Sweden: municipal workers' strike

The municipal workers' strike is now over. It came to a humiliating end when the union leadership decided to sign an agreement with the employers over the heads of the membership. This agreement will only give the workers a relatively low settlement, far lower than the modest 5,5% originally demanded. It is nothing less than a betrayal against those workers who were ready to struggle.

Why did the union leaders call off the strike, when the opinion polls told us that there was a massive (over 80%) support for the struggle? And why did they back down when one union after another (the electricians, the bus-drivers, the commuter-train personnel and the builders for example) declared their intention to strike in solidarity with the municipal workers?

Union leaders call off strike out of fear of a wider movement

The Swedish working class is a strong one, with proud traditions and a very high rate of union organisation, more than 80% of workers are organized in unions. But the bureaucracy of the movement has also been very strong. The partial dismantling of the welfare state has been carried out by the labour leaders, with little or no protest from the working class.

The UN Human Development Report of 1999 states:

"Recent studies show inequality rising in most OECD countries during the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Of 19 countries, only one showed a slight improvement. The deterioration was worst in Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States."

This increased inequality has affected the mood of the Swedish working class. At first the attacks were tolerated because the labour leaders said it was necessary, and because there appeared to be no evident alternative. Of course nobody was actually in favour, but no one seemed to have the energy to stand up and fight. Now, with the strike of the municipal workers, the first steps have been taken toward a more active and open struggle by the working class against growing inequality and the dismantling of the welfare state. Indeed, the massive support for the municipal workers strike was fuelled by the fact that it was perceived as a struggle for the welfare state as a whole as well as the actual wages and working conditions of those working in the public sector.

The municipal workers' strike is now over. It came to a humiliating end when the union leadership decided to sign an agreement with the employers over the heads of the membership. This agreement will only give the workers a relatively low settlement, far lower than the modest 5,5% originally demanded. It is nothing less than a betrayal against those workers who were ready to struggle.

Why did the union leaders call off the strike, when the opinion polls told us that there was a massive (over 80%) support for the struggle? And why did they back down when one union after another (the electricians, the bus-drivers, the commuter-train personnel and the builders for example) declared their intention to strike in solidarity with the municipal workers?

The union bureaucrats were frightened by the overwhelming support that was shown for the struggle. When the strike threatened to expand into many more sectors of society they were terrified. If the strike had expanded, the old friendly atmosphere between the bureaucrats and the government and the employers would have been in jeopardy. No more friendly negotiations over a nice meal. This is a thought the bureaucrats can't stand. An open struggle like a strike would also increase the activity of the rank and file, which probably would result in demands for more internal democracy and the abolition of the privileges of the bureaucrats.

This strike has been an important turning point for the Swedish working class. For a decade the struggle has been kept at a very low level. Consequently, the Swedish people have been subjected to one change after another - always for the worse. Public spending has been cut and public services have been partially privatised. Naturally this has taken its toll on the working men and women of Sweden. The activity of the rank and file-members of the labour movement (both the unions and in the Social Democratic party) has sunk to a very low level. This is exactly what has to change. The working class have got to reclaim the Social Democratic Party and steer it in a socialist direction.

The working class in Sweden is slowly beginning to wake up and realize the need for a more active class struggle. This is even manifesting itself within the labour movement bureaucracy. A crack in the bureaucracy, between the left and right wing, is beginning to show. Right wing bureaucrats were acting as scabs during the municipal workers strike, while at the same time left reformists joined the picket lines in direct defiance of instructions from the party leadership, locally and centrally. It is very likely that we soon will see more strikes, and more conflicts between different factions of the bureaucracy. Already a small, but steady stream of workers are joining the Social Democratic Party, and when (not if) that small stream becomes a tidal wave, all the manoeuvres of the bureaucrats will be pointless.