Sweden: Council workers’ strike ends in “A sell-out without precedent”

"The new wage deal is a sell-out without precedent; our union president, Ylva Thörn, should resign!"

That is how Lena Ezelius, chairperson of Stockholm branch 26 of the Swedish council workers’ union – Kommunal -summarised the union’s new wage deal. Over a month of strikes ended on Wednesday, 28 May, with a deal on a lower level than the one that had been offered before.

Lena Ezelius was one the activists within Kommunal who pushed for a tough wage struggle and her section has organised a number of demonstrations and activities during the strike. Her comments say a lot about the view of many active council workers.

Sharp criticism and debates inside and outside of Kommunal will follow. Members of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) now argue for a membership ballot on the deal and for an opposition to be formed within the union. Members have sent hundreds of e-mails to Kommunal with threats to leave the union. There is a discussion among fire-fighters, who are organised in Kommunal, about launching a break-away union.

The deal in figures

Kommunal demanded: One-year agreement
Result: Two-year agreement

Kommunal demanded: 5.5 per cent wage rise
Result: 3.2 per cent average per year
(Workers not in health or child care will get only 2.6 per cent the first year and 2 per cent the second).

Kommunal demanded: 14,000 Swedish Kroner (SEK) a month as a minimum wage (1,500 euro)
Result: 13,000 (from 1 October for those over 19 years old).

Kommunal went on strike 23 April with only 9,000 workers striking out of 400,000 affected by the by the deal. On 12 May the strike was extended to 46,000 workers for two weeks and on 26 May another 46,000 in other councils took over the baton of strike action. In the last few days, bus drivers all over the country and train drivers on local trains in the major cities gave notice that a solidarity strike would start on 4 June. Other unions – building workers, transport workers – also declared that they were prepared to go out. Not even the hostile newspapers could find any Kommunal members who were against the strike.

Fighting mood

At the time the deal was done, the fighting mood among the council workers was not waning – on the contrary. The feeling was that the strike should become bigger and tougher. Kommunal members in Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna and articles in our weekly paper, Offensiv, were raising that it was time for an all out strike. This was getting a great response among the strikers and council workers in general. The support in society was still extremely strong, with over 80 per cent being in favour of the strikes in two consecutive opinion polls.

Despite this, the leadership of Kommunal, with the president, Ylva Thörn, in the lead, were almost desperately aiming to reach a deal. The daily paper, Aftonbladet, reported that she had been against the strike in the first place, arguing for continued negotiations already in April, but that the pressure from below had made it impossible for the regional leaders to accept that.

Ylva Thörn herself has a wage at least three times what the members get and she is closely connected to the Social Democratic party. Probably she believed that it would be enough to just threaten to strike, or that the first, limited strikes would result in a deal. In 1995, Kommunal signed a bad deal just before the strike was about to be extended.

The pressure from the members on the one side and the provocative resistance of the employers (politicians) on the other meant that the strikes went on much longer this time. This strike is the most extensive in Sweden since 1980 and the biggest strike of Kommunal ever. Despite the ‘salami’ tactic, which was justifiably criticised by many members, the strike did show the enormous strength of the working class in society. It was made clear to both headmasters and local politicians who it is that cleans the school toilets and how important their job is. Health care, education, local transport, care of the elderly and child care – nothing functions without the work of the council workers.

The government

The strike also became a political threat against the Social Democratic government of Göran Persson and others with power. If Kommunal, instead of selling out, had stepped up the strike, the effects would have been even bigger. The strike has already affected the struggles against cuts in council budgets, the coming referendum on the euro and wage negotiations of other unions in a negative direction for the government.

The union federation, LO, and other union leaders made clear that they did not support the demands of Kommunal. The LO chairperson Wanja Lundby-Wedin publicly said that she supported the strike, but not the demands. Added to this was the media, with the leading daily papers predicting that support for the strike would collapse and that 5.5 per cent was impossible.

The leadership of Kommunal got scared of their own strike and their main aim was to end the strike. They had no alternative, they wanted to be accepted in the establishment again and they were not themselves dependent on the wage levels under negotiation. The deal was negotiated in secret and voted on by a union delegation far away from the members.

Retreat on all issues

The leadership of Kommunal retreated on all key issues. The new deal is for two years instead of one. The level is 3.2 per cent per year – a 512 SEK increase per month instead of the 880 SEK demanded by the union. Even the deal which Kommunal rejected last year gave 3.5 per cent for this year. And 3.2 per cent is only the average increase! No one is actually guaranteed anything. Those not working in health or child care are recommended to get 416 SEK a month in the first year and 312 SEK a month the second year. Those are caretakers, fire-fighters, cleaners, meals staff in nurseries and schools etc.

