While a tsunami of layoffs and mass sackings is sweeping Sweden, the decisions of both Ford and General Motors to put their Swedish companies, Volvo Cars and Saab Automobile, up for sale have shocked workers and triggered a sudden debate about the need for nationalisation of the car industry.
The acquisition of Volvo Cars by Ford in 1999 and of Saab by GM in 2000 are now generally seen as major disasters for by far the most important of manufacturing industries in Sweden. Now, the decision to decouple from their severely bleeding Swedish companies will be a precondition for Ford and GM to receive state support from the US Congress or government in order to avoid their own imminent bankruptcies.
The combined effects of global capitalism’s finance crisis, overcapacity in the world’s car industry and the fuel and climate crisis have produced a dramatic crisis of capitalist ownership. Since there is no queue of interested buyers with the capacity and willingness to make the necessary massive green investments in the Swedish car producers, their very survival is now at stake – including the major cluster of sub-contractors that are used by the giant truck producers AB Volvo and Scania.
It is only a few weeks since Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (RS, CWI Sweden) was the only organisation to raise the explicit demand to nationalise Volvo and Saab. But this demand has now suddenly exploded to emerge as a key political debate.
Without major state intervention it is now possible that the entire Swedish car industry could go bust in the near future. It involves 140,000 workers who last year earned every sixth Swedish export krona (the Swedish currency). This would have catastrophic consequences. It would certainly unleash mass unemployment during a deep and long lasting depression that could finish what is left of the already severely undermined "welfare state".
According to a new opinion poll ordered by Sveriges Ingenjörer (Sweden´s Engineers, the union for university graduated engineers), 68 per cent of Swedes would support an emergency nationalisation (‘statification’ in Swedish) of Volvo Cars, although described as a temporary measure. This nevertheless represents a sudden increase in the awareness of the depth of the capitalist crisis as well as a dramatic turn around in views about public ownership.
Rolf Wolff, head of Handelshögskolan in Gothenburg, a major business university, in an article in the business paper Dagens Industri (27 November), made the point that crisis times are also "the time of opportunities, a time to rethink and think in radically different ways". He went on to say that: "While the USA, the country that has been the ideological machine that launched neo-liberalism, thinking of scale and share-holder values, goes in and nationalises housing mortgage companies, banks and insurance companies in order to save them, we in Sweden continue to resist discussing the future survival of our most important industries".
But that debate has now exploded in the last few weeks. Among those who also have argued for the necessity of a state solution are Hans-Olov Olsson, former CEO of Volvo Cars and another former boss of Volvo, Bo Ekman, who suggests that the government should buy Volvo Cars as well as Saab for "one krona or two". The Swedish Engineers’ union, the Unionen (the white collar workers union) and IF Metall (the metal workers’ union), all are now strongly warning that the demise of the car industry would mean the final loss of key industrial skills in Sweden. They also now advocate a major state intervention, including at least a temporary state ownership – partial if capitalist investors would be prepared to step in alongside the government. Even the Social Democratic leadership has adopted the same attitude – with a proposal to organise a coordinated take-over by the state pension funds and Swedish capitalists.
According to the English Financial Times, GM and Ford have demanded loans for their Swedish companies in order to improve their values before a sale. But state loans as well as state support of research and development without ownership only improve the price for Ford and GM if they succeed to sell – without any guarantees for the future survival of the companies and their workers.
Faced with this situation the right wing government and its minister of industry, Maud Olofsson, for the moment are just repeating, like parrots, that "We (i.e. the state) should own fewer companies", that "The state is no better owner than the international car industry" and that the tax payers’ and the pensioners’ money must not be put at risk. To the question what then would happen to tax incomes and pensions if the car industry will go bust, she has, of course, no answer.
Rolf Wolff in an interview with a Gothenburg newspaper has criticised this kind of argument, saying that the price of one dollar could be enough for Volvo Cars (the cost would be the necessary heavy investments). In a polemic against finance professionals and management consultants who "have made enormous profits in duping (fooling) governments", he claims "The state can own energy companies and banks, it can own car companies...There is no economic research that has produced results to prove that the state would be bad owners per se".
Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna campaigns
RS members have campaigned intensely in favour of a trade union mass campaign for a ban on layoffs and sackings, research and education programmes, a shorter working week and nationalisation of the car industry. A couple of weeks ago, sacked car-workers in Gothenburg gained national TV news coverage for a first small demonstration of 130 or so for these same demands. Now they have got the signatures of hundreds of car workers.
The first shock has also given way to more protests. A couple of weeks ago a 1,000 strong workers’ demonstration was organised by the local metal workers’ union of Volvo Trucks in Umeå together with families and workers from other factories. They marched from the major factory to central Umeå to demand a two year ban on layoffs, improved labour protection laws, a shorter working day etc. In a speech at the rally this was linked to the demand for a national campaign to consider the ownership of both banks and major companies.
RS welcomes the fact that the question of ownership of industry has been raised as an urgent matter. It is now necessary to campaign for a massive and national trade union mobilisation in defence of jobs, welfare and the protection of the climate – linked to a speedy nationalisation of the entire car industry. One dollar seems to be a reasonable price.
This of course should not be a temporary measure, but should be regarded as a long term and strategic measure in order not only to save jobs but to carry out the necessary green transformation of the entire transport sector as well as a brek with capitalism.
The necessary transformation of the transport sector cannot be done on a capitalist profit basis. It would require massive state investments into emission-free car models as well as a major turn to develop a collective transport system - high speed trains to replace domestic and continental flights and comfortable and free bus lines that can replace unnecessary car traffic. It would also be quite possible to use the resources of the car industry to develop wind and wave power industries etc.
More than 100 engineers of Volvo Cars have already, in their free time and without pay, developed hundreds of green car proposals, of which 13 have been turned over to the research and development department of the company. There have, for a long time, been sharp criticisms of the mismanagement of the industry by the managers of Ford and GM, who have been actively blocking all proposals to develop more energy-effective and emission-free cars. These are perfect arguments for the necessity of carrying out nationalisation under workers’ control and co-management with a future socialist government.
RS/Offensiv welcome the question of ownership of the banks and the car industry being raised. But the crisis of ownership goes far beyond that and throughout big business, whose owners now show their complete contempt for workers with massive sackings already, at a very early stage of the crisis. There is also a near total stoppage of activity in the building sector despite the urgent need to build houses and renovate the hundreds of thousands of council houses built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and to do it in a way that would both save energy and provide homes that can be afforded by workers and young people.
It is now time for workers and socialists to demand a massive trade union campaign for jobs, welfare and the climate – linked to demands for the urgent nationalisation of the banks and the car industry, under the control of workers. This will also mean concrete demands for labour rights to veto redundancies, a shorter working week, improved unemployment benefits and public welfare (schools, health, child and elderly care etc.) and a massive programme of public investment to save the climate.
Post Script, 16 December:
Since this article was originally written the Swedish government has presented a 28 billion kronor crisis programme for the car industry, based on loan guarantees and state support for a new car research and development company with state ownership that would support the private car industries. This has meant a set-back for more far-reaching proposals, and will only be of very temporary relief. However the white collar union, Unionen, in both Saab and Volvo cars has raised the demand for a merger of the two companies with a new owner – something that seems very difficult to achieve without nationalisation.