Denmark: Conference of Shop Stewards in Odense. Words must be transformed into action!

On the 28th of August, 700 Danish shop stewards gathered in Odense to discuss the alternative to the present bourgeois government. Bo Frederiksen reports from the conference.

After the coming to power of the bourgeois government in 2001, confusion broke out in the leadership of the labour movement. The Social Democratic Party had run their electoral campaign on the slogan “it is going as good as never before”. The problem was that this did not correspond to the real situation facing the majority of Danish workers.

The boom in the Danish economy after 1993 was carried by increasing pressure on the employees in all mayor parts of the economy. But at the same time, more people got work, and especially in the start of the 1990’s, many expected that the Social-Democratic government would extend the welfare system again, after almost a decade of the bourgeois Schlüter-government’s rule. Unfortunately, many were disappointed with the leadership of the Social-Democratic Party, because they carried through a policy which in many ways looked like that of the bourgeois. Among other things, they illegalized the big private sector strike in 1998, attacked the living standards of the unemployed (especially the young unemployed), and carried through the hated reduction of job release scheme.

This is the short version of the background for the coming to power of the bourgeois in November 2001. Shortly afterwards, the leftwing of the trade union movement began to mobilize for resistance against the government, who from the very beginning attacked the trade unions and workers’ rights. This movement culminated in the demonstration on the 20th of March 2002, where a picket rally was held on Christiansborg Slotsplads (the big square in front of the parliament). More than 500 trade unions from all around the country sent their red flags on this day to Christiansborg, despite the fact that the leaders of the trade union movement had appealed for “moderation”. Although the trade union leaders had told their members not to go on strike, the workers in many industrial workplaces stopped work on this day, among them, the workers of Copenhagen Airport, the largest workplace in the city.

Also on May 16th, strikes and protest meetings took place all over the country against the government’s threats to introduce the ‘part-time-law’, which allows employers to force workers to work part time hours. A total of 30,000 stopped work on that day (out of a workforce of only some 2 million).

It all culminated in the great “popular party” against the government on October 5, 2002, which looked more like a touring Tivoli arriving at a small province, than an actual protest against the government. The leaders of the initiative, the leaders of Fagligt Ansvar (a leftwing shop-stewards network), thought that the more “popular” and the less militant the demands were, the bigger would the protests be. But reality proved to be quite the opposite.

On the 28th of August the leaders of Fagligt Ansvar, in cooperation with the regional-network of LO (Danish TUC), had again organized a conference, this time under the slogan "The trade unions' demand a new policy". Representatives of the three workers' parties, The Social-Democratic Party, The Socialist Peoples' Party and the Unity-list had been invited, and the purpose of the meeting was that the political part of the labour movement, the parties, should take up the trade unions' demands in parliament, run their electoral campaign on these demands, and constitute a new government on the basis of these demands after a general election.

The demands that had been raised prior to the conference were very good and directed against the bourgeois government, against its privatizations and cut-backs to the welfare system. Some of the demands raised were:

  • Stop all privatizations and outsourcing
  • Strengthen the public sector
  • The population must have a bigger share in the profits of the oil-resources in the north-sea.Lesser taxation of the low-paid and greater taxation of the rich, the multinational corporations and the capitalists.

It is very positive that the trade union movement tries to get the workers’ parties to fight for the demands from the workplaces. Unfortunately, it turned out in the end, that the meeting did not pass any such concrete demands on the workers’ parties. But we will return to that point.

The conference was held in Odense, and assemblied 700 shop stewards from all over the country and from many different trades in the LO and FTF. To begin with, many of the rank-and-file shop stewards, especially the young ones, seemed very enthusiastic and hopeful. The mood was clearly turned against the bourgeois government. In the course of the opening speech, which was given by Finn Sørensen, the chairman of the Brewery workers in Copenhagen, applauses were made when he said that the bourgeois government must be thrown out and that a new government installed, committed to rebuilding the welfare state.

Among other things, Finn Sørensen remarked that the government had attacked the trade union movement because it was “the most important bulwark against reductions in the wage-earners living conditions”. He added: “We are here to pave the way for this government to be thrown out as quickly as possible, and at the latest, in the next elections”.

