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Worker Power on the Swedish Docks

Erik Helgeson

The Swedish Dockworkers Union has announced plans for indefinite strike action. The future of independent, left-wing, rank-and-file trade unionism in Sweden hangs in the balance.

Feeder ship Maersk Venice and ocean going container ship Maersk Singapore in Port of Gothenburg, July 2008. Marcusroos / Wikimedia

Interview by
Katy Fox-Hodess

The Swedish Dockworkers Union (SDU), founded in the 1970s, is widely recognized for its long-standing militant rank-and-file approach to trade unionism that diverges from the dominant model of bureaucratic business unionism more typically found in Sweden. Nevertheless, as one of the sole independent trade unions in the country, the SDU has faced major challenges over the years from both employers in the sector as well as the mainstream trade union movement, and more recently, from government.

The union is currently engaged in an existential struggle with employers from the entire sector. What began as an industrial dispute with APM Terminals at the Port of Gothenburg has become a national dispute that has included significant changes to the right to strike along the way, backed by the Social Democratic Party. In response to employer lockouts, the SDU has announced plans for indefinite strike action. The future of independent, left-wing, rank-and-file trade unionism in Sweden hangs in the balance.

In order to better understand the history of the union and the dispute, Katy Fox-Hodess spoke last month with Erik Helgeson. Erik is a dockworker at the Port of Gothenburg who serves on both the local and national board of the SDU and is a member of the national bargaining committee.


KFH

The so-called Swedish Model, and its relationship to Scandinavian social democracy more generally, is often viewed in a very positive light by leftists in the United States, yet leftists in Sweden have tended to view these in a more critical light. Could you please explain what the Swedish Model entails and why it has been criticized by the Left?

EH

What is generally referred to as the Swedish Model here is the labor market model, the way new CBAs are negotiated and such. That system was founded as a result of a big compromise made in 1938. It has great benefits and has meant a lot of achievements for the workers. But the downside of it is that the rank and file has lost more and more of its influence over the years because the system got more and more centralized and more and more professionalized to the point where we are today, where it’s basically regarded by many people, including union members, more as an insurance company than a trade union that you are supposed to be active in and responsible for.

In the beginning of the 1900s, Sweden and the Swedish labor market was quite violent. With a fairly small population, we had a huge number of disputes, strikes, and lockouts that kept going into the 1930s. A dock strike in 1931 in Adalen in the north marked a turning point. The employer was bringing in strikebreakers, so the labor movement organized a march to go down to the port. Because there had been a lot of fights, the military was called in and opened fire. Five workers, including a young woman named Eira, were shot dead by the police. The Social Democrats’ parliamentary wing tried to distance themselves from the strike and the events that followed as they claimed it had been led by Communists. But the outraged reaction of the broader working class (and a significant part of the Social Democrats) gave the labor movement momentum in some areas in the years that followed.

After that, the situation was very, very tense up to the point where the state was threatening new legislation against both the employers and the trade unions, but mostly against the trade unions. But the parties didn’t want to be regulated by the state in that fashion, so a compromise was reached, named after the place where the deal was signed.

It was a huge deal between the national confederation of labor, the LO, and the national employers’ association, which made some new basic rules for the whole labor market. For example, they acknowledged the right to organize and a system of collective bargaining on a more national level. It granted the workers some rights but on the other hand it took away others, limiting the right to strike to particular contexts. The labor movement agreed to labor peace during the contracts and in exchange, they were given certain rights. One of the major factors in the agreement was to try to centralize control over the labor unions so, for example, the decision to strike would not be taken locally. In accordance with the agreement, the whole LO had to be restructured so that the final word about a dispute would always be with the leadership of the LO.

The system meant that the top level of the whole confederation would have to gain more control over each of the trade unions and the trade unions would then have to have a greater amount of control over each local. All unions had to conform to this new principle of every strike being sanctioned to some degree by the LO. But the process was slow. It happened over decades.

Wildcat strikes and actions in the workplaces were put down to some degree and, in exchange, the behavior of the employers was regulated. There were less strikebreakers brought in, less aggressive counter-tactics on the part of the employers. National contracts started forming for a lot of branches which in general is good because it elevates the lowest level in each branch. And the general idea was that the strong professions would provide leverage to other professions who were not as strong or couldn’t strike with the same effectiveness, nurses or caretakers, people who are essential for society to work but have a very hard time striking.

They started building union power on a central level which meant, decade by decade, that certain rights were achieved, unemployment insurance, all of that. But it also meant that the number of strikes in general went down. After the second World War, the economic boom that came about as a result of Sweden being neutral during the war meant that the labor movement could make great achievements. The bottom level of the labor market was elevated, year by year, for a certain period of time.

Since the economic crisis in the early 1990s, the centralized bargaining system has been taken to another level. A small cluster of white- and blue-collar unions (the Metal Workers Union are a key player) within the private tech-export industry took it upon themselves to negotiate the first master contract in each CBA every two or three years or so. Together with their employers, they would then decide on a “sustainable” percentage level for wage increases that all other unions were expected to submit to as a “roof” for their own claims and demands. There is absolutely no rank-and-file input into these negotiations about what is generally called “the mark,” and the whole process is increasingly regarded as a technocratic exercise. There hasn’t been strike action linked to these negotiations for the last twenty-seven years.

