Sweden: the strike that wasn't meant to be

The municipal workers in Sweden have come out on strike. All over the country day-care centres, schools, refuse-processing plants and other public services have been shut down. This strike marks an important turning point for the class struggle in Sweden.

The municipal workers in Sweden have come out on strike. All over the country day-care centres, schools, refuse-processing plants and other public services have been shut down. In hospitals only the absolutely necessary procedures are performed.

It has become abundantly obvious to everyone that the welfare state and society as a whole cannot function without the participation of those organized in the Municipal Workers' Union.

The demands of the union are very modest: a 5.5% wage increase for all and a minimum wage equivalent to £1000 (pounds sterling) per month (the minimum at present is about £930). We have to take into consideration that industrial workers in the private sector earn a monthly wage of anything between £1150 and £1500.

To fully understand the importance of this strike we need to take a brief look at the recent history of the Municipal Workers' Union. First of all, it is the biggest union in Sweden with about 600,000 members (the total Swedish population is about 8.5 million). The rank and file of this union has always been very much on the left. A few years back a left-wing chair, Lillemor Arvidsson, was elected to lead the union. She was a popular leader that often spoke her mind. She based herself not on a bureaucratic clique but on the rank and file members. She was later outmanoeuvred by the right wing bureaucrats, and replaced by a right wing puppet, Ylva Thörn. With this the right wing bureaucracy thought the struggle for control of the union was over.

A couple of years passed, the Swedish economy got worse and the Social Democratic Party had to cut public spending. The municipal workers tolerated this for a while because their trade union leaders didn't provide any alternative. Thus Ylva Thörn and the rest of the bureaucracy kept their positions, but under the surface the pressure from the rank and file was growing.

There were periodic outbursts of discontent within the ranks of the union about the privatisation policies that the leadership were supporting. These pressures forced the bureaucracy to make a partial retreat on the issue of privatisation. It was inevitable that an explosion of struggle had to come at some point. And the explosion did indeed come, and with a vengeance.

Sweden is a small country but it has very powerful trade unions. The problem is that the labour movement has had a bureaucratic class collaborationist leadership, always prepared to make compromises and to backtrack. That explains why there haven't been any major strikes since the eighties.

The Social Democratic Party has been in government (apart from a few short interruptions) for over 50 years. The strong link between the party and the unions is one of the reasons that explain the low frequency of strikes in Sweden over the past period. This is particularly the case with the Municipal Workers' Union that has been very loyal to the government over the years.

In 2002 the Social Democratic Party won the elections with 40% of the votes and managed to form a government with parliamentary support from the Left Party (the former Communist Party) and the Greens. The party won those elections because of its promises to increase public spending on schools, childcare, hospitals and, last but not least, because of its promise to raise the wages of low-paid municipal workers. Of course, when the time came to fulfil these promises, the economy was turning downwards and the promises were not fulfilled.

However, by now the municipal workers had had enough. The bureaucratic leadership of the union was under extreme pressure from the membership to do something. The last agreement with the employers hadn't won any significant wage rises for the majority of the members. The right-wing leaders of the union found themselves pushed into a corner. Their only option was to demand wage rises large enough to satisfy the rank and file members.

Many of the local councils are now in deficit so naturally they couldn't agree even to the modest demands of the Municipal Workers Union. Reluctantly, the union leaders had to call a strike. With the excuse that they wanted to win the support of the public, they only called out a few hundred workers in the first wave. However, this excuse does not hold up to closer scrutiny.

Opinion polls have shown that well over 70% of the Swedish population support the struggle of the municipal workers. This support stems from the idea that most people have that the struggle of the municipal workers is just and good for the welfare state. The union leaders were hoping to win the struggle rapidly and with little effort.

Unfortunately for them, the local councils have not caved in. They claim that they don't have the money. This forced the union leadership to call the largest strike in over a decade. At present over 47,000 municipal workers are on strike. In Stockholm, you can't walk for five minutes along the streets without bumping into a picket line. This will have a profound effect on the consciousness of the Swedish working class as a whole. And even though most people are affected by the strike the opinion polls continue to show a very high rate of support.

There is one negative side to this struggle, and that is that the number of scabs seen in this strike is the biggest since the 1940s. However this also reflects the changed relationship between the classes. The bosses are putting more pressure on the workers. The class struggle in Sweden has in fact hardened.

In spite of this, in the main, the experience of the strike is a positive one. An example of this is the following quote from an editorial in "Medlemstidningen" (The Members' Paper), a paper produced by and for the members of the Municipal Workers' Union in the Stockholm region and read by over 70,000 members:

"Now that we have begun the conflict, we are reminded of what the union really is. It is all of us, together. When we come together and struggle for our rights we are incredibly strong. We fill the community centres all over the region with our strike meetings. We are reminded of our tradition of struggle. This was how it all began. This was how we won our most important victories.

"During the conflict the true relations are revealed. It is actually we, those who do the work, that have power. Normally we (unfortunately) let the bosses rule. When we are on strike and picketing, it is our democratically elected strike-committees that call the shots. It is our elected leaders that decide what work is stopped and which exceptions will be granted. During a conflict we demonstrate that we can take the power and be masters of our own situation. In the final analysis it demonstrates that we have the ability to rule over our workplaces - and indeed over the whole of society! We don't need all the bosses, bureaucrats and rulers. We could make the goal in our statutes a reality, the goal of democratic socialism. No wonder a lot of people are scared. They say strike action is "old-fashioned". They say that it's wrong to struggle collectively. The truth is that they want us to renounce our most important weapon." (Lena Ericsson Höijer, editor of Medlemstidningen)

This quote clearly shows that the mood developing in the Municipal Workers Union is a very militant one. Already, two other unions have taken solidarity action. Social Democratic youth clubs have declared their solidarity with the striking workers and have also started collecting money for the strike fund. All over Sweden the strike is affecting every one of us, in one way or another. The writer of this article has yet to meet a person with a negative attitude towards this strike.

The strike of the municipal workers is an important turning point for the class struggle in Sweden. The class consciousness of all Swedish workers is rising. This struggle will be intensified. The working class needs to take the struggle to the political level as well. The workers should struggle to win the Social Democratic Party to a genuine socialist programme. And in the struggle to regain the party and to better the conditions of working people, the working class will see the possibility of a new socialist order of society.