Denmark: Massive protest movement against cuts – class struggle on the agenda

A massive protest movement against cuts to municipal budgets shook Denmark in September and October. Although the movement has entered a lull this does not mean the end of the struggle. The ground is being prepared for another major explosion of the class struggle in Denmark

A massive protest movement of workers and youth has shaken Denmark since September. The public sector workers, and especially the kindergarten workers have been at the forefront of this movement. This was due to the fact that massive cuts were announced which hit the kindergartens in particular very hard.

Denmark: Massive protest movement against cuts – class struggle on the agenda Nevertheless, the protest movement is an expression of a deeper discontent. And even though the movement seems to have retreated for now, the discontent has not withered. The movement was most advanced in Aarhus, the second biggest city in Denmark with 300,000 inhabitants in the municipal area. The municipal authorities announced a programme of severe cuts (approximately 60 million Euro per year from 2007 to 2010) - this at a time when the government's financial surplus is at a record high (approximately 11 billion Euro). The Finance Minister, Thor Pedersen, even spoke about how Denmark could soon buy the entire world! It is clear for everybody that the cuts in municipal funding have nothing to do with "necessity", and everything to do with the preparations for tax reductions for the rich.

The movement was one of the first expressions of the explosive mood that is developing beneath the surface in Danish society. The fact that the movement has receded for now does not mean that anything has been solved - in fact, the exact opposite is the case. All the public sector workers, the youth and the pensioners who have been on the streets are now asking themselves: What happened? What did we learn? And what now?

A movement of big proportions

The movement achieved a size that few people would have imagined. It was clear that the discontent was developing just beneath the surface, and during the summer period there was some activities with petitions and the like. In several places there were talks about strikes, and some demonstrations were held. But the entire situation and the movement itself were transformed when kindergarten workers in Aarhus went on strike. It must be said here, as an aside, that the kindergarten sector is very big in Denmark, because the vast majority of children are in these institutions during daytime hours because practically all working class women are part of the "labour market".

On August 30, around 1500 municipal workers met in Aarhus. At this meeting they decided to arrange a demonstration on September 12. Before the demonstration there was quite a lot of talk of a strike on September 12 in the kindergartens. On this day the workers in many institutions stopped working and in some places the parents formed picket lines. This was mainly to prevent the workers from getting fined because of the labour laws.

Around 15,000 participated in the demonstration in Aarhus, and this was the biggest demonstration for many years. But it was not until the week after that the movement really took off, and work was stopped at the majority of big institutions. 20 institutions were blockaded on the 18 - on the 21 the number was 196. As this went on there were a number of demonstrations on more specific issues, for example a 10,000 strong demonstration for "Huset" ("The House", a community building used by many artists and the local community), several demonstrations of pensioners, and one demonstration where angry parents occupied the front of City Hall. On September 21 approximately 85 per cent of the kindergartens were closed, and in the evening a meeting was held with 4,500 public sector workers. "Only" 4,500 were let in! A lot of workers had to stay outside the meeting because security would not let anymore people inside the hall.

At this meeting the workers decided to extend the strikes to all kindergarten institutions in the municipality of Aarhus. Only 40-50 voted against, and the only speaker who spoke against the strike was heckled and booed. The workers decided to strike until September 27, where a new meeting would decide whether the strike should continue. After the 21, the struggle spread to other municipalities and other workplaces such as nursing home workers, teachers, social workers, some nurses, and even some psychologists. The school students also organized protests and blockaded several schools. The protests spread like wildfire culminating in the big mobilisation of October 3, when demonstrations were held all over Denmark. At this moment the kindergarten workers were still on strike and were holding daily demonstrations in front of City Hall. On the meeting the 27 the workers decided to continue the strike. Some of the speakers said that the strike should continue, "until all the cuts are taken off the table". This expressed the general mood.

Denmark: Massive protest movement against cuts – class struggle on the agenda On October 3 the dock workers and the scaffolding workers in Aarhus held a one-day strike in solidarity with the kindergarten workers. In the days leading up to the protests the movement began for the first time to have an effect in the capital, Copenhagen. On October 3 a long list of kindergartens were closed in Copenhagen due to strikes or blockades by parents. The kindergarten workers' shop stewards held a meeting but decided with a small majority to end the strike the day after, which most of the workers did.

