Sweden: only 11 individual working days lost due to strikes and lockouts in 2021

The Swedish Mediation Institute, a government agency that arbitrates labor disputes between unions and employers, released a report on February 24 showing that only 11 working days were lost due to strikes in 2021.

View from Stockholm City Hall, Stockholm, Sweden [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Lost workdays are a common measure that government statistical agencies use to measure the extent and duration of labor disputes. The measure counts the number of working days that workers have been on strike or locked out by employers. For example, “11 days of work lost” could mean that 11 workers were on strike for one day or one worker was on strike for 11 days.

The 11 working days lost in Sweden in 2021 are the result of two strikes, including one in solidarity, involving seven electricians. The Mediation Institute, in a deliberately low-key commentary accompanying the report, described 2021 as a “quiet year in the Swedish labor market”.

Pilots for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), the Swedish airline, went on strike for seven days in 2019, an action that was the largest labor dispute in the country that year, contributing to a total of 7,577 days of work lost due to strikes for 2019. Fifty working days were lost due to strikes in 2018. No working days were lost due to strikes in Sweden in 2020.

Strikes have dropped dramatically since their peak in 1980, when nearly 4.5 million working days were lost due to strikes. Strikes outside collective bargaining rounds are generally illegal. Wildcat strikes, such as those undertaken by teachers in the United States, France and Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been exceptionally rare in Sweden in recent decades.

The reason for the dramatic decline in strikes in Sweden since the 1980s and their virtual disappearance during the pandemic is the political role played by trade unions. Close allies of the Social Democrats, the unions have played a key role in supporting a succession of Social Democrat-led governments since the 1980s that gutted Sweden’s once relatively generous welfare system and transformed the country into a haven for foreign investors and corporate profiteers. .

The Social Democrats have held power continuously since 2014 and have implemented austerity in public spending and a vicious anti-refugee policy. The Social Democratic government is preparing to lead Sweden into the NATO military alliance, fully aligning itself with the US-led proxy war against Russia. And he presided over a disastrous COVID-19 policy, enforcing the notorious “herd immunity” strategy that has given Sweden the unenviable distinction of having one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates. raised in the world.

Sweden’s ruling elite was able to enforce this right-wing agenda through its corporatist connections to the unions, which suppressed the class struggle. Swedish trade unions are in fact state institutions, enjoying extensive and legally regulated relations with employers’ associations and national and local governments. The main purpose of this vast network, as the report of the Mediation Institute shows all too clearly, has been to contain working class opposition in conditions of growing social inequality and stagnating wages.

According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 65.2% of workers in Sweden were union members in 2019, the latest year for which data is available. A further 22.8% are non-unionized but are covered by a collective agreement.

The high rate of unionization in Sweden and other Nordic countries is generally attributed to the fact that unions administer a large part of the unemployment insurance systems of these countries, which forces workers to unionize. Under the current system, the Swedish government provides the unemployed with a minor supplement of about $35 a day on average, while unions provide the majority of a worker’s daily assistance.

The organization of workers into trade unions in Sweden is part of a corporatist arrangement that also involves employers’ associations at the industrial and national level as well as government agencies. The Mediation Institute, an agency analogous to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the United States, plays an important role in mediating labor disputes. This union-employer-government arrangement is largely designed to limit strikes and curb wage growth.

The industrial agreement (Industriavtal) between employers’ associations and the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen), first signed in 1998 and renewed in 2011 and 2016, aims to “strengthen the competitiveness of export industries”.

Employer associations and trade unions in export industries agree on a ‘mark’, or wage growth target, which then applies to wage negotiations in other sectors.

Besides the virtual elimination of strikes, the role of Swedish unions as enforcers of the ruling elite’s decades-long assault on living standards and workers’ rights is revealed in international wage statistics. Comparative salary data from the OECD shows that in 2020 Sweden’s average salary was US$46,695, almost US$20,000 less than the US average salary of US$65,836. The Mediation Institute estimates that wages increased by 2.7% in 2021, which represents a drop in wages in real terms since inflation was 4.1% throughout the year.

The effective abolition of strikes in Sweden comes against the backdrop of the government’s herd immunity policy for criminals, by which almost all COVID-19 mitigation measures have been ignored. As neighboring countries went into lockdown in early 2020, Sweden kept primary and secondary schools open and implemented largely voluntary limits on business capacity and the size of social gatherings. As of March 1, 2022, more than 17,000 Swedes have died from COVID-19, a per capita rate twice as high as Denmark, four times as high as Finland and five times as high as Norway.

The COVID-19 pandemic, along with long working hours, rising inflation and pandemic-related profits, have contributed to a massive rise in discontent and growing militancy among workers around the world. In Sweden, however, companies and their corporatist partners have so far managed to contain this discontent.

In 2021, there were few strike warnings, which usually precede an actual strike. In the most prominent warning, private sector health workers threatened to strike after their employers sought a more favorable deal than the public sector deal. Kommunal, the workers’ union, said from the start that it would not accept substandard conditions, but it did just that in a mediation. The final private sector agreement omitted the retroactive 2020 wage increases and lump sum payments contained in the public sector agreement.

Notably, one of the largest strikes in the United States in 2021 took place at Volvo’s New River Valley plant in Virginia. Volvo Trucks is a Based in Sweden heavy-duty truck manufacturer, now a subsidiary of Chinese auto conglomerate Geely. Volvo’s struggle has had massive repercussions throughout the global economy, even inspiring a strike by Volvo workers in Belgium in solidarity.

In Sweden, Volvo workers have been kept in the dark about this courageous struggle by their so-called “union representatives”. These pro-business organizations sought to isolate the powerful strike and suppress workers’ demands.

Volvo workers in Virginia formed the Volvo Workers Rank and File Committee entirely independently of the United Autoworkers (UAW) to organize and give political direction to their strike. The committee gave the workers a rallying point in their war on two fronts against Volvo and the UAW. The committee urged workers to take up an international struggle, issuing statements on the strike calling on workers “to open new fronts in [Volvo’s] rear”, including in Sweden itself.

Eventually, the strike was isolated by the UAW, with the help of its international counterparts like Sweden’s IF Metall. In July 2021, the UAW helped management secure a sell-out deal after it was previously rejected by the workforce.

Democratic Party-affiliated groups and pseudo-left organizations in the United States, such as the Democratic Socialists of America, have long advocated replicating the “Scandinavian model” of so-called social democracy.

This would involve the United States government implementing corporate arrangements, particularly the expansion of dues-paying membership among the AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE, and other similar labor organizations. Democratic Party politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also publicly Express admiration for the so-called “Scandinavian model”.

Democratic President Joe Biden, as part of his effort to position himself on the left, has made numerous public statements encouraging the expansion of corporate unions. What this means in practice can be seen in Sweden, with the organized suppression of class struggle and wage payments to workers, amid record inflation and a pandemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. , with many more debilitating aftereffects of Long COVID.