by Per-Åke Westerlund, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden)
A big strike and lockout in the public sector in Denmark has just been postponed by the mediators. The public sector unions had announced strike action for nearly 100,000 members from April 4 and the employers threatened a lockout of 450,000 from April 10th.
One week before the strike – the Wednesday before Easter – the state mediator, Mette Christensen, decided to postpone the confrontation for two weeks. The public employers’ comments showed that the politicians, who govern nationally and at council and regional level, were seriously concerned about the coming struggle and the extent of union mobilisation. The powers that be are trying to avoid a total confrontation.
Denmark has seen several major strikes and conflicts in the 2000s as a result of the aggressive attacks of the employers – that is, the politicians. In 2013, nearly 70,000 teachers were locked out for four weeks. Then parliament decided to make the employers’ position law. It meant a major deterioration in the teachers’ working hours and allowed the government to use laws to override the unions’ right to reach agreements.
Social Democrats support the government
A worsening of terms and conditions and of wages has occurred, regardless of whether the country has had right-wing governments or been ruled by the Social Democrats. The differences between the current government policy and the former Social Democratic government are almost non-existent It was the Social Democratic government that imposed a against the teachers in 2013. Again this time, the Socialdemocrats supports the government’s new attacks and the mass lockout.
When the unions called on about 10 percent of their members to strike, the government and municipal employers responded with the country’s largest lockout alert ever. 450,000 workers – over half of all public sector employees – would be shut out of their jobs. In the regions, the employers’ notice included 80,000 nurses, doctors and other employees. In the municipalities 250,000 teachers and other groups were involved and in the government workforce, 120,000 employees were threatened.
The teachers’ union headquarters commented that politicians seemed to be following the same plan as in 2013; first a mass lockout followed by an anti-union law.
Wages and working hours
The battle issues in this year’s negotiations known as ‘OK 18’ (2018 collective agreement) are many. Denmark is in the midst of a boom, with record company profits and dividends being given to shareholders. In 2017 alone, the state’s tax revenues increased by 31 billion Danish Kronor.
The demand for a real wage increase after a decade of stagnant wages and worsened conditions, when union leaders accepted low agreements because of the economic crisis, is therefore strong. In particular, the trade unions are demanding most for the low-paid and equal pay for women workers. Statistics show that women earn an average of 13.2 percent less than men.
The unions are also making a common demand for the law against the teachers of 2013 to be abolished and that teachers can negotiate an agreement on their working hours.
The third battle issue is about a new attack from the employers. Since as long ago as 1929, public sector workers in Denmark have had a half-hour paid lunch break and this is on condition that they are in the workplace and available for work if necessary. This is something politicians now want to abolish.
The unity between the unions is unusually strong. All 51 national unions in the public sector are behind the demands for increased wages, for the agreements for teachers and to keep the lunch break.
At a unique giant meeting in the city of Fredericia on March 22, 10,380 elected representatives from all the associations gathered. Nurses, teachers and other public sector employees – from officers and policemen to janitors and cleaners – presented plans for major demonstrations, strike centres and a demonstration for the entire country in Copenhagen on April 10th. The theme of the meeting was “We will not be scared off!”.
Greetings with messages of support from private employees were read out at the meeting. The Facebook Group called “Backing Public Employees” got 160,000 members in a just few days. More than a million viewers have seen the video where teachers are singing the support song: “We are your regular supporters!”.
The government is fully supported by big business and the Danish Employers’ Association. The negotiations are led by Sofie Løhde of the right-wing party Venstre who is the Minister of Innovation, Elderly Care and Health. In Denmark, the dismantling of welfare has been organised by a body called the ‘Modernisation Board’. Among other things, they have pushed through an increase in the retirement age, cut down on early retirement and drastically reduced social benefits. Paid holidays such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve have been withdrawn. This is on top of constant cuts in all public services for many years.
One of the government’s goals in ‘OK 2018’ is that a larger proportion of wages will be decided locally and individually. The minister, Sofie Løhde, is also preparing to push through a new “reform” of the public sector as soon as this agreement is settled. Her stated ambition, in a typical comparison with cars, is that public employees will “travel further on every litre”.
