Denmark: May Day in Copenhagen

This year May Day in Denmark was very different from previous years, with 200,000 demonstrating in Copenhagen. A sharp shift to the left is noticeable among Danish workers, who on the one hand are feeling the shock effect of the severe economic crisis, but also seeking radical left alternatives.

This year May Day was without doubt very special in Denmark. The crisis is now the decisive factor in all aspects of society, affecting politics and the class struggle on all levels.

This was the 119th time that the working class in Denmark has celebrated May Day. But this year was clearly more serious than for many previous years. The mood among the workers is changing. Unemployment is soaring. In the last three months, more than 21,000 workers have been sacked. This is a 35 percent increase, and it is having a big effect on the consciousness of the Danish working class.

In the period of economic upswing during the right-wing government’s reign, 11,000 people fell into poverty each year in Denmark. Now, workers en masse are faced with unemployment and wage cuts. Thousands of workers are being forced to accept shorter hours without compensation in pay. Living standards are under attack.

1 May in CopenhagenHundreds of thousands of workers and youth demonstrated on the May Day across Denmark. In Copenhagen, probably around 200,000 rallied in Faelledparken, a big park in Copenhagen where a great battle between the workers and the police took place in 1872. It is difficult to state the exact number of participants this year, but the official estimate from the Copenhagen police (which is notorious for its gross underestimating of participants in working class rallies) is 120,000.

All around the country May Day meetings were held in the morning in the trade union buildings. After these meetings, the participants rallied in demonstrations, and in Copenhagen these demonstrations ended up with the massive rally in Faelledparken.

A 42-year old metalworker said: “Today we shall fight to keep our workplaces. But we should not accept wage cuts. Others have tried that, and still they are being sacked.”

According to a recent opinion poll, one in three Danes defines themselves as socialist. Among the youth, the number is even higher. 39 percent of Danes between 18 and 29 years of age say they are socialists. This reflects very much the political mood in Denmark. The working class has had it with “free market economics” and so-called liberalisation which has ended up in disaster and a wave of unemployment. Most opinion polls give a majority to the opposition parties, even without the support of the bourgeois Radical Party (a party whose main function is to act as an excuse for the Social Democratic leaders not to carry out socialist policies).

The most striking thing is the massive backing for the Socialist People’s Party (SF). An opinion poll shows that only 8% is backing the idea of a coalition between the Social Democracy and the Radical Party. The same opinion poll shows that 44% wants a government with participation of the SF. This is striking precisely because the SF among many workers and youth is clearly considered as “something different” from the established parties – including the Social Democracy which has not been able to gain more backing in the last period of radicalisation and strikes in Denmark. Most opinion polls give around 25 percent support for the Social Democracy and around 20 percent for the SF. Then there’s the Unity List (a small party consisting of remnants of the Communist Party and various ex-Trotskyist and ex-Maoist groups) with 2-3 percent support.

The class struggle in Denmark has clearly changed character. Just a year ago, we saw a massive wave of strikes, culminating in the 8-week public sector strike. In the recent years, Denmark has seen a massive wave of strikes. One survey at that time put the Danish workers in 3rd place as the workers carrying out the highest level of strikes in the OECD – only after Iceland and Canada. But now, the number of strikes has collapsed, as the workers are in a state of shock under the effects of the crisis. The spectre of unemployment and wage cuts is haunting all workplaces.

The labour leaders have done absolutely nothing to prepare the workers for this situation. Instead, in the previous period, they have accepted stagnant or even falling real wages in appealing to the workers to be “responsible”. They have swung massively to the right – a process which only seemed to be halted in the years 2006-2008, due to mounting pressure and militancy from below. During the boom, the labour leaders accepted increasing exploitation and lengthening of the working day. From 1995 to 2005, the average working hours over a year have increased by 100 hours. As a matter of fact, this has set the clock back to 1972 as far as the number of working hours goes. The right-wing labour leaders did everything in their power to make the workers accept to stay within the confines of capitalism. They did not foresee the crisis, and they are unable to indicate a way forward.

As a result of the shock effect of the crisis, almost no workers are going on strike now. If the boss wants to shut down the factory, it makes little sense to go on strike in the traditional sense. Therefore, the class struggle is increasingly moving to the political level. Most activists are now looking for the possibility of a new government – this was clearly reflected in the huge turnout for May Day. An indication of the mood was also the fact that the supporters of Socialistisk Standpunkt – the Marxist tendency within the SF and the labour movement – were able to sell 700 copies of their paper in Copenhagen.

The labour leaders are clearly preparing for a new government of the workers’ parties. They are doing all they can to prevent mass protests from taking place. They want the workers to stay calm, wait for the next election (which is due in two years’ time), vote for the workers’ parties and… do absolutely nothing else. A mass protest against the right-wing government set to take place on May 15 has been called off – clearly because the bureaucracy was afraid of what such a mobilisation could lead to!

The workers might have made a temporary withdrawal as far as strikes go. But trade unions like the Painters’ Union in Copenhagen and the Young Metal Workers’ Union in Copenhagen have adopted resolutions demanding nationalisation of the banks. This would have been impossible and unheard of just six months ago. This indicates the underlying processes that are taking place in the consciousness of the workers. And this is just the first attempt of the workers to find their feet and find a political solution. More is to come!

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