Sweden: Council workers fight back against low pay

The council workers’ strike in Sweden has the support of 84 per cent of the population according to opinion polls. Low paid, mainly women workers in hospitals, schools and childcare are fighting for wage increases of 5.5 per cent. But even a much lower offer from the mediators was turned down by the employers in the councils, led by Social Democratic politicians.

On the employers’ side are also politicians from the Left Party (former Communist party), for example their group leader in Umeå. Despite their promises in the election campaign last autumn to ’upgrade’ low paid public sector workers, these politicians now offer next to nothing. "We have no money" they say and refer to deficits in council budgets.

Among the council workers, the pressure for a strike has built up over the years. The union, Kommunal, last autumn therefore broke a three-year agreement and opted for new negotiations. It is a union which, during the 1990s, advocated privatisation and produced Its own plans for cuts. But not even this right-wing leadership was able to hold back the strong pressure from below.

"Always money for the bosses"

Kommunal has 600,000 members, of which 400,000 are involved in this dispute. (Roughly 100,000 members now have private employers; others are bus drivers etc). In the first week, only 9,000 workers were taken out on strike in a kind of relay strike, with new groups the second week etc. But the strong fighting spirit among the workers, the widespread support and the stubborn attitude from the employers forced the union to step up the strike. From 12 May, 46,000 workers will be on strike in councils for two weeks.

Most of the strikers are women workers who have never been on strike before. But they are in no way apologetic. Rather, they are angry, feeling that it is their turn now. "I’ve worked for 30 years and after tax I get 8-9,000 (€900-1,000 euros) a month. There is always money for the bosses but not for us", said hospital worker Elisabeth Thelin in Norrbotten, talking to Offensiv, the Marxist weekly paper of (CWI Sweden). Other council workers around the country echoed her view.

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (RS) has been out campaigning for the council workers since day one and even before that. On Monday 28 April, our elected councillors in both Umeå and Luleå were debating the strike in council meetings. "The strike should be supported and Umeå council should accept the union demand”, said Yvonne Lantto, RS councillor and Kommunal member herself. The hypocrisy of the Left Party was exposed when their group leader claimed that the strike was ’a national issue’, not to be discussed in the council. This was from a party whose biggest support comes from women in the public sector. The Social Democratic council leader said that wage increases should be paid for by ’rationalisation’ of the council, meaning new huge cuts.

RS supporters in Kommunal advocate a one-day strike for all members, with mass demonstrations open for other unions, youth etc to come along and express their support. In the cities where demos have been organised, they have been very successful. We also demand that the councils should get back all the money which the state has cut back for the last decade.

The argument from the politicians and capitalist economists is that the strike demands will cost 5,000 council jobs, or tax increases of 0.1 per cent in the councils. This should not be accepted. Sweden’s GDP has increased by more than 300 billion SEK (Kroner) per year since 1995. The cost of the wage demands is SEK1.2 billion. The level of the public sector and of workers’ wages, is decided in struggle, and the unions have to prepare for more struggle in the coming years.

Other capitalist commentators promote privatisation as a way to increase wages. But where cleaning or health care has been privatised, the wages are still on the same low level.

Strong support

The strong support for the strike is also shown in the solidarity work of RS In the strike and our paper sales. Forty-three papers were sold on an early morning sale outside a Stockholm hospital last Friday – before the strike had begun in that workplace. On the first strike day, RS members sold 32 papers to strikers in Gävle, where, before last week, we had no party members. Nationally, over 800 papers were sold on Friday and Saturday.

We are now preparing for the 12 May extension of the strike. We have intervened in hospitals to interview and discuss with workers. A solidarity campaign of school students, launched by Elevkampanjen/ISR, will organise meetings the week before the strike starts in their schools. Our own public meetings will invite council workers to attend and speak.

It is hard to judge how long the strike will go on. The union leaders obviously hope that the strike call will be enough to force a deal and we have to warn against that falling far short of the full claim. But the economic problems in the councils on the other hand puts pressure on the employers to say no. For Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna and many others, the role of the Social Democratic and left parties underlines the need for a new mass workers’ party, with a fighting socialist programme.

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April 2003