Danish state to lock out 400,000 public sector workers: the beginning of the end for ‘class peace’

On 4 April, public sector workers in Denmark will be taking strike action in response to negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement. The government has reacted by threatening 440,000 public sector workers (of a total 825,000) with lockouts, which could take effect any time from 10 April. This could result in the biggest class conflict in 20 years. The impending confrontation bears major historical significance, because it marks the beginning of the end of 'class peace' and 'social partnership' in Denmark.

On 22 March, over 10,000 shop stewards from the public sector met in Fredericia for the biggest meeting of its kind in Danish history. Nurses, nursery teachers, unskilled workers, army personnel in uniforms and teachers of all sorts sat side-by-side, discussing the steps to take against the government offensive. There was a fighting spirit, and it is clear that the government will not have an easy time taking on the organised public sector workers.

Danish public sector lockouts 3 Image public domainHundreds-of-thousands of public sector workers will strike over planned government lockouts / Image: public domain

The negotiations started in November/December 2017 in a toxic atmosphere. For decades, the public sector has faced cut after cut. Especially after the crisis in 2008, the frequency and intensity of cuts has sharply risen. The anger amongst the public sector workers is palpable. Talk to any of them and their frustrations pour out. Despite high-quality educations, a deep knowledge of their sector and a deep desire to carry out the work on hospitals, in schools and elsewhere, the constant cuts on the sector is making it an impossibility. Almost everybody is burnt out, and those who can are considering finding work elsewhere. The public sector is reaching breaking point.

Aggressive demands of the bosses

It is against this background of frustration that the employers (the state, in the final analysis) have presented their extremely aggressive demands for the new collective bargaining agreement. Their demands cover a wide range of issues for different sectors, but there are three main sticking points:

  1. For the last half century, public sector workers have had a paid 29 minute lunch break. In reality it is not a break, since they often continue working over lunch. But just before the negotiations started, the state employer, Moderniseringsstyrelsen, run by ‘Minister for Innovation’, Sofie Løhde, announced that, from now on, they will not consider the paid lunch break a right in the collective bargaining agreement, but a fringe benefit than can be removed by any local state employer at a few weeks’ notice. To remove this right is equal to prolonging the working week by two-and-a-half hours without compensation: a 7.25 percent wage decrease in absolute terms. The unions will not accept this, and will demand that the paid lunch break be explicitly included in the text of the new collective bargaining agreement.
  2. The government claims that public sector workers ‘owe’ money to the state. This is a technicality, but the point is that in 2008 the public sector won a wage increase after some bitter strikes, which put their wage growth on a par with the private sector. To catch up with the private sector, the growth in the public sector was higher for one or two years. Now the government uses 2008 (the low point just before the public sector wage growth caught up) as the base year for calculating the relative growth. From this calculation they claim that the public sector owes 1.6 percent, or 33bn kroner, which should be deducted from the wage growth in the next collective bargaining agreement. But if you look at the wage growth predicted for just a few years longer, the perspective for the public and private sector will be synchronous. The public sector workers simple demand the same wage growth as in the private sector.
  3. The teachers demand that their working hours and rules for lesson planning be part of the collective bargaining agreement and not dictated by the law, as has been the case since a brutal government lockout of the teachers’ union in 2013. In reality, they are demanding that the same conditions apply to them as to other public sector workers.

These demands have been agreed by all public sector unions, who for the first time in history stand united. Until now the government has not been willing to engage in meaningful negotiations. They just keep repeating their initial demands. The public sector workers face a purely defensive struggle. But the government seeks a confrontation, as evidenced by the lockout warning. So the concrete demands are only one part of the issue. More importantly, this struggle is a defence of the right to organise and make collective bargaining agreements.

Danish public sector lockouts 2 Image public domainThere are 750,000 organised workers in the Danish public sector / Image: public domain

Because of the scale of the Danish public sector, the strikes and the lockout will cause Danish society to grind to a halt. Everything indicates that the right-wing government wants to crush the unions and the workers in the public sector. There is little-to-no opposition in parliament from the Social Democracy, which has voted for the lockout alongside the right wing. The aim of the government is to hypocritically use the chaos caused by the total lockout to justify a direct intervention: using the courts to impose their will and fix their demands in law, superseding negotiations with the unions.

The trade union bureaucracy, which has been a fellow traveller of the ruling elite and the state since the 1930s, is now forced to fight to maintain its own position. The whole institutionalised class collaboration system, which is founded on the official cooperation of the unions, the employers and the state, is nearing its end.

The long class peace

The public sector in Denmark is huge. With 750,000 organised workers out of Denmark's total population of 5.6m, the state and municipalities are collectively the biggest employer in the country. The workers are distributed over schools, nurseries, universities, public transportation and the healthcare sector. They are the foundation on which the social democratic welfare state was built. The postwar boom, which in Denmark lasted from 1956 to 1973, made Danish capitalism wealthy and the ruling class was able to give concessions to the Danish workers and thereby buy relative class peace.

