Sweden - the working class re-awakens

The new Conservative government in Sweden immediately launched a programme of cuts and attacks on the working class upon coming to power. With a massive round of contract negotiations coming up this spring, however, the stage is being set for a major explosion of the class struggle.

In September last year a Conservative Party-led right-wing coalition won the elections in Sweden. On the surface this may have seemed surprising. All the conditions for the continued rule of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SAP) government appeared to be there - stable public finances, a rising business cycle and low inflation, etc.

However, the SAP leadership, which has a deep admiration for Tony Blair and his spin-doctors, decided to embark on their election campaign with a program without reforms and based on the (questionable) charisma of party leader, Göran Persson.

The theme of the SAP election campaign was "All is well - vote for us again". It was evident that the Göran Persson leadership did not have a single idea or any policies for the period ahead. It was clear that they could offer nothing but "business as usual" without any reforms, a decaying public sector and an indifference to the question of unemployment, which remained stubbornly high despite the economic boom.

Without the slightest effort the Conservative Party was able take the initiative in the election campaign. One of the determining factors was a trick whereby the Party took a left turn and declared itself "the real workers party" in Sweden, focusing on unemployment and claiming to stand for "full employment".

The fundamental mistake of the SAP leadership was that they considered unemployment to be a question only for the unfortunate few affected by it, 10% of the population at most. But high unemployment has a psychological effect on the entire working class. If in the middle of an economic upturn one hears news about factory closures, cuts in the public sector and manufacturing industries moving abroad, this creates a feeling of alarm amongst all workers.

Middle class swings to the right

The picked troops of the working class, the traditionally strongly unionised blue-collar workers didn't fall for the Conservative Party's "total make-over". They could see through the deceptive masquerade and there was no swing to the right amongst them. Amongst the blue-collar workers the traditional parties of the working class - the SAP and the Left Party (formerly the Communist Party) - have an outstanding position. 70% of blue-collar workers voted left.

They know that when the right wing talks about fighting unemployment that what is really meant is a fight against the unemployed. But amongst the intermediate layers, the civil servants and white-collar workers there were consequences. In this section there was a 9% swing from left to right, enough to tip the balance and make the day for the right-wing coalition.

Göran Persson resigns

When Göran Persson resigned after the electoral defeat there was a sigh of relief amongst party activists. During his 12 years of leadership the party has lost an incredible 100,000 members, more than one third of the entire membership. Since the early 1980's there has been a noticeable push to the right to mainstream pro-market liberal politics. In this process the party has become more of an electoral machine and less a movement of flesh and blood. This has led not a few groups on the left to declare the SAP "bourgeois" and to create new phantom workers' parties.

Because of the terrible state of the SAP and its prolonged corrosion one would imagine that there would be plenty of crumbs from the big party's table to nourish the sectarian groups. However, the grouplets on the left are in an even worse state of crisis. The 100,000 party members that left the SAP did not go to another party. They just went home - only to return later, together with new layers, when the class struggle forces them to defend themselves through the political tool of the class, just as the class struggle right now forces the workers to rally in the trade unions - the industrial tool of the class - to defend themselves from the attacks of the right-wing coalition.

The welfare state - 'a perversion'

The new government under Conservative Prime Minister Reinfeldt has a very clear strategy. Behind the smoke screen of leftist demagogy they have a program to tear the welfare state, which Mr Reinfeldt calls "a perversion", into rags and to undermine the unions. The first attack launched by the new government was against unemployment benefits. These benefits have a tremendous strategic role in both dismantling the welfare state and reducing the strength of the trade unions. By both lowering benefits and increasing individual insurance fees, state expenditure is made available for tax reductions for the well-off. For the trade unions, lower benefits mean more unemployed workers frantic to find any job for any wage anywhere. This means that when workers fight desperately amongst themselves for jobs, the unions will have a greater difficulty in upholding a decent level of wages and defending different values in the collective agreements or maintaining collective agreements at all.

Social pact or class struggle?

Even if the entire history of the labour movement categorically demonstrates that the defence of old gains and the winning of new ones is achieved through struggle (or the threat of struggle), the present leadership of the LO (Swedish Trade Union Congress) holds precisely the opposite idea. They believe that gains are won in gratitude for not taking action and are defended by pragmatic negotiations with "temporary" retreats (which last indefinitely).

If it where solely up to the LO bureaucracy and the Conservative government we would have a social pact in no time. The Minister of Industry, Maud Olofsson, has openly declared herself in favour of a social pact and the Prime Minister made a statement to the Financial Times in November last year saying that "I do not seek or need a conflict with the trade unions". Immediately after the elections the General Secretary of the LO, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, declared that the conservative government and the LO had common goals such as lowering unemployment and that the LO was looking forward to constructive cooperation. The class struggle, however, got in the way of these plans.

