In Sweden, #MeToo has found a widespread echo and has been widely organised sector-by-sector. Actors led the way last year with their petition using the hashtag #tystnadtagning – Swedish for “Lights, cameras, action!” which can mean “Stay silent (when someone is assaulted)!”.
By the New Year, there were more than sixty five different petitions – from healthcare professionals, students, teachers, journalists, engineers, lawyers, restaurant staff and construction workers – with over 60,000 signatories and testimonies. This is alongside a Facebook group that is open to everyone, regardless of what sector they work in, with 57,000 members.
Workers in the financial and insurance sector have launched their petition and there has been a strong attempt from on top to rein in these women. The Chief Economist of Nordea, the largest bank in the Nordic countries, has come out publicly and claimed that there was no sexual harassment within the financial sector!
‘High society’ blighted
As socialists, we do not feel much sympathy for the elite layers of society. Nevertheless, it is shocking to see vile behaviour even among the cultural elite. When the black-clad film and TV stars assembled at the Guldbagge Awards (the Swedish equivalent of the Oscars), it became clear that neither success, fame nor money offer protection to women from harassment, sometimes even rape.
Historically speaking, this should come as no surprise. The rising power of the bourgeoisie during the 1800s was closely associated with the strengthening of the nuclear family and a strict ideal around bourgeois women’s place being in the rarified sphere of the home, walled off from the business world of men.
#MeToo obviously has had the power to cause concern among the elite. Political commentators have described #MeToo as the most important political event of 2017 in Sweden.
The political parties usually, and without any real principles, tend to change some of their attitudes depending on which way the wind is blowing. It is no coincidence that the political establishment in Sweden has now joined forces in trying to move the debate away from talking about sexual harassment, about collective women’s struggles and questioning power structures. They are trying to turn attention towards the very real “problems of immigration”. Even here, they are looking at it in terms of the need to increase investment in the military and in ‘law and order’ rather than increased spending on housing and schools for all.
#MeToo has had the potential to shake the political system to its core. Some powerful men – members of parliament, council leaders and cultural figures – have already been forced out of their positions. Major television companies, newspapers, the world of culture and even the Nobel Foundation have all had their own crises. The question of the hour at the moment is whether the major government party – the Social Democrats – will succeed in burying accusations against their Speaker of Parliament, Urban Ahlin. Formally speaking, Ahlin holds the highest office to which someone can be elected in Sweden.
In the United States, #MeToo has already brought down several senators; in the United Kingdom, the Defence Minister, Michael Fallon had to leave office and in Norway, the Labour Party’s Deputy Chairperson, Trond Giske, has gone. Ahlin could be next!
In the workplace
However, the scandals exposed are not just about what happens at the top in society. Even more importantly, #MeToo also applies to ordinary wage earners and the working class. The fact that various petitions in Sweden have been circulated in specific sectors is significant. It is extremely important that demands are raised at work and through the trade unions for a fight against the increased exploitation of women workers, against the increased stress and insecurity of employment. They all increase the need to make harassment at work and at home a trade union issue.
Ten years ago, it was reported that 17 percent of female healthcare assistants and nurses had been harassed by people other than colleagues, i.e. patients or their relatives. Today, that figure is 27 percent. From the very start of #MeToo, questions were raised about why the unions were not doing their job and why they hadn’t raised these issues earlier. There were some precedents like the joint campaign, “Stop the macho culture”, organised by the construction workers’ union and even taken up by the construction employers’ organisation.
The union newspaper, Kommunalarbetaren, however, wrote recently that the “Trade unions don’t do any education about sexual harassment”. It is not discussed, either in basic courses organised for union representatives or in other further education courses how the unions should respond to sexual harassment. Demands have only now been raised about this in response to #MeToo.
It is not enough merely to refer to the Anti-Discrimination Act; there are always too many loopholes. It is important that the role of the unions in protecting workers is highlighted. While the employers are ultimately responsible for the environment in the workplace, they will, of course, find it difficult to take a critical approach to their own shortcomings.
A fighting, democratic trade union movement, which itself has a zero-tolerance attitude towards macho culture, is a prerequisite for challenging abuse and harassment at work. It is also important that unions take up the issue of protecting women who suffer from domestic violence, demanding resources to protect women, publicly funded shelters, treatment and education for offenders etc..
The Trade Union Confederation in Sweden – LO – has said that they have tried to raise the issue of protection from sexual harassment in the collective bargaining agreements but that the employers have refused to negotiate on it. In Canada, the unions have been more successful. Within the postal industry, for example, the employers are obliged to launch an investigation into any complaint on this issue no longer than three days after they receive it.