The concessions were won by struggle but the gains were negotiated through the state, where the Social Democracy and the union bureaucracy, representing 60-80 percent of the workers, were negotiating on behalf of the working class. The state became involved in everything, through this collaboration between the capitalists, the workers’ movement and state bureaucracy. Danish capitalism gained class peace and workers gained one of the highest living standards in the world, with free education, free healthcare and relatively decent pensions for all. But this form of social democratic, ‘civilized’ capitalism has been under pressure for many years. The coming struggle reveals it is at breaking point.

The collaboration between the three pillars of the welfare state, the state bureaucracy, the trade union bureaucracy and the employers’ organisations, has a long history. This system is called ‘The Danish Model’. This ‘model’ traces its roots back to 1899 and the reformism of the Danish Social Democrats, which even at that time were amongst the most right-wing in the Second International. Through many generations, and betrayals of the working class, the ‘Danish Model’ has been honed to become one of the smoothest and most efficient systems of ruling over the working class in Europe.

For many years this model only applied to the private sector. But 40 years ago, in a move to get rid of the lifetime job security of the civil servants, the public sector was remodeled along the same lines.

The union bureaucrats, politicians and capitalists used to be a tight-knit group. They shared the same living conditions, whereby (for example) the leader of the nurses’ union earns 532,000 Euros every year (plus benefits). By contrast, an ordinary nurse earns around 47,000 Euros a year. For generations, the top levels of the union leadership were treasured partners of the ruling class, delivering relative class peace by holding back the working class.

For the last few decades, the unions have thus become completely passive and have not led any struggles. Instead, they have moved sharply to the right, which has also precipitated a gradual decline in membership. The union apparatuses are still enormous, but they increasingly resemble an inverted pyramid. At the same time, the economic foundations of the welfare state (the post-war boom) have long ceased to exist. Governments all over the world, and also in Denmark, are turning to austerity measures, to which the unions are an obstacle. These two factors – the capitalist crisis and the weakness of the unions – has led the ruling class and its government to conclude that it is easier and less costly to push the parasitic union bureaucracy to one side, and instead dictate wages and working conditions directly via the courts.

The weakness of the unions

In 1985, this dynamic led to a pre-revolutionary situation developing in Denmark, when collective bargaining negotiations developed into country-wide strikes, which moved towards a general strike. Back then, the working class turned an economic struggle for a 35-hour week into an offensive against the Danish brand of Thatcherism: the Conservative Schluter government. This regime tried to impose its demands by forcing them through a government intervention. This struggle was the peak of the Danish trade union movement in the post-war period. Despite the enormous energy and will to sacrifice on part of the workers, the Stalinist ‘Danish Communist Party’ and the union tops succeeded in derailing the movement, which led to its defeat.

Poul Schluter Image Lennart PerlenhemA confrontation between the unions and the Conservative Schluter government resulted in a pre-revolutionary situation in 1985 / Image: Lennart Perlenhem

The demoralisation and general ebb of the class struggle in the 1990s reinforced the grip of the right wing over the unions and thereby their general rightward drift. Since then, the unions have for the most part delivered defeats and rotten compromises with the state and the capitalist class. All talk of class struggle has been treated with contempt and they have become terrified of calling their members onto the streets, insisting instead that salaries and working conditions can only be settled through peaceful bargaining with their friends and colleagues, the capitalists.

From being organs of class struggle, the unions have increasingly turned into glorified insurance companies, only handling unemployment benefits and legal cases for the workers. As a consequence they have lost hundreds-of-thousands of members to yellow unions, as well as their own fighting traditions. But now, the onslaught of the employers has forced them to fight, because the capitalists and the state have decided that friendly relations can no longer be maintained.

The end to social partnership

Under the impact of the crisis of capitalism and seeing the weakness of the trade union bureaucracy, the Danish ruling class is being divided into two camps: the old and new school of capitalists. The old-school group wants to continue collaboration with the union leadership, because they have learned from history that the reformist leaders of the workers’ movement are their greatest allies against class unrest and ultimately revolution. But this comes at a high price. The remit of the collective bargaining agreements keep growing and getting more complex, thus costing time and effort and reducing the ‘flexibility’ of the workforce.

The new breed of capitalists look to Britain, where the unions have been severely undermined since the ‘80s. Why should they respect or include a weak union leadership that fears mobilising the workers? What power does this union bureaucracy represent anyway? These people feel it is time to free themselves of the ‘Danish Model’ and the long and troublesome negotiations and friendly dinners with the union bureaucrats, whom the employers rightly consider to be parasites. What we are witnessing today is this layer of capitalists getting the upper-hand in the internal balance of forces within the ruling class.