Political defeat - industrial action

Sweden has often been described as a country where social conflicts are more or less extinct and where relations between the classes are almost cordial. There is some truth in this, but the material basis for it definitely disappeared during the economic downturn in early 1990s. During the last 15 years there have not been any major reforms or social progress, as was the case during the post-war period up to the 1980s. There has been nothing to feed the illusion that capitalism can work harmoniously. On the contrary it has been a period where many illusions have been destroyed. No matter how cushioned the relationship between the classes has been one can always trust the infallible class instinct of the Swedish workers and their willingness to act.

An amazing example of this was the movement from below against the Conservative government's attack on unemployment benefits. This movement is a striking illustration of the social law that when the workers are defeated on the political plane they instinctively turn to the trade unions and use the industrial organisation of the class as a means to defend themselves against the attacks of the class enemy.

This also says something about the SAP. If the SAP were not seen as the political party of the class, the workers would be indifferent to its electoral defeat. That is not the case. When the actual proposal to attack unemployment benefits was made in October last year the right-wing coalition nose-dived in opinion polls. Within two months the SAP scored over 40% and had regained all the middle class voters who had temporarily flirted with the Conservatives. Together with its parliamentary support, the former Communist Party and the Green Party, they scored an absolute majority.

This shows that an election result is only a snapshot of the chance fluctuations in the mood of the voters. Within weeks it could be history and everything changed. Only days after the electoral defeat the local unions were preparing for battle. The most advanced activists were prepared and had read between the lines of the demagogic speeches of Mr Reinfeldt and understood that an attack on unemployment benefits was the first in a long line of offensives to come. Petitions and resolutions where circulated within no time at all and the mood for action was growing.

Members revolt

In many cities the local unions began to act publicly and took to the streets. In Stockholm a loose ring of local unions started what was called "The Monday Rebellion" where they mobilised a demonstration every Monday evening outside Parliament with speeches, torches and slogans for a one-day political general strike.

One Union outside the LO, the SAC - an anarcho-syndicalist union - typically went ahead of the class and organised a one-day strike right away. Only 1000 listened to the call and downed tools. However, 5000 showed up later at the demonstration in Stockholm expressing support for the demand.

What is clear is that colossal pressure must be exerted on the big unions in the LO to force them to act. One could say that during the month of November the leadership of the LO was bombarded with demands to call a one-day political general strike as well as bombarded with general demands to do something, anything at all.

Finally at the end of November the leadership surrendered and decided to call for action on December 14. The LO leadership rarely calls for action, and when it did it received a certain amount of interest from the international media. In a Financial Times interview LO general secretary Wanja Lundby-Wedin stated: "All the steps we take are for the members. They phone us, they write letters, write e-mails, write to newspapers. They are really angry." Later in a joint statement with the chief negotiation officer, Erland Olausson, she explained that the pressure from below in the unions was the worst LO had experienced in 15 years. It was "a rebellion"!

The call for action from the LO leadership had one good side and one bad side. The good side was that the members understood that if you twist the arms of the trade union leadership you can force them to act in your interest. The bad side was that the call for action was an effort to mislead the movement. A demonstration was called for December 14, a weekday, outside parliament at noon. If they had called for the downing of tools and a demonstration at noon, that had been a different matter. But what workers could easily demonstrate at noon on a weekday? The leadership hoped for a low attendance and so that the action would demoralise the members and hopefully shut them up. Unfortunately for the leadership, the movement is bigger than them and both the local and regional trade unions started to build towards December 14. In Stockholm the regional trade union immediately called for another demonstration in the evening for all who could not participate at noon.

Balance sheet of December 14

Even if the main demonstration in Stockholm was called for noon, 12,000 still showed up! The evening demonstration in Stockholm called by the regional trade unions gathered another 5,000. Fortunately, initiatives where taken in other cities as well - both Gothenburg and Malmoe had demonstrations with 5,000 each. All in all initiatives where taken in 25 cities and 40,000 activists were on the streets that day. This is not a magnificent result, but the interest here is not in the figures. What is more important is that the actions were encouraging and not demoralising for the activists. On top of all that a petition with 250,000 signatures was handed over to the Minister of Labour to protest against the attacks on the unemployment benefit. This was however not enough to change the course of the government. The attacks to unemployment benefits have been carried out and are now in effect. The lesson to be learned is that the action called for by LO was not enough. Only a political general strike would have forced the Conservative government to retreat.

Too little too late

One of the motives for the LO leadership to hold back the protest is that, in their eyes, a much more important affair is brewing. This spring more then 500 collective agreements, involving more then 85% of all workers in Sweden, are up for renegotiation. What the LO leadership wants least of all is a mobilised membership on the war-path. Their own logic works against them. If they would have called for a political strike and won the battle over unemployment benefits, the leadership would have won prestige and room for manoeuvre. The membership would be satisfied and would have given them so slack. Now they have done everything wrong. They did too little too late. The frustration of not using the full force of the unions and the frustration over losing the battle over unemployment benefits is now spilling over to this round of collective bargaining. It is evident that there exists a mood for compensation and revenge. This spring will not be a tea party.

See also:

Join Us

Join the International Marxist Tendency and help build a revolutionary organisation to participate in the struggle for socialism worldwide!

In order to join fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.