Sweden and Denmark: Health care workers on strike

Massive support for their wage demands

In Sweden, nurses, midwives, bio-medical analysts, and x-ray nurses are striking over pay. This is a result of a unique grass-roots revolt that has forced the union leadership to fight. In Denmark, the establishment is being shaken by a huge strike by nurses, first and foremost, and other public sector workers.

Walking out on strike at Karolinska university hospital in Huddinge, 21 of April. Photo: Johan Sand

”We are ready, ready to fight for ourselves – and no-one should think they can steer us!”. Thus goes the refrain of one of the strike songs from the demonstrations in Sweden. The strike has massive support, 85 per cent according to an opinion poll. This is expressing the view that one group of workers finally are challenging wage restraints and cuts.

”This is something we should have done ages ago. As a nurse I have three years higher education and one year special education behind me. We work every day with life and death and are worth higher pay,” says Arminda Bränngård, one of the strikers. Another striker is Annika Sparrmo. She belongs to a big group that is usually invisible – the bio-medical analysts (laboratory workers). Annika comments:

”I began working in 1970, am 64 years old and have 20,950 Swedish Crowns (SEK) monthly pay before tax (2,200 euros). The politicians always try to keep us down and the bosses think we’re a bit stupid because we’re women. Now we want to build the strike to have as much impact as possible. In the worst case scenario we might have to hand in our notice.

3,500 nurses, midwives and analysts are out on strike since 21 April. But 1,000 of them were forced to wait for a decision from a state committee to say whether the strike is to be deemed a ”danger to society”. This attempt by the employers to stall the strike, however, failed after a few days when 900 of the 1,000 were allowed to start the strike. A further 3,500 are to be called out on strike on the 5th of May.

The demands are that the minimum pay is increased from 18,000 Swedish kronor (SEK) per month to 22,000 and that there is a pay increase, both this year and next, of 1,700 SEK in monthly pay. The employers, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL), which are controlled by the same right-wing parties that hold power in the government, have offered 8.5 per cent over 3 years.

The main reason for the strike has been a grass-roots revolt within the union. At a special conference, called to take a sounding on an offer from arbitration, two thirds of the delegates went against the leadership and threw out the offer.

International example

Inspiration has come from the Finnish pay dispute of last year. There, 13,000 nurses threatened to resign. The state showed its true colours by strengthening a law aimed at forcing the nurses back to work. However, the union stayed strong and won a pay increase of 22-28 per cent plus an impressive one-off bonus of 263 euros.

Also in Sweden, a rebellion has spread on the internet. 10,200 health workers have signed that they are prepared to resign. The movement called themselves ”Pay-Rebellion 2008” and has been started by two nurses from Västerås, a smaller town some way west of Stockholm. One of the leaders is not in the union and is on strike without strike pay.

Now it seems that the mass resignation is less likely. The strike is on and should, instead, be escalated. What is refreshing with the Pay-Rebellion is the strong criticism of the union leadership’s passivity and their own pay demand of 5,000 SEK for all.

The health union’s leadership has been incredibly right-wing for many years. When the nurse’s ”sisters” – the auxiliary nurses – went on strike with their Council Workers’ union in 2003, the health union condemned the strike.

What lies behind the steady reduction in pay is what is called ‘the labour market’s most modern wage agreement’. Since 1995, pay agreements have been individually based and since 2005 they have not even been annual, but open. Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden) has warned against this system for a long time as it has merely resulted in big groups getting no pay increase at all.

Now the health union is running the strike in a risky way. They are not seeking active support from other unions. The chairperson of the blue-collar union federation, LO, has even come out against the strike. (The health union belongs to the white collar federation, TCO.)

The employers (who consist of politicians) have condemned the strike as a ”luxury” strike that is dangerous for society. The response is of course that it is their cuts that are a danger. The slaughter of health has led to a loss of 30 per cent of elderly care places since the year 2000. Sweden has the lowest total of hospital beds in the whole of Europe. It is health care staff who must pay through harder work for smaller wages. Out of ten Western European countries Sweden has the lowest level of pay in healthcare.

The employers’ opposition, pressure from below and general support suggest that the strike will continue for some weeks.


Also, the warm wind from the other side of the water – Denmark – is driving the atmosphere of struggle.

In Denmark, two unions – nurses and the public sector union FOA (Fag og Arbejde) -are out on a big strike. In total, 93,000 workers are on strike. Of them 70,000 are nurses. Apart from nurses, staff within child-care, elderly-care, and parking attendants are out. The demand is for a hefty pay increase of 5,000 Danish crowns per month (668 euros). Unlike in Sweden, there has been a general mobilisation which is the sharpest weapon to secure victory in the public sector. This is the biggest strike in Denmark for ten years.

On 17 April, 40,000 demonstrated in Copenhagen to support the strike. Members of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna will go to Denmark next week for the strike and May Day demonstrations.

Here in Sweden, we’ve had a successful intervention into the strike so far. Solidarity messages from our councillors in support of the strikers have been well received. We have sold more than 70 subscriptions for our paper, Offensiv, to health workers and are preparing for meetings where nurses shall speak. Ideas are our most important contribution – ideas of how the strike can be made stronger through more activity and control at rank and file level. For example, any agreement should be put to a members’ vote to avoid any let down from the leadership. The health workers are fighting a struggle that many workers should join. They should get all the support they ask for.

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April 2008