In Aarhus, the demonstration on October 3 gathered at least 25,000 workers and youth. This was the biggest demonstration since the general strike of 1985. The local TV station said that it was even bigger. A meeting was also held. Here the workers decided to continue the strike until October 5 where the municipal budget was to be finally voted on. The workers would then hold a meeting on October 6 to discuss the result. A majority in the city council approved the budget, and the day after, 3,800 workers voted to stop the strike.

The movement seem to have ended - for now. Even though there have been a lot of strikes in smaller towns all over Denmark, the vanguard of the struggle - the kindergarten workers of Aarhus - has resumed work.

The movement has had an impact of enormous proportions. It was one of the biggest struggles of the workers for a whole period. Those sceptics and pessimists who said that the Danish workers were not willing to strike will now have to eat their own words. Not only were the workers prepared to struggle - they also showed an enormous willingness to sacrifice. The kindergarten workers in Aarhus lost almost a month's pay - some have lost more - and these are workers who are quite low-paid. Also the parents (who are workers themselves), teachers and school students (the very young students in particular) and even very old pensioners with bad health conditions have shown that they are ready to fight to defend their living conditions.

Methods of the working class

The strikes were in many ways an example of the democratic methods of struggle of the working class. The kindergarten workers in Aarhus met on a regular basis to discuss and decide the development of the struggle, and they elected a committee to lead the struggle. When a majority took a decision, all followed that decision. Every day they met in a park by City Hall to strengthen their solidarity and show their force.

The movement demonstrated the best of the traditional methods of struggle of the working class. But the movement lacked one thing - the one thing that could have made the movement even more powerful: a conscious leadership that showed a way forward. There can be no doubt that the leaders of the strike had a very big job. But the struggle in Aarhus was never connected with other sectors of the working class and the rest of the country. This should have been the role of the trade unions, but the trade union leaders did essentially nothing to lead the movement. The "left" trade union leaders of the public sector workers in Aarhus did, in effect, everything possible to conceal and slow down the strike.

A national leadership

No one can now deny that the public sector workers are ready to fight for their living conditions. The supporters of the Marxist tendency around Socialistisk Standpunkt, both in the spring and as late as September 2, raised the slogan of a 24-hour general strike in workers' conferences. But the argument against this slogan was that strikes should be "spontaneous". We replied then:

"The Danish workers have over the last 30 years shown that they are ready to strike ‘spontaneously'. The main part of the work stoppages have been so-called ‘illegal' strikes where the trade unions have not been involved and in most cases of both legal and illegal strikes the leadership has done everything they could to hold the movement back. In order to win a strike, a leadership is necessary - strikes can occur spontaneously, but cannot be won spontaneously. If the aim is a political struggle to kick out the bourgeois government, then it must be organised. The higher degree of organization of a struggle, the more powerful it is. The spread-out struggles without a leadership are a thousand times weaker than a joint struggle. If one says that a strike should be spontaneous, one therefore says that it should be as weak as possible. The workers have elected representatives - shop stewards and trade union leaders to go to the front and lead the struggle - it is about time they live up to their responsibility."

The strikes of the last month fully prove the correctness of this argument. The strikes have occurred "spontaneously", but were not organised. In reality this means that the supporters of "spontaneous" action have left the kindergarten workers in Aarhus to fight alone, while waiting for others to join the struggle.

The kindergarten workers in Aarhus have proved that a strike can and must be decided jointly. The trade union leaders have used excuses about "labour laws", but these laws in reality mean that the Danish workers can never strike with support from the unions; and meanwhile these same leaders wonder why the members are leaving the organisations in thousands.

In Roskilde, a smaller town close to Copenhagen, the local chairman of LO (Danish TUC) succeeded in splitting a meeting of public sector workers with the excuse that it would lead to financial bankruptcy for the union and the membership, if the proposal for a strike went to the vote. But this was not true, as was shown in Aarhus where the public sector unions BUPL and FOA called the meetings for the workers. The leaders did "what they were supposed to do" and spoke out against the strike, but at least they allowed the members to democratically decide for themselves.