Testing ground

The first shots against the ‘Danish Model’ were fired in 2013. The target was primary school teachers. They were to serve as a testing ground for the current onslaught against all the public sector workers. Since the beginning of the ‘90s, the influence of the public sector unions had been a thorn in the side of the state bureaucracy. But different governments, both social democratic and liberal, refused to take on the public sector unions, fearing the consequences of struggle. But with the Social Democratic government coming to power under Helle Thorning-Schmidt (married to a certain Stephen Kinnock) in 2011, they found a willing puppet.

In the months leading up to the collective bargaining negotiations in 2013, the Social Democratic government waged a vicious smear campaign against the teachers, saying they were lazy and so on. At the collective bargaining negotiations, the state and municipal employers refused to make any concessions at all. It was their way or the highway! This was highly unusual. The union leaders were taken completely by surprise. Why would the employers not listen to reason?

The reason was, that the government was consciously aiming for a breakdown of negotiations and a conflict, which would enable them to step in and dictate the working conditions through law rather than the collective bargaining agreement.

Helle Thorning Schmidt Image Flickr World Economic ForumThe Social Democratic government of Helle Thorning Schmidt crushed a teachers' strike in 2013 / Image: Flickr, World Economic Forum

So all primary school teachers who were members of the union (the vast majority) were locked out for four weeks until the Social Democratic government stepped in to ‘restore order’ through direct intervention. This ‘successful’ (social democratic) operation is now what is in store for the entire public sector.

The steam-rolling of the primary school teachers was a big factor contributing to the unpopularity of the Social Democratic government, and support for that party collapsed amongst the teachers. In the 2015 elections a right-wing minority government came to power in Denmark. And this government knows that in the coming struggle against almost a million public sector workers, it can count on the loyal support of the Social Democrats in ‘opposition’.

Playing with fire

The consequences of a defeat for the public sector workers will be far-reaching. If the public sector workers are defeated, the employers in the private sector will be emboldened to follow the same procedure. The Danish working class is being forced to fight to maintain its semi-civilised living conditions or suffer the same fate as the workers in Britain and Germany, who have seen their living standards decline significantly for the past 20 years.

The break-up between the three pillars of the Danish welfare state is an event of historical significance. And the sheer size of the lockout is breathtaking. It will be the biggest lockout in Danish history.

The current, right-wing government is very weak and unpopular. They have been emboldened by the pathetic nature of the union bureaucracy, but they are playing with fire. Until now they have been following the playbook from 2013, which means that they will probably let the struggle break out and use the ensuing chaos to justify direct government intervention, in which they will dictate wages and conditions. The government feels safe, since they are confident the Social Democrats will support them. But a government intervention in a trade union struggle of this size could backfire. Already, the Social Democrats have lost over 5 percentage points since January bringing them to 25 percent approval, due to their support for the lockout.

Years of attacks and betrayals by all parties and leaders have left a simmering discontent within the working class. There is no guarantee that the workers will respect a government intervention, which would immediately declare a just struggle for decent wages and conditions ‘illegal’. They might not accept the government’s dictates to return to work. The union leadership could easily lose control over the workers, resulting in a massive ‘illegal’ strike wave.

The politicians are the most hated people in Denmark and have been so for a long time. The government is very weak and ridden with scandals. It can only stay in power because there is no real opposition in the parliament apart from the relatively small, left-wing, Unity List (with support of around 9 percent). A serious fight on behalf of the working class could realistically trigger a crisis, topple the government and open up a whole period of political instability.

The Danish section of the IMT, Revolutionære Socialister, which is quite young in composition, and its student network, Marxistiske Studerende, have taken the initiative to start a broad solidarity network (SNAS) to forge unity between students and public sector workers. They have worked especially diligently in the universities, to bring the students to the front-lines of the coming struggle, alongside the workers.

SNAS 2 Image SNASOur Danish comrades have launched a broad solidarity network (SNAS) to forge unity between students and public sector workers / Image: SNAS

Given the widespread anti-establishment mood amongst the youth and the treacherous passivity of the traditional political and student organisations, this campaign has been growing rapidly. Within a little more than two weeks of activity, the SNAS facebook page has reached more than 1000 likes and the groups have over 500 members on the ground. SNAS groups have been formed in three faculties in Copenhagen University, Roskilde University, Syddansk Universitet and Aarhus University. This represents all-but-one of the major universities in Denmark, and other groups have been launched in high schools. SNAS is clearly operating within a huge vacuum and more groups of students are expected to join in the next period. All of this is an anticipation of the explosive events ahead.

The perspectives for the class struggle in Denmark have been turned upside down in a few weeks. The reactionary government seems intent on unleashing the pent-up rage of the Danish workers, who have held their heads low for 10 years. The coming struggle confirms what the IMT has repeated on many occasions: sharp and sudden changes are implicit in the current situation – in all countries – even peaceful, social democratic ‘paradises’ like Denmark.

SNAS 1 Image SNASOur solidarity campaign is active in nearly all the major Danish universities / Image: SNAS