#MeToo has also given a voice to the most vulnerable women in society by taking up petitions with, for example, women who have experienced addiction and women with experience of prostitution. Women from these campaigns have been speaking on demonstrations, writing articles for debate, participating in live news broadcasts on TV etc.
One example of the mood has been demonstrations against the acquittal in court of a group of young men accused of gang-rape in a Stockholm suburb, Fittja. It was the result of prejudice and sloppy investigation by the police. A march in central Stockholm gathered 1,000 protesters and in Fittja itself, 400 people took part in a protest in solidarity with the woman victim. The petition and newspaper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna was well received on these demonstrations.
The #MeToo ‘uprising’ in Sweden has not emerged because there has been an increase in the level of inequality; women have actually been gaining confidence and are willing to hit back. Economically speaking, women have been catching up with male workers, even though the wage gap is still significant. What is worsening, on the other hand, are class divisions, as well as workplace stress and ill health generally in society.
Changes in attitude
The majority of both women and men believe that the #MeToo campaign is necessary, although 45 percent of men and 30 percent of women believe that the reports being made are exaggerated. These may seem like high figures, but the important thing is that a majority of people back the movement. So many complaints begin with “I have never spoken about this before” that probably there is still an underappreciation of how widespread physical and verbal harassment of women is in society today.
Campaigning outside a higher secondary school recently with petitions in favour of a socialist feminism, it was clear there was a marked difference compared with the situation 15-18 years ago. There were no negative comments about feminism and, indeed, there were many positive comments even from young men. Things can change. This is a clear indication that tolerance of sexual harassment has decreased, especially now with #MeToo.
Unfortunately, there are also examples of how in some countries, the situation has been thrown backwards, indicating a real increase in women’s oppression. The election of Trump as President of the United States, Putin legalising domestic abuse and the right-wing governments of Poland and Brazil wanting to totally ban abortion indicate huge steps backwards for women.
We have also seen with the periodic crashes in the capitalist economic system, that working class women are the first to suffer. The 2007-2008 crisis, which is by no means over, was paid for throughout Europe and elsewhere with huge cuts in welfare, which resulted in a reversal of any moves towards gender equality in many countries.
The #MeToo ‘movement’ now stands at a crossroads. Will the campaign fade away or will it organise itself around clear demands for change? There is already a backlash against #MeToo on the way. In Sweden, in the middle of February, a well-known anti-feminist scientist, who has always denied that women’s oppression is to do with the class structure of society, has come out and said that sexual harassment only affects a minority.
In the political sphere, the Social Democrats and the traditional conservative party – the Moderates – are already, at the start of this election year, competing over who sounds most like the Sweden Democrats – an anti-feminist as well as racist party. The government parties, like all the establishment parties, are enormous hypocrites. They all call themselves feminists and the government has made a big deal out of their so called “feminist foreign policy”. But what does it consist of? The Foreign Minister has refused to comment on the ongoing rebellion of workers and women in Iran, saying that she is unwilling to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries.
The same hypocrisy exists when it comes to Swedish politics. No matter how good things are for the banks and big business, there are constant crises, cuts and privatisations in the health service – where the majority of the workers are women. One of the few protest movements in Sweden in the past year has been against the crisis in maternity care. In the city of Sollefteå, there has been an occupation of the local hospital for over a year now in protest against maternity services being shut down.
The #MeToo ‘movement’ must respond to right-wing attacks and the backlash against it and keep up the pressure from below. All of the petitions and appeals should make a call to mobilise for the demonstrations on 8 March, International Women’s Day – to make it one of the biggest ever, as a step towards generally increased mobilisations and demands for real change in the longer term.
Demands must be raised for the redistribution of society’s resources – the raising of women’s wages, more secure employment, increased staffing levels, an end to solitary work, etc. – so that women’s economic and social position will be strengthened, in this way, undermining the underlying causes of harassment and assaults. Build up democratically organised, open groups in order to take the movement forward and to make the politicians accountable during this year’s election campaign.
As a contribution to this struggle, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna has formed a new campaigning organisation – ¬Socialist Feminists. We are aiming to organise a launch meeting on 25 March. We are going to put forward the idea that a major revolution in consciousness is needed to mobilise against both the economic and social structures of society. Our alternative is a socialist society in which the economy is owned and built jointly by working men and women with the aim of achieving the greatest possible welfare in society.