The struggle has shown that it is entirely possible to push the trade union leaders. The chairman of LO in Aarhus had to make a 180-degree turn under pressure from below. At first, he said that he had "never heard about any protests - and if there are some, LO Aarhus is not a part of it". But after massive pressure from the membership, he had to turn around and demand that the budget should be re-negotiated and the government should open the state surplus to the municipal authorities. Still though, he voted in favour of the budget in the city council, as he holds a seat there for the Social Democratic Party.

The question of consciousness

Another argument against the slogan of a general strike was that this slogan would "snap the rubber band". In other words, the workers were not "ready" to strike. It is now clear that this argument, at best, expressed a lack of faith in the workers (and in this respect it said more about these people than about the workers), but for the "left" leaders this argument provided them with a thin excuse to subordinate the so-called left wing to the trade union bureaucracy.

Consciousness develops not in a straight line, but in leaps. The municipal authorities have carried out cuts for many years. This year's budget was the famous straw that broke the camel's back. It is clear that consciousness has taken huge leaps forward for each day of struggle. The workers' self-confidence has grown remarkably. For example: at the first meeting of municipal workers in Aarhus, there was a mood of despair. The speakers from the floor spoke about years of cuts in the workplaces and explained how the workers have seen their working conditions systematically destroyed. One worker after another denounced the municipality of Aarhus as inhumane and so on. But no one spoke about the way forward. The union leaders were present, but said nothing. One could feel the mood in the hall change after a young supporter of Socialistisk Standpunkt spoke, raising the demand for a general strike. This speech got the biggest applause in the meeting, and one of the union leaders had to go to the chair immediately to "remind us about the labour laws". This changed the whole atmosphere. After this, the speakers from the floor demanded action on the part of the union leaders.

And during the course of the demonstrations and strikes, the workers' confidence was strengthened enormously. They saw solidarity from other workers and from the parents' groups. They saw in struggle that they are not alone. And it is clear to all that the cuts are not at all a "necessity", but a political decision made by the right-wing government. An opinion poll from the October 5 showed massive support for the strikes. The rate of sympathy for the strikes, rated from 0 = none to 10 = very much, in the poll showed a "sympathy rate" of 6.2 for the striking kindergarten workers. The striking teachers rated 5.7 and the striking workers at nursing homes rated 6.5. If one only looks at the SD voters, the rate of sympathy for the kindergarten workers is 7.2. Add to this the fact that the poll was conducted at the time of the descent of the strike movement, and one will see the overwhelming degree of solidarity that ordinary workers felt towards the strikers. It shows class instinct and unity. Now, after the budget has been approved, the mood is down temporarily.

There is nothing strange in this. The workers will take their time to think things over. But they will go into struggle again - and next time they move, they will have another starting point from the one they had this September. Slowly, but certainly, the hard reality that knocks on their head, will force the advanced layers in the direction of revolutionary conclusions.

How the left saved the right wing

The movement made it clear that while the state surplus is at a record-high that the conditions for workers in the public sector are becoming unbearable. An opinion poll in the right-wing Søndagsavisen showed that 65 per cent were in favour of more funds to the kindergartens. Of these, 76 per cent thought it was the responsibility of the government (not the municipal authorities who run the institutions) to deliver the funds. Polls have also suggested that the majority are ready to pay higher taxes to avoid cuts. But this is not at all necessary. The state already has more than enough money to pay for very big improvements in these institutions. The state surplus amounts to 11 billion euro. The working class has paid this money. Hence, one of the big slogans in Aarhus was "It is our money, Fogh" (Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the Prime Minister of Denmark).

During the three-week strike, it was evident that the right-wing government was in crisis. Anders Fogh Rasmussen showed this clearly when he resorted to calling the tens of thousands of angry demonstrators "socialist trouble-makers who hold extremist positions". Not only the PM, but the entire bourgeois government was in a state of panic. Louise Gade, the former right-wing mayor of Aarhus tried to send in the police against parents who blockaded the kindergartens. The police at first refused this, and later on they only handed out a few fines to some of the grandparents of the kindergarten students.

