are almost never unionized.

But that's not true in Denmark, where engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, managers, and writers regularly join unions. When it comes to the financial area, the Financial Services Union Denmark – known as the Finansforbundet in Danish - represents all different types of employees at financial companies, from IT experts to dealers, even office cleaners.

Unions can arguably be even more important for foreign employees than they are for Danes, and this is also true for temporary workers and contract workers. And the union fees are deductible from income when it comes to your giant Danish taxes.

Access to people who know how things work in Denmark

First of all, when you join a union, you get access to their specialists. These people speak Danish, they know the Danish salary levels, and they know the Danish social welfare system.

So when you receive a contract from a Danish company, your union can go through the contract and make sure that you're getting a fair deal when it comes to salary and benefits. They can look at vacation time, parental leave benefits, whatever, and see if there are any red flags that you can negotiate away before you sign.

Danish employers expect this. They won't be annoyed if you ask for a day or two to review the contract with your union. The person hiring you probably did this herself before she took her job. Managers are also unionized. It's completely normal.

When it all goes wrong on the job
Secondly, if things don't go as expected on the job, the union can be your backup. When you have a dispute with your employer you can feel pretty vulnerable as a foreigner – especially if your residence permit depends on your job.

Your union can get involved, tell you what your rights are. Sometimes they'll even take a meeting with you and your employer to get things sorted out.

And if you lose your job, which happens regularly to both Danes and foreigners, then you really need a union.

The famous "flexicurity" system in Denmark means it's relatively easy to let go of people, particularly if they've worked at a company for less than a year. You can be laid off (or, as the Danes insist on saying, "fired") without having done anything wrong: maybe the company is changing strategy, restructuring or simply having a bad year. And off you go.

They call you into a conference room
When you're let go in Denmark – which has happened to me more than once – they call you into a conference room that generally only contains two people: one who tells you that you no longer have a job, plus one to serve as a witness.

And the first question they'll ask you is "Are you a member of a union?" If you're a union member, you'll have the right to have a fourth person in the room, a union representative who is on your side. That person can make sure you get the best possible departure package.

I was not a member of a union the first time I got laid off, which was why I basically got whatever the company felt like giving me.

On a subsequent layoff, I was indeed a member, and was able to call on the union's legal team to decide if it was worth filing a lawsuit against my former employer. (It wasn't.)

The Finansforbundet covers the entire financial sector

The Finansforbundet is for people who work in the financial area such as banks, mortgage institutions, and finance IT.

The good thing about a sector union like the Finansforbundet is that they know your industry and the people within it very well. They have a good overview of the job prospects, the upcoming skill requirements,  and the new companies within the sector.

They are also the ones who negotiated the collective agreement in the financial sector that forms the basis for your pay and working conditions. The current collective agreement provides you among other things with 6 vacation weeks, 5 days off if your child becomes ill, free dental coverage and free study programs.

The Finansforbundet also has a network of union representatives in the work place that can support you on a daily basis.

The Finansforbundet is independent of any party politics but try to influence politics to the benefit of finance employer. And they also hold networking events where you can meet other people in your field, including people who work at companies that might be future employers. This is why it can sometimes be worth joining these unions even before you get to Denmark or getting in contact as soon as you arrive.

The Finansforbundet will also help out if you get into conflicts on the job, or if you need help with stress or an extended illness. It has both lawyers and social workers on staff to assist you.

If you've got no union, you've got no backup. The Danish police don't get involved with employee/employer disputes.

What's the difference between a union and an A-kasse?

It took me about a decade to figure out the difference between a Danish union and an A-kasse, so I hope I can make the process somewhat shorter for you.

A union, as I've already explained, gives you information about your industry and protects you on the job, standing in your corner if things go wrong. It also usually negotiates with employers to set salary levels and working conditions.

An A-kasse distributes your unemployment payments if you have a right to unemployment payments. That usually requires either EU citizenship or a permanent residency card.

In other words, if you've come to Denmark to work from India, China, Africa, the USA, Canada or any other non-EU area, you don't need an A-kasse until you are granted permanent residency in Denmark. You can still benefit from a union, however.

If you have permanent residency or are from an EU or EEA like Norway and Switzerland country, you should sign up for an A-kasse as soon as you can. You will probably have to have lived in Denmark for a few years before you can get unemployment payments. 

What's an A-kasse?

An A-kasse is a nonprofit organization that will pay out your dagpenge, or unemployment insurance, if you lose your job. It will also usually pay out your sygedagpenge if you're temporarily too sick to work.

The truth is, the money they distribute comes  partly from the Danish government, The A-kasse is the administrator. Your A-kasse will – sometimes together with the union - also do various things to try to muscle you back into the workplace, like helping you write your cv and repeatedly directing you towards job openings.

The unemployment insurance fund of the Finansforbundet– part of FTFa – is an offer tailor-made to people who work in the financial area.

Skipping an A-kasse is a stupid way to save money

You pay for your A-kasse on a quarterly basis, but it's deductible from your Danish taxes, so it doesn't really cost that much.

Skipping an A-kasse is a stupid way to save money: as broke as I occasionally get, I still keep paying for my A-kasse, though I've never actually needed to use it.

That's because if you don't have an A-kasse and become unemployed or sick, you won't be able to get dagpenge. Without dagpenge, there's nothing on offer except the dreaded kontanthjælp, the payment Denmark offers to the poorest of the poor.

Although the rules change constantly, you're generally not allowed to own anything of value if you accept kontanthjælp, which means selling your home, your vehicles, and even your jewelry in some cases. It's all very ugly and unpleasant, which is why I suggest signing up for an A-kasse as soon as you're eligible.

You usually have to be a member for a year before getting any benefits, so sign up when you still have a job.