Unifying Danish organiser John Ibsen looks for new challenges on the horizon

7 June 2019

Having brought together a number of smaller unions across the maritime sector, and cleaned up collective bargaining agreements, Dansk Metal’s head of administration is ready for a new role. Andrew Draper meets a trade unionist with a knack for negotiation and a commitment to clarity

John Ibsen – head of secretariat for the seafaring section of Denmark’s Dansk Metal union – is stepping down from his job to 'try something new', starting with completing his MBA degree.

Mr Ibsen, 46, is a lawyer by training and has worked for Dansk Metal since 2007. He will be retained by the union as a consultant and his work as national organiser will be taken over by Christian H Petersen.

The union will carry out a restructuring process to reallocate the work undertaken by Mr Ibsen; as head of secretariat, he functioned variously as general manager, head of HR and national organiser.

He is widely regarded as having a sharp mind and a clear and concise way of drawing up collective bargaining agreements in language members can understand. He takes it as a personal compliment that shipowner companies often ring him for advice before they call anyone else. Mr Ibsen is well known and respected in the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) and among the Nordic unions.

The seafaring section of the Dansk Metal engineering union – Metal Maritime – was formed in 2011 from a merger of catering union DSRF and Metal Søfart, a union mainly representing ratings.

Although Danish catering staff have all but gone from the Danish fleet (and thus from the union), Metal Maritime claims to be in good health with rising membership and a well-run organisation.

Mr Ibsen gets much of the credit for that.

His boss, union chair Ole Philipsen, says: 'John has shaped the development of the union to a great extent. He's made an invaluable contribution to the development of CO-Søfart to the position the central organisation is in today. It's also down to John that the foundation of Metal Maritime through the merger of DSRF and Metal Søfart in 2011 was a success. John laid the basis for the merger. He's a hard worker, a sharp analyst and wise decision-maker.'

CO-Søfart is an umbrella union organisation comprising Metal Maritime and five other unions representing trades working on ships and offshore, from catering to officers.

Mr Ibsen says he will likely stay in the field of union organisation: 'That's what interests me, negotiating collective agreements and law. It's sparring that I like. I like a good agreement, whether from a union perspective or an employer's. As a lawyer, that's what we're used to; it's not a game of politics.'

He says he could even imagine himself negotiating on the other side of the table, on behalf of employers, if the opportunity arose. His commitment, and passion, is ensuring good agreements and good labour market organisation.

Creating unity

In terms of his greatest achievement, Mr Ibsen says creating unity between two unions and getting a merged entity up and running well is a landmark. 'We have a good product for our members and for our counterparts,' he says.

The collective agreements that the union has now are clear. 'When I took over, they weren't written in language that was understandable by anyone.'

The Seamen’s Act is generally regarded as opaque and difficult to understand, and although you don't change the law as a union, you can look at how you implement the law in collective agreements, says Mr Ibsen.

He claims to have few regrets, but he does have his dreams. 'I hope that at some stage we can begin to have more Danish seafarers,' he says. 'I can imagine us making the entire industry more attractive. It's a major struggle. If we're to keep a network, it's necessary to look at how we make it attractive.'

There has been too much talking down of the industry and arguing, he says.

He acknowledges that the owners' association, Danish Shipping, has made strides in attracting young people to a career at sea.

What advice does Mr Ibsen have for other heads of secretariat? 'I believe that creating an atmosphere in which your counterpart is credible in almost every case is crucial, as is maintaining your integrity,' he says.

Being constructive is also important, not least when negotiating collective bargaining agreements, as a constructive proposal is more easily implemented into any agreement.

In most cases, his union does find agreement with its negotiating counterparts and where they do differ, it is to do with wages, terms and conditions. 'But when I talk to a shipowner, I have an interest in them doing well as a company. If things go well for them, they will go well for us.'