To make it more digestible, health care workers are offered 800 SEK per month in the first year, but they will then also only get 320 SEK a month in the second year. And the ‘good’ first year does not start until 1 July!

"They are saying that we are prioritised, but we are actually paying for it in the second year", says Thom Nilsson, Kommunal health worker in Luleå. "Even worse is that Kommunal has accepted splits and divisions between different groups of workers. The union should obviously have the same demand for all. I expect massive anger among all who have been on strike and waited for the new deal."

Local deals?

As in previous years, the Kommunal leadership now attempts to shift the responsibility onto the local unions. Ylva Thörn and others are predicting a fight against local politicians to follow. That is an illusion. The employers in the national negotiations were in fact representing the local politicians. Local negotiations do not include the right to strike. There will instead be increased pressure on local unions to accept cuts after the strike.

Happy employers (politicians)

The employers in councils and regional councils could hardly hide their joy after the deal. The Finance Minister, Bosse Ringholm, welcomed the deal, alongside most politicians. The Social Democratic party, with the support of the Left Party (ex-Communist Party) had a majority in the employers’ negotiating committee.

But their hypocrisy had no limits. As late as at a demonstration of strikers on the day of the deal, 28 May, MPs from of the Social Democrats and the Left Party claimed that they "supported the strike". And council leaders from those same parties have acted as scabs during the strike – opening up and closing schools, rubbish dumps etc.

The conclusions of the politicians will be to even further individualise the wages and to privatise more and thereby weaken the public sector unions. Even this low wage agreement will be used as an excuse for new cuts. But as RS (CWI Sweden) again and again has shown during the strike, there is no shortage of resources in society as a whole.

Sweden’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has increased by more than 350 billion SEK since 1995 and this deal is costing roughly only 4 billion. To fight for more resources demands the mobilisation of the labour movement on a clear socialist programme. It requires combative and democratic unions and a new mass workers’ party with socialist policies. In the new period in Sweden, which started with the strike, more workers and youth will draw these conclusions.

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna stands for:

  • Protests against the Kommunal leadership’s sell out. Demand a membership ballot on the deal.
  • For democratic trade unions with leaders on workers’ wages, independent of Social Democracy, the state and the employers. Start building an opposition in Kommunal now.
  • Kommunal and other unions should immediately withdraw their support for the Social Democrats. For a new socialist workers’ party without ‘fat cats’ at the top.
  • Struggle against cuts and privatisations. Increase the number of workers in education, health, transport, elderly care and child care and all other parts of the public sector.

Short list of lessons of the Kommunal strike:

  • The strike showed a widespread willingness to struggle among skilled workers as well as the low paid.
  • The struggle for improved conditions now has broad support after more than a decade of cuts.
  • The strike worried leading politicians and capitalists who want to continue their neo-liberal policies in peace.
  • The Social Democrats and the Left Party acted as employers’ parties in the strike.
  • A new mass socialist workers’ party is needed.
  • It is possible to force even right wing unions to call a strike.
  • A rank and file opposition inside Kommunal is needed to break the link with the Social Democratic Party and to elect a leadership which lives in the same conditions as the members.
  • The trade unions need to be fighting and democratic.

RS and the strike

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) and our weekly paper Offensiv received a very good response during the strike, being the only party and paper actually intervening. We gave full support to the strike, at the same time proposing measures to secure a victory.

In the last two weeks we have demanded that Kommunal should take all members out on an indefinite strike (with the exception of emergency cover in the hospitals etc). All the time we were proposing mass demonstrations with council workers, other unions and everyone who wanted to support the strike to put pressure on the politicians. Together with Elevkampanjen (School Students’ Campaign)/ISR (International Socialist Resistance) we have mobilised school students in support.

Our councillors in Umeå and Luleå have for a long time been well known for their struggle for improved conditions and more resources in the councils, as well as for their constant fight against cuts and privatisations. In the councils, we have fought for a minimum wage of 16,000 SEK.

During the strike, more than 200 strikers have taken out subscriptions to our paper, Offensiv, and we have sold several thousand copies in total.

Now we are organising meetings about the sell-out by the ‘leaders’ and the need for an opposition in Kommunal.

Executive Committee of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden), 28 May 2003

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May 2003