Denmark: Hosting Global Climate Summit

A country polarised by militant struggle and anti-racist protests

Right-wing governments have ruled Denmark since 2001, relying on support from an openly racist party, the Danish People’s Party (DF). They have presided over a ‘bubble’ economy and have made provocative attacks on the rights and conditions of workers, youth and immigrants. There has only been a lame so-called opposition from the Social Democratic Party. With the country due to host the Global Climate Summit from 6-18 December, it is timely to look at recent developments. The challenge for socialists is to link up the ongoing struggles and protests taking place in Denmark into a movement of genuine opposition.

The liberal editor of the daily paper Politiken, Tøger Seidenfaden, an outspoken critic of the government, recently summarised the situation. "Eight years after 2001, it is still exceptional that the opposition can only gather a one seat majority in opinion polls. This is despite a fall in Denmark’s GDP of 7-8 percent in a year and most economists expect unemployment in 2010 of between 150,000 and 200,000 people".

Denmark was one of the first countries to go into recession, on the basis of a huge housing bubble. In 2008, GDP fell 1.2 percent and this year the drop will be up to five percent. The government hopes for a growth of 1 percent in 2010. But latest facts show the drop in industrial production continuing to fall, with September production being 18.7 percent down compared to the same month in 2008. The public sector deficit is predicted to double, from 2 percent in 2009 to 5.5 percent next year. Company bankruptcies and forced evictions of families who cannot pay their mortgages are at record levels. However, as in many other countries, the government has stepped in and saved the banks. Roskilde Bank’s huge losses were nationalised to be paid with the taxes of working class families.

Three factors have allowed the right-wing government to stay on, in spite of its attacks on workers and welfare services. Firstly, the bubble economy, with its expansion of credit, gave the illusion of increasing purchasing power and keeping unemployment low. Secondly, most of the political establishment followed the agenda of the racist DF, focusing on measures to stop immigration. Thirdly, and most important, has been the incapacity of the trade union leaders, the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist People’s Party (SF) to put forward an alternative, never mind organising a fight back.

The leading government party, Venstre, whose former leader and prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has become NATO Secretary General, is still ahead as the biggest party in opinion polls, with 26.9 percent. The Social Democrats are on 24.2 percent. However, just over a quarter of those asked, 25.8 percent, say they have no party or are undecided.


There has been a sharp drop in the number of strikes as a result of the crisis. In Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), for example, six unions have agreed to a cut in wages, pensions and conditions. However, there is no lack of struggle in Denmark, showing the way for a real opposition to develop.

In Greater Copenhagen, 50 refuse collectors have been sacked after a three week-long strike this Autumn. They were employed by H.C. Svendsen (HCS), a subcontractor for five local councils. After four strikes at HCS in six months, the workers finally went on all-out strike on 2 October. They were provoked by a statement from the company saying the union had accepted an increased workload, including dangerous work routines and speed-ups. This was not true. Even before this, guidelines from state authorities checking workplaces were being violated on a daily basis.

The strike became a focal point for workers, employers and the state. The Employers’ Federation gave full backing to the company, and so did the government. The Labour Court decided on fines for the workers and gave a green light for the company to fire them.

The backing from unions and Social Democrats was weak. Even worse: the councils concerned were all run by Social Democrats! One of them, Herlev, switched the contract to another company, but that was also controlled by HCS. The same is the case in Copenhagen, where a HCS-owned company will start collecting refuse on 1 January. Neither the Social Democrats nor the SF has given a clear position on HCS or on the privatisation policies that are behind the worsening of conditions and wages.

After three weeks, the refuse collectors refused to go back to work and were sacked. In the council areas, the HCS subcontractors have taken over the work. The sacked workers organised attempted blockades of an incineration plant and were met by aggressive police repression, including teargas. The strikers’ spokesman, Ronni Larsen, was arrested and is now threatened with 40 days’ imprisonment if he turns up there again. At the same time, the employer has threatened to go to the civil courts to increase the fines against the workers.

It is clear that the employers want confrontation, calculating on the weakness of the union leadership. This is a preparation for the wage negotiations coming up in the new year.

All those who support the sacked refuse collectors have to mobilise from below, put pressure on unions for solidarity action. A national demonstration has been called for Thursday, 12 November. This should not be a one-off event, but should be used as an opportunity to step up the support, including mass blockades. The demands should be for the reinstatement of the sacked workers and for all privatisation to be reversed.

School strikes

There are many natural allies for these workers in the struggle against the employers and the government. On 6 October, 25,000 school students from over 60 high schools (pre-university education), were on strike as parliament reopened. Demonstrations took place in six cities and the occupation of some schools followed. Their demand is the reversal of the cuts which focus on increasing school class sizes, with most classes having 30 or more school students. The movement also criticises the system introduced in 2007, that makes all schools autonomous financial units, i.e. forcing every school to decide on their own cuts.

