Power and buzz: Analysing trade union HQ locations by closeness to power and by convenience store score

When Hans Spekman ran for chairman of the Dutch Social-Democrat party in 2011, he said he wanted to move the party’s headquarters from the posh office at the Herengracht in Amsterdam to a «normal district, a neighbourhood where things happen, like Bos en Lommer». Bos en Lommmer is a multicultural neighbourhood in the west of the city, in transition from deprived to gentrified.

I agree with Spekman (at least on this matter) and I think his ideas about locations should also apply to trade union headquarters. Out of curiosity I decided to analyse the headquarters locations of European trade unions, using two criteria. First: closeness to power, operationalised pragmatically as the walking distance from the union office to the national parliament. And second: the liveliness of the neighbourhood. For measuring this I propose the convenience store score, which assumes that the number of convenience stores within half a kilometer gives a rough indication of how lively a neighbourhood is. Convenience stores could be for example 7-Eleven or AH to go stores and some ethnic shops will also be classified as convenience stores.

The chart below shows the scores for each union. You can also see the locations of union offices, parliaments and convenience stores on an interactive map, but note that the map may take a while to load - it’s not very suitable for viewing on a smartphone.

The median union headquarters is within 2km walking distance from parliament. For about three-quarters of unions, the distance is below 5km. The general pattern thus seems to be that unions have their national offices close to the institutions of political power. There are exceptions though. Officials of the major Dutch federations FNV and CNV would have to walk 15 to 68km to reach parliament. And sometimes the distance is even longer: a Basque union has its HQ in Bilbao; a Turkish union in Istanbul and Polish union Solidarnosz has its HQ near the port of Gdansk, where it originated. But all in all, the large Dutch unions are quite exceptional in that they don’t have their headquarters near the centre of political power.

As for liveliness: the median number of convenience stores within half a kilometer from union headquarters is 2, but about one in three unions have no convenience stores nearby at all. Some of the most lively union office locations are in countries like Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. Other examples are CFDT (France), TUC (UK), SAK (Finland) and UGT (Spain). Dutch unions are at the other end of the spectrum and have rather dull headquarters locations - judging by the convenience store score.

So where should a union be? I’d say that influencing the government is one of the tasks unions should be doing, and an important one at that. However, this doesn’t depend on having a headquarters close to parliament, but rather on the ability to mobilise workers. I’d argue that the convenience store score is a far better criterium to judge headquarters locations by.

In case you were wondering: Spekman was successful in his bid for the chairmanship of the Social-Democrat party. The party’s headquarters is still at the Herengracht, though: it turned out the lease doesn’t expire until 2018.

Full disclosure: I work at the FNV, at the former FNV Bondgenoten location.

Method

This analysis turned out to be quite a bit more challenging than I initially thought, but it was very instructive. I’m especially happy that I now have a basic understanding of the Overpass API that you can use to retrieve Open Street Map data. OSM has always been a bit of a black box to me but the Overpass API turns out to be a valuable tool.

Measuring neighbourhood characteristics

Initially I wanted to use Eurostat regional stats to analyse neighbourhood characteristics, but Eurostat doesn’t have data beyond the NUTS 3 level (I should’ve known). Level 3 areas may comprise entire cities and are useless for analysing neighbourhoods, so I had to look for alternatives.

Subsequently, I tried getting the name of the smallest area a location is in using the Mapit tool (based on Open Street Map). I thought I might then be able to construct a Wikipedia url by adding the name to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/. This turned out to work pretty well, not least because Wikipedia is quite good at handling different variants of geographical names. However, while Wikepedia articles tend to be informative, they do not contain a lot of uniform statistical information. Often population, area and population density will be included, but not much beyond that. In addition, the fact that the size of the areas varies poses problems. For example, the population density of a small area cannot be meaningfully compared to the density of a large area. In the end I did add the Wikipedia links to the popups on the map, but I continued looking for other ways to analyse neighbourhood characteristics.

One of the measures I ended up using is closeness to power, operationalised as the walking distance to the national parliament (in countries with a bicameral parliament, I used the location of the lower house). This was a pragmatic choice. An alternative would have been to use the location of ministries, but then I’d have to come up with a way to pick the relevant ministry.

For measuring the liveliness of a neighbourhood, I used the number of convenience stores within half a kilometer, using data from Open Street Map. Obviously there are some limitations to this method. For example, some countries will be mapped in more detail than others. Also, there will be inconsistencies in how shops are classified (cf this discussion in Dutch about how to classify stores of chains like Blokker).

Obviously, the convenience store score has not been properly validated. I’m not even sure whether objective measures of a neighbourhood’s liveliness exist. I checked this list of «coolest» neighbourhoods in Europe and all but one (Amsterdam Noord) have convenience stores nearby, but then again coolness isn’t the same as liveliness (I guess a neighbourhood can be uncool yet lively). Furthermore, being on a list of cool neighbourhoods isn’t necessarily an indicator of coolness.

Ideally I think a proper assessment of the convenience store score should include a comparison with measurements of criteria derived from Jane Jacob’s The death and life of great American cities: mixed primary uses, short blocks, buildings of various ages and density. I guess it should be possible to measure some of these with OSM data (especially the first two). However, that would require a deeper understanding of OSM classifications than I currently have.

Getting the data

While some of the data was obtained by good old-fashioned googling, some of it could be automated.

The starting point for the analysis was the list of affiliates of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Note that this includes unions in non-EU countries such as Turkey. Also note that I use the word union but most are in fact union federations (the FNV is a bit more complicated; a recent merger has partly done away with the federation structure).

The ETUC doesn’t seem to have a list of addresses on their website. They do provide urls for most of their affiliates. Still, looking up addresses was a bit of an adventure, especially for countries which use non-Latin alphabets (let me know if you find any errors).

For walking distances I used the Bing API. In a number of cases Bing couldn’t find a walking route or the distance seemed wrong. In those cases I manually looked up the distance in Google Maps. Here’s a sample url for getting information from the Bing API (replace KEY with API key).

I used the Overpass API (demo) of Open Street Map to get all nodes within 500m from the union HQs, which I used for counting the number of convenience stores. I also used the API for getting the coordinates of all convenience stores in all countries where the ETUC has affiliates. Here’s a sample url for getting all nodes within 500m of a location, and here for getting all convenience stores in a country.

A few unions are missing in the final results because of missing data. For example, I couldn’t figure out what the main office of the Belgian ACV is and I couldn’t find the exact location of the parliament of Malta (somewhere along Republic Street, Valletta).

Calculating scores

I calculated scores as either walking distance to parliament in kilometers or the number of nearby convenience stores. In both cases I took the log10 of the value + 1. To arrive at a 0 to 10 scale, I multiplied by 10 and divided by the maximum score for each variable. For the distance to power measure I converted the score to 10 minus the score, so that a higher score means closer to power.

Mapping

I used Leaflet and D3.js to map the locations of HQs, parliaments and convenience stores. There are over 60,000 convenience stores in the dataset. This turned out to be a bit too much and the browser all but crashed. I found this script that deals with exactly this problem. While I managed to figure out what I needed to change to make the script work with my data, I’m afraid I don’t fully understand how it works. It’s still too slow for mobile, though.