Sweden: Widespread public support for healthworkers’ struggle

Trade union leaders who agreed on sell-out must be replaced

The six week hospital strike ended on the 27 May with a new agreement and the employers are very pleased. But amongst the nurses, medical analysts, X-ray technicians and midwives there is disbelief and anger; it is a stab in the back from their union leaders. Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, the CWI in Sweden, is campaigning so that the strength built up during the strike leads to a radicalisation of the union.

Thousands of members in the nurses union, Vårdförbundet, have struggled hard all spring for a 1,700 Swedish kronor (SEK) increase a month and a minimum wage of 22,000 SEK. These have now been thrown out of the window in the most disappointing strike agreement ever.

It has given 0.5 per cent more than the original offer that the union refused when they began industrial action. For 2008, the hospital workers will get an increase of 4 per cent, then 3 per cent the year after. For hospital nurses with a wage of 23,730 SEK a month this means an increase of only 840 SEK. There is not even an individual wage guarantee included. The minimum wage is 21,100 SEK, but this part of the agreement is only valid for nine months. By the year 2010 a provocative employer could cut the minimum wage again.

“All are upset and angry. We are all depressed at the laboratory here. Since we got 4.3 per cent last year, the 4 per cent increase now is really bad”, said Susanna Ahlberg at Huddinge hospital. Other comments included: ¨The century’s biggest flop¨ and ¨A very sad day¨. Many nurses are talking about leaving both the union and their jobs. The reason for the defeat was poor union leadership and the tough management stand.

During the spring of 2008, biomedics and nurses threw their Florence Nightingale image onto the scrapheap and began to struggle for a wage that reflected the vital work they do in saving lives. Hospitals cannot function without them and they have received wide public support.

At the beginning of the dispute they had 85% of the public supporting them, with only 5% against. After five weeks in which the right wing press conducted a vicious campaign against the strikers, with Dagens Nyheter leading the way, they still had 79% of the public behind them and only 8% against.

The political establishment’s hypocrisy was exposed by the situation where politicians that are on an income of 100,000 SEK a month were refusing to pay a just wage and this at a time when the local councils and county councils have a surplus of 25 billion SEK.

The rightwing coalition government of Sweden wants to cut wage costs. They want to privatise the hospitals and weaken the unions. “Collective struggle is a meaningless way of trying to improve conditions,” wrote Svenska Dagbladet (a conservative Swedish daily paper) in its anti-strike propaganda editorial on 1 June.

A victory could have been won

They have it wrong of course. The hospital workers could have won if the strike had been more massive and used the employers’ weak point – public opinion. If the TCO (white collar trade union congress) had organised a national protest day with thousands out demonstrating their support for the strike, then victory would have been possible.

The union leadership did not want the strike. They have shown they are more interested in having individual agreements than organising the union’s collective power. Members are wondering what the leadership is there for!

Already in 1986, Vårdförbundet (Health Union) began with individual wage settlements. In 2003 they signed “the market’s most modern agreement”. The agreement consists of continuous agreements that are open with no specific levels set. The result has been lower wage increases plus job losses.

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna gave the strike its highest priority. Our elected councillors on the local councils in Umeå, Luleå and Haninge put the strike on the local agendas. Offensiv (our weekly paper) had articles covering the strike action. Party members who are union representatives organised solidarity campaigns.

We collected 6,216 names supporting the strike. This petition demanded that union members would be allowed to vote on any draft agreement. Had that been allowed, then the sell-out could not have taken place.

The strike was a product of a grassroots revolt. A petition on the internet, called ¨Wage Battle 2008¨, which called for 5,000 SEK more was signed by 31,000 names. Of those, 100,000 union members signed to say they would resign from their jobs if the agreement was not a good one. The idea of mass resignations came from Finland, where just the threat of resignations last Autumn resulted in a pay increase of 22-28 per cent.

Resigning from your job is a dangerous option which only works if you all do it together. It must be organised at the local level and means a mass radicalisation of the entire workforce so no one is left fighting alone. Unfortunately the petition organisers did not give any kind of leadership. ¨We have done our bit¨, said Fatma Aslan, one of the organisers, and left it open to individuals to organise the action. But it is the building of a mass grassroots organisation that can win what the nurses are demanding. The Vårdförbundet special wage conference voted in the end with 149 for and 50 against the agreement. The figures reflect the huge resistance at the grassroots level.

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna is now spreading the idea of organising meetings at local level to remove the union secretary, Anna-Karin Eklund, and the union representatives who voted to sign the final agreement. We further demand moves to rip up the agreement, a members’ vote and the right to hold local strikes. These ideas are being spread amongst the 150 or so hospital workers who subscribe to our paper after the strike. We hope to start a network amongst the workers.

At the same time we are following the biomedical workers and nurses strike in Denmark that is in its seventh week. The union Sundhetskartellet is not giving up so easily. The employers have raised the pay offer from 12.8% to 13% but the union is asking for 15%. For us in Sweden we can see that the Danish nurses have worked harder to get public support with a solidarity demonstration of 40,000 organised.

A two week long strike in Norway of nurses and teachers has ended without any big changes. The dispute is continuing in the Oslo region.

In Sweden the defeat of the nurses will have a negative effect since so little strike action takes place here at all. Many will believe that it does not pay to go out on strike. To strike against your employer, the political establishment and the union full-timers is a hard but important battle to take part in and to win.

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna will continue to support all workers who refuse to accept low wages, poor working conditions, long hours and privatisation and commercialisation. The lessons of every struggle are that the maximum unity, solidarity and determination are required to win the battles of the day. Workers also need a new mass political party that will fight against capitalism and all those who call for sacrifices without making any themselves.

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June 2008