The postponement of the demands

After this opening speech the party began to get tame in Odense. The chairs of the meeting informed the delegates that no platform of concrete demands on the workers' parties would be passed. This would be postponed to a conference in the spring, or three days after an election was announced, if it were announced before March. The reason given was that the chairs did not think that enough amendments had been presented for the political resolution. Only 33 amendments had been presented! This was apparently not enough for the leaders of Fagligt Ansvar! Would 100 amendments have been more appropriate?

The truth is more likely to be that the leaders of the Social-Democratic Party did not want shop stewards from all around the country to dictate any concrete demands to the party’s policies, and that they therefore prevented the conference from adopting any platform of concrete demands.

Concerning the new conference, it remains a mystery how they will mobilize for it in three days if a general election is called before March (which is highly likely).In any case, one can say that it is very ambitious. Sad as it is, it looks like the leaders of Fagligt Ansvar do not want to mobilize any of the members of the trade unions behind a set of demands on the workers’ parties.

The speeches

At the conference there was no free plenum discussion that allowed the shop stewards to discuss how the bourgeois government can be thrown out. Instead, a number of small workshops were held. These consisted of lectures, held by people carefully selected by the trade-union top, about technical and specific things, laws and regulations and so on. These lectures should have been sent to the trade union branches and discussed there in advance, so that the day could have been used to discuss concretely how to get rid of the present government and which demands must be raised to a new government headed by the Social-Democratic Party.

The only speakers were Mogens Lykketoft (The Social-Democratic Party), Holger K. Nielsen (The Socialist Peoples’ Party) and Søren Søndergaard (The Uniy-list). It was very good that representatives from these parties had been invited, because they are the only ones in parliament that have roots in the labour movement. It was especially important to have the biggest workers’ party, The Social-Democratic Party, present at the conference so that a binding agreement could be made about which demands the party would carry through when it comes to power again. Unfortunately, the idea of such an agreement was swept away by the chairs of the meeting, and they prevented any free discussion of the demands. This is a scandal, which is not worthy of the labour movement.

It was obvious to everyone present at the conference that the technical lectures about legal quibbles, was a fatal blow to all the initiative and commitment that the shop stewards had shown earlier the same day. Unfortunately it resulted in many workers leaving the meeting before it was finished. For the majority it was obviously quite difficult to understand why they should be present at a conference which focused more on technicalities than politics and planning of activities against the government.

After more than a hundred workers had left the meeting, and most had been exhausted by the lecturers of the official apparatus of the trade union movement, a vote was taken on the question of a day of action. The leaders of Fagligt Ansvar recommended that one should be called for the 2nd of October, which is a Saturday. Apparently they imagined a rally like that of October 5, 2002.

But this day was a complete failure which gathered nearly zero militant workers.

So, when one of the delegates suggested that the day of action should be held instead on the opening day of the parliament (which is a normal working day, and therefore would signify a call for strike action, meetings at every workplace and a demonstration), the chairmen of LO-Copenhagen got up to the stage and informed everyone that if this were passed, “LO-Copenhagen would not participate”.

The leaders of the Danish trade union movement have apparently learnt nothing of the blunder on October 5, 2002. After the big opposition movement against the bourgeois government in the spring of 2002, where the leaders no doubt easily could have called a general strike with great success, October 5 was definitely a setback. It must not be repeated!

The leaders of Fagligt Ansvar bear a great responsibility. The participation in the meeting was impressive and overwhelming. It is obvious, even to a blind man, that there is great discontent with the state of affairs among the rank-and file of the trade unions. After the so-called “boom” of the 1990’s, which did not give any concessions to the working class, dramatic cut-backs and attacks are now on the agenda of the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois ministers and top-managers from big business recently stated that the minimum wage must be heavily reduced and that the hours of the working week must be raised. These perspectives make the workers nervous and insecure – quite naturally.

In the end, the leaders of Fagligt Ansvar did not dare to carry through their own initiative. It is a great shame. But the bureaucratic maneuvers used to avoid the demand from the workplaces, and the mobilization of the workers shows one thing very clearly: the leaders are well aware of the strength of the working class. If the workers are mobilized under the banner of a workers’ government, it will not be easy to send them home. That is why all active shop stewards need to put pressure on Fagligt Ansvar and the rest of the labour movement to struggle - to struggle for a government that can stop the cut-backs of the bourgeois and build a society in the interest of the majority of the population. This can only be done by a workers’ government of the Social-Democratic Party, The Socialist Peoples’ Party and the Unity-list, on a socialist programme.