So far there are no cracks in the union front. Many members turned up with banners outside the negotiations as they continued on the eve of the Easter holiday. There is good reason to warn against attempts to offer better conditions for some employees, or some kind of joint ‘investigation body’ to divert attention from the most controversial issues. The most dangerous, however, is the government plan to stop strikes with a new law.
It would be a mistake for the unions to postpone their planned mobilisations. They need to conduct mass demonstrations and meetings to keep up the pressure and be prepared to act if the government threatens to implement a law. The next wave of demonstrations is planned for 10 April.
Neither the government nor the Social Democratic opposition is strong. Danish politicians have, in many cases, been a leading force within the EU in attacking immigrants and refugees, and depressed areas (officially called “ghettos”) most affected by inequality and neo-liberalism. The current conflict shows how this policy and the attacks on all wage-earners, young people and pensioners are two sides of the same coin.
The general dissatisfaction in society provides great opportunities for the Unity List (Red-Green Alliance) – the only party that up to now has consistently supported the teachers in 2013 and the unions generally.
by Albert Andersen Øydivin (CWI Norway)
A big strike in Norway’s private sector could begin on Monday, 9 April. The trade union federation – LO – has broken off negotiations with the bosses in the Norwegian Employers’ Organisation, NHO.
This means that state mediation has begun (on Wednesday April 4) and ends on Sunday, April 8th. LO has announced strike action from Monday for 30,000 workers, if they don’t win their demands, with a possible escalation to 175,000. The Norwegian white collar trade union federation, YS, has also given notice of strike action by 6,000 workers, with a subsequent possible escalation to 28,000. Any new major agreement from these negotiations will determine conditions and wages for workers in the public sector also; their negotiations will follow those of the private sector. The struggle therefore covers almost all organised workers (with nearly 50% of all worker in trade unions) and all workplaces with a collective agreement. Three demands
The LO has three main demands for the private sector and the NHO has completely rejected all of them. Firstly, the union federation is fighting to expand access to AFP – a pension system for workers with physically heavy jobs which means that they can retire at the age of 62 instead of the ordinary retirement age of 67. But today to get AFP it is necessary to work full time for the last seven years without getting sick or not managing to work. This forces many workers with heavy jobs to become poor pensioners. LO demands that those who need AFP should get it! Demand number two deals with food, lodging and travel expenses for guest workers. This is an important struggle for industry in general, and especially those sectors that are subject to social dumping. Especially in the shipbuilding and fish farming industry, wear and tear strategies are common in relation to European guest workers. Capitalists use cynical divide and rule methods to pit Norwegian workers against guest workers in order to worsen conditions and wages for all. LO’s demands combine solidarity with demands that are in all workers’ interests, across artificial national boundaries. The third demand of the LO is an end to the undermining of real wages for ordinary workers. Since 2014, real wages have fallen for most workers in Norway. This is a battle against increasing class divisions that characterise Norway and the rest of the capitalist world. Formally, average real wages in Norway first fell only in 2016 because the upper class and upper middle class had high increases in their incomes. For most people, and especially for the most low-paid, it has become increasingly difficult since 2014.
The groups with the worst pay increases are women and immigrant-dominated professions such as cleaning-workers, hotels, restaurant and nightlife services, as well as my own occupation – unskilled school assistants. Stand firm
The LO position of solidarity amongst workers and the essentially fair demands should be supported by everyone. But socialists and activists in the trade union movement must put pressure on the LO leadership not to back down from the demands, but use working class fighting methods.
It is 18 years since the centralised collective bargaining talks ended in a major battle. At that time, the LO leadership negotiated a bad deal and went off on a jaunt to a top-heavy “Labour Congress” in South Africa. Then Norway’s LO members took the matter into their own hands, voted down the bargaining results and announced a big strike across the country. This strike won a major increase in holiday entitlement from four to five weeks.
The strength of the working class is not in smart strategies in closed negotiations, but in open strikes and demonstrations in the streets. The reports from many workplaces now say: “We are ready!”.