Denmark: Explosive Mood with Massive Strike Movement of Public Employees

Mass meetings and mass demonstrations have erupted in Denmark against proposed cutbacks to municipal budgets. The movement continues to grow and radicalise as the governments try to manoeuvre and mislead the movement.

For many years various governments have cutting back on municipal budgets. This has not only affected children, school students, the sick and the old, but also the many hundred of thousands public sector workers; stress and long-term sickness is on the order of the day. Severe cuts have been made to the budget again this year following an economic agreement between the government and municipal councils. These cutbacks will affect the kindergartens, the schools and the care services for the old and the sick. There is no doubt that this will mean a worsening of service and sackings in many municipalities.

These attacks come at the same time as the right-wing Minister of Finance is bragging about the "healthy" Danish economy, which has a staggering surplus of almost 100 billion Danish kroner (approximately 10 billion pounds). The profits in the private sector are just as staggering, where the directors are getting enormous wage raises.

Demonstrations, mass meetings and strikes

Discontent was building up during the summer months among public employees, parents, students and the elderly. This anger and discontent was expressed through meetings and angry protest letters, signature campaigns etc. One of the angry protesters expressed the mood perfectly when he said, "For several years they have been cutting to the bone, now they are actually sawing into it - enough is enough!"

Many cities have witnessed mass meetings where the question of what to do was discussed. Demonstrations have been called in many places - some of them very large, including in cities where there is no tradition of demonstrations. Roskilde was one of the first cities to hold a demonstration with 700 participants on August 28. 

 But where the movement has gone furthest is in the second largest city in Denmark - Århus. Last week there was a demonstration of at least 15,000 people (the largest for many years). It is important to note that the demonstrators are not just the "usual suspects". On September 21 in Århus some one hundred elderly people demonstrated in their wheelchairs and walking frames, while parents occupied city hall with their children. Strikes have been spreading in Århus in kindergartens over the last few weeks. This movement began on September 12 with a few kindergartens but quickly spread to 85 percent of kindergartens by September 21. Some of the kindergartens were closed by the parents, who blockaded school entrances. This was done so that the kindergarten teachers would not receive fines for illegal strikes. A meeting was held on September 21 for all kindergarten workers in a hall with room for 4500 participants - the meeting hall was packed, and many had to stay outside, trying to get in. An overwhelming majority at the meeting decided to continue the strike until at least September 27, when a new meeting will be held. Only 40-50 people voted against the proposal out of the 4500 participants. The strikes are also beginning to spread to other cities and other sectors.

The union bureaucracy

The movement continues to develop despite the union leadership, who have done all they can to hold the movement back. The union leadership consider the strikes "illegal", and refer to their duty to "keep the peace" in between wage negotiations.

In Roskilde a radical mood is developing, witnessed in the big demonstration which followed a mass meeting that had been called by all the trade unions in the area. At this meeting one of the kindergartens suggested a one-day strike as the next step in the struggle. This terrified the union bureaucracy, who threatened the movers of the resolution and in the end split the meeting. The president of the local TUC-branch (LO) got up at the meeting and threatened everybody in the hall by saying that it would be very expensive for them if they decided to strike - and thereafter walked out with the rest of the union bureaucracy, which meant that the shop-stewards, facing the prospect of gigantic fines and a rise in the union subs, followed slowly after their leaders out the meeting.

The union bureaucracy had to walk out of the meeting because the resolution would have got a majority of the votes. There was definitely a mood for strike action. Afterwards, many of those who had left the meeting expressed their desire to strike (before the meeting 60 percent of the kindergartens were in favour of strike, and almost all the rest were undecided). After the meeting the local council stated that they would withdraw the cutbacks. However, the new "softer budget" is misleading, as it still contains cutbacks. Even so it must be said that this is at least a partial victory for the movement. The situation in Roskilde is still open. It is impossible to tell what will happen when the concrete consequences of the budget are brought to light, or when the movement in the rest of the country develops.

 It is absolutely clear that the union bureaucracy is trying to hold the movement back instead of taking it forward and that the bureaucrats are an obstacle to the struggle. They have an authority that they use to put a brake on the protests. However, at the same time there is a limit to this authority. It is also clear that the bureaucracy is not an invincible obstacle.

In Århus the local TUC-president stated before the big demonstrations that the TUC knew nothing about any "welfare" movement, and that they were certainly not involved. One week later the TUC actually organised the big demonstrations. This shows that even a strong bureaucracy can be challenged and also that when the movement begins to roll it can roll over the bureaucracy.

For a national movement

Until now the movement has been spread across the different municipalities, without any overall coordination. It is clear that the cutbacks are a result of the government's policies - they demand that the local governments cutback, and thereby hope that they won't have to take the responsibility. This has been their tactic for many years, and there have been many isolated struggles against it throughout.

This time people are not going to be tricked. It is clear to everybody that this is the responsibility of the government. Therefore it is also necessary to gather the isolated struggles to a united national struggle. This should be the role of the TUC and the other big unions (which have a membership of more than 80 percent of the working population). The workers created the unions to defend their rights - it is about time that they did their job. We must pressure the TUC to lead this struggle instead of obstructing it.

The Labour Movement

Many of the city councils that are proposing severe cutbacks have a working class majority. The councils of Roskilde and Århus are composed of Social Democrats, the Socialist Peoples' Party (SF), and the Unity List (a small left-wing coalition in parliament). The Social Democrats choose to manage the cutbacks demanded by the right-wing government. It is clear that this is disastrous. But it is also clear that the Social Democrats are under pressure, and that this is reflected inside the party. All workers and youth must demand that their parties come together and use their majority to defy the government and demand money from the state.

The working class parties must use their majorities to carry out working class policies and refuse these cutbacks. The public sector needs to be better not worse.

The movement radicalises

 The movement continues to develop and radicalise. It is clear that the government and the bourgeoisie feel the pressure. A week ago they said they would give some more money to the local governments - far from enough - but this did not halt the movement.

Now the right-wing Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has said that he "feels that he is treated very badly by the local governments," (Politiken, 23.09.06) and is threatening the autonomy of the local authorities.

On Sunday, September 23 the former right-wing mayor in Århus called the police to break up the blockades parents had erected at schools. The parents and the kindergarten workers on strike have said that they will not stop their actions, even if the police come. However, it doesn't seem like the police are thrilled with the prospect of attacking the blockades - many of them are married to either parents or kindergarten teachers themselves. It is quite unlikely that they are going to attack their own wives, and so far they have refused to do so. But if the police do break up the protests the movement can quickly escalate. To answer this threat the TUC must call a general strike and bring the entire city to halt in protest.

How the movement will develop is uncertain, but it doesn't seem like it is going to stop now. Quite the opposite, it seems like it will continue to escalate and radicalise.

The only way forward for the movement is to make it a national movement. The movement must spread to all sectors, first of all to the rest of the public sector, and then to the private sector. The TUC must call a 24-hour general strike on October 3 when the parliament re-opens after the summer holiday, demanding an end to the cutbacks and demanding money from the state for the city councils.