The government, however, is planning to continue the cuts this year with 324 million DKr (43 million euros). This is expected to push half the schools into deficits.

Protests against education cuts are spreading. The teachers’ union predicts cuts of 200 million Dkr in Copenhagen next year. It would mean three to four teachers less in every school. This was agreed by all parties in the Copenhagen council. In fact, the politician in charge is from the Socialist People’s Party (SF). A parents’ organisation (KFO), is organising protests and campaigning action. On 17 November, local elections will take place and the question is whether there is any alternative.


The reactionary immigration policies of the government have provoked a counter-movement. 20,000 people took part in a demonstration in August against a brutal police intervention into a church where refugees from Iraq had sought protection. 17 young Iraqi asylum-seekers were in the church while a couple of hundred people tried to stop the police attack. The brutality of the police, using pepper spray and batons against peaceful demonstrators, was displayed on the internet. Alongside the 20,000 strong demonstration in Copenhagen, there were demonstrations in many other cities. The pressure of the protest movement even forced some politicians and union leaders to condemn the attack.

The amount of political debate focusing on immigrants, and in particular on Muslims, has been higher in Denmark than in most European countries. The rise of the racist DF (Danish People’s Party) in the 1990s was responded to by other parties with measures that copied the DF.

Denmark today has harder immigration policies than other EU countries. For example, Danish citizens below 24 years of age are forbidden to marry and live with a foreigner. A long list of other regulations are different for Danish and non-Danish people.

Denmark became infamous when the daily paper, Jyllands Posten, published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. Justified as a "defence of freedom of publicity", it was in reality a sign of increased racism and prejudice among Danish politicians and the establishment. Another development has been the strong backing, including troops, for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The government and the Social Democrats and even the SF (the Socialist People’s Party) have all tried to derail the DF by adapting to them. But in most cases the DF has increased its support – to 16.7 percent in the general election of 2007. And the DF is always coming up with even more racist demands. In the present budget negotiations between the government and the DF, the most publicised issue has been the stepping up of the hunt for people without work permits. "Social fraud" should be a crime and lead to deportation, they say. The people targeted by the DF are the relatives of immigrants. The Social Democrats’ criticism of the new regulations is limited to saying that "integration problems" should be treated separately, not when the budget is discussed. Regarding the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union, Danish politicians are now considering whether to demand exceptions for its more restrictive migration policies.

A real left-wing, working class opposition against the government needs a clear anti-racist policy. That means fighting all attacks on immigrants, whether by the state or by racist groups, as well as fighting for jobs and education for everyone. Immigrant workers should be organised in the unions and have equal wages and working conditions. School students, parents and teachers must fight for everyone’s rights, whatever country they come from. No Danish workers or youth gain from the attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers, on the contrary.

The DF’s support has been based on mixing racism with promises to defend health care and particularly the care of elderly people. With the crisis, and the DF supporting increased cuts, the possibilities of undermining their support has increased.

Opposition against the government must also raise the demand for the withdrawal of Danish troops from Afghanistan. This demand is raised by the left-wing Red-Green Alliance (Unity List), which also has a clear anti-racist policy. Today, the Red-Green Alliance stands at just over two percent in the opinion polls, which is the threshold to get MPs. This is despite the highest number of members ever – just over 4,300. In order to grow and make a bigger impact, the Red-Green Alliance needs to be involved in all the struggles of workers and young people, and develop a clear socialist strategy for victory in them.

Democratic rights

The latest attack by the right-wing government is a new draft law to restrict democratic rights at demonstrations, blockades etc. The law ("lømmelpakken", or “hooligan measures”) includes the right for the police to hold people for 12 hours without charges, to impose drastically increased fines for "disturbing the peace" (of 10,000 DKr – over 1,300 euros), and harsher punishments for obstructing the work of the police. Organising blockades can lead to 40 days in prison.

This law is designed to be in use by the time of the Global Climate Summit in Copenhagen, 6-18 December. The government claims it wants to ensure the security of the 20,000 delegates, but the real aim is to limit the possibilities of protest from an expected 30,000 or more climate demonstrators. They probably hope to scare off some people from even attending.

The new repressive law has met strong criticism, not least from local and regional trade unions. Strikes and blockades, but also protests against deportations such as in August, will risk leading to prison sentences.

All those against the law should take the approach of the youth organisation of the Red-Green Alliance, "We will not stay at home". Instead, more workers and youth should be mobilised to support the struggle movements and to the climate demonstrations. Slogans should be taken up against capitalism and right-wing policies both in relation to Denmark and globally.

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November 2009