It soon became clear that this was not just a struggle about the budget in Aarhus. It was a struggle over the very existence of the right-wing government. It had clearly lost its mandate. The majority in Denmark came out against the government's policies and the logical consequence would have been to demand that the government should back down. The right-wing Danish People's Party was in big trouble but they did not dare to support the Social Democratic demand for 400 million extra euros for the municipal authorities.

In reality it was the leaders of the worker's parties - with the Social Democracy as the most important one - who saved the right-wing government. The mayor of Aarhus, Nikolaj Wammen, is a Social Democrat. In the last municipal election, the Social Democrats were elected back into office on the question of the "welfare state". The bourgeois parties only hold a minority in the city council against the majority of the three working class parties (the Social Democracy, the Socialist People's Party and the Unity List), but still the social democratic leadership chose to follow the dictates of the government instead of the workers who had voted for the workers' parties in the hope of workers' policies. Also, as mentioned above, the local chairman of LO approved the budget.

Mayor Wammen (who is also vice-chair in the party) had an outstanding chance here. If he had stood up to the government and refused to make any cuts, he would have been overwhelmingly supported by workers from all over Denmark. Such an action could have ignited an all-out strike movement against the right wing and brought the Social Democracy to power on the basis of a mass working class movement. This perspective clearly frightened the social democratic leaders. The party's chairman, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, urged the PM to call early elections. It was right to raise this demand, but it was not followed through by any action. Therefore it amounted only to empty phrases. She knows that it would be impossible for the party to get away with the same economic policies of counter-reforms as the former Social Democratic government under Nyrup carried out, if the party was to seize power during a period of mass mobilisation.

In the opinion polls, the Social Democratic Party is now again the biggest party (a position that the ruling Liberal party has held in recent years). This spells the beginning of the end for the right-wing government. The renewed support for the Social Democracy is entirely due to the struggle of the public sector workers. But the SD leadership, both in the party and the unions, have refused to challenge the government in this golden moment of opportunity. Once again, the process is delayed because of the weakness of leadership.

The union leaders have done everything they could to hold back the movement. Local branches that wanted to support the protests on October 3 by sending busses to Copenhagen, were called up by the bureaucrats who threatened them in order to get them to call off the busses. There was complete silence from the entire top of the trade unions over the strikes and the mass protests.

Inside the strike movement and the unions, the "left" leaders refused to challenge the social democratic leadership. These ladies and gentlemen think that they can play with the movement. They think they can arrange a few demonstrations and then negotiate and come out as "great leaders" without any serious struggle. Even when they had the chance in Aarhus, they refused to take leadership and show any way forward. This amounts to total capitulation. The consequence of the inaction and outright sabotage on the part of the workers' leaders is the continued existence of the right-wing government, hell-bent on crushing all the reforms from the past.

Beware: class struggle ahead

In our perspective documents we have repeatedly stressed that the present epoch is characterized by instability and an upturn in the class struggle with several explosions. At the present moment, the class has pulled back. But this is only temporarily. It is only the preparation for even bigger explosions. The strikes were an expression of the impasse of capitalism and its inability to create tolerable conditions for the working class (both from the public and the private sector) in Denmark.

Already now there is talk about action from the workers in the health sector, as the budget spells massive cuts. Meanwhile, the wage negotiations for the private sector in March 2007 are to begin. The bosses have already talked about a 39-hour week (as opposed to the existing 37-hour week), a removal of the bonuses for work at night and no wage growth. This is at a time where the unions are loosing members in the thousands, and sections of the bureaucracy want to show that they can fight. It is not only the public sector workers who are discontented. The last wage agreement was only approved with a tiny majority (and in some important unions there was a majority against), and these days we hear about one record high profit after the other. It is not excluded that this might result in a general strike as in 1985 and 1998. But even if it does not, the class struggle is back on the agenda and new explosions are built in the whole logic of the situation.

The recent movement shows that the Danish working class supported the idea of a strike. The problem was that of leadership. A national meeting for shop stewards was not called - that could have been the forum that could have called and organised a strike. Now the workers must draw their conclusions before the next battle. It is in the course of future struggle that a leadership in the image of the militant workers will emerge. And in this process, the banner of revolutionary Marxism will again find its way into the workers' movement in Denmark.