This new shape of the Swedish model, with a centralized fixed percentage framework for wage increases, was officially designed to control inflation. But all immaterial gains, like better employment safety or retirement benefits, have to be financed by a smaller wage increase within the system. In reality, the system is very beneficial for the Swedish export industry but also means that inequalities between high- and low-paid workers and between male and female dominated industries tend to increase over time. The state actively supports the system and the institute for state mediation in labor disputes is nowadays tasked not only with resolving conflicts but also securing “the mark” and “sustainable” wage increases.

KFH

The Swedish Dockworkers Union (SDU) is quite unusual within Sweden as the only major independent union in a country with a highly centralized and institutionalized national labor movement. Why and how did the SDU emerge in this context and how did it differ from the Swedish Transport Workers Union, which had previously been the sole union in the sector?

EH

The Social Democratic Party in Sweden was founded by the LO. But as time went by, ties between the confederation and the Social Democratic Party got tighter and tighter and at some point, it wasn’t an equal relationship anymore. It started being a union for the party, more than a party for the union.

In the 1960s, there were still a lot of trade unions that were heavily influenced by Communists or led by Communists. But that was regarded as a threat by the Social Democratic majority and the top leadership of the confederation so they tried to build in structures that would allow even greater control from the top.

At that time, each port had its own local. Sweden has a long coastline with a lot of ports, both on the west and all the way round and up to the north. Each local had its own port and each port had its own local. Those locals were controlled by the members. The union wanted to reduce all these locals to just a few very large ones. But for the dockworkers, and for many other workers, that meant a practical problem because union democracy and union engagement was a thing that you practiced in a physical place. You had to go to a union meeting to make a proposal or to vote. And the democratic tradition was still there. The members had a vote on a CBA, even on a national level in some branches. The members got to vote on the results of negotiations and what to do next, what was the next step and so on. And they also elected their own negotiating representatives in the ports and all the workplaces.

But the new development within the LO was that these physical meeting places would be centralized to certain places which would include a number of ports. The issue of voting and rank-and-file engagement in the decisions of the union was frowned upon by the leadership because it was regarded as a way for the Communists and radical elements to exercise influence on the workers, and that was, at this point, supposed to be the privilege of the Social Democratic Party, acting as satellites of the confederation. As they tried to reduce the number of locals and to some degree get rid of rank-and-file ballots and engagement in the decisions of the union, they also tried to centralize control of the negotiating officials in the unions.

Unions put forward ombudsmen as a kind of a position that was not elected directly by the members who they were negotiating for but rather employed by the national board of each union. This meant that they could get rid of elements that they were not happy with or couldn’t control — Communists, but also people aligned with, for example, the Centrist Party or the Farmers Party. When this was introduced, only Social Democrats were brought in as ombudsmen. And the ombudsmen were mainly answering to their employers, which were the national boards of each union. And in the ports, this was a big issue, because the dockworkers had always had a radical tradition.… They elected representatives who were Communists, who were from the Farmers Party, or independent radicals.

At certain points, they did not respect the compromise of 1938. There were major wildcat strikes in the ports in 1954 and 1969, for example. Even during the periods where they were under CBA, they started wildcat action in order to resolve local issues or try to better their conditions.

At the local level, the Transport Workers Union, which at that time was the only union representing dockworkers in Sweden, supported these wildcat strikes because the officials were also dockworkers and they were also strike leaders, not officially, but in practice. But the Transport Workers Union at the national level refused to defend the dockworkers, saying that they had been acting against the interests of the union. They were fined in court and then in order to keep their union membership, they had to sign an oath of loyalty to the Transport Workers Union.

That was when this centralization process reached its peak in the ports. In the north, dockworkers would have to travel 200 km by car just to get to union meetings and to exercise their right to vote on certain contracts and so on. And they were also told that they could not elect the negotiators anymore because they were to be appointed by the national board and paid by them, which meant that many of the ones that the dockworkers had faith in, trusted, and were elected would not represent them anymore because they did not have the right party membership. As a reaction to this, the dockworkers in the north refused. So they kept their locals up to the point where they were thrown out of the Transport Workers Union. About 800–1000 of them were thrown out in 1971, 1972.

Building on a radical tradition that had been there all the way, they founded a new union called the Swedish Dockworkers Union. The SDU had in its statutes that it would maintain the traditions of rank-and-file engagement; membership ballots before every important decision; elected representatives or negotiators would have the same salary as the workers they represented; and no affiliation to any political party. They were of course political, but they refused to align themselves with any particular political party.

KFH

Other independent unions founded in Sweden during the wave of labor radicalism in the 1970s eventually disappeared. What explains the SDU’s longevity?

EH

The SDU was founded in 1972, as a reaction to what had been happening for about ten years by then. But there were other reactions like this in the 1970s. It started already with a big miners’ strike in 1969. And after that followed a wave of wildcat strikes from different professions, janitors, for example, lumberjacks, and a lot of wildcat action in the industries that were very profitable, like Volvo. And the wildcat strikes spun off to form new unions, independent ones. There were a whole series of them. Train conductors formed a union, airline pilots, flight technicians, and so on. And they all kind of went back to basics. They wanted smaller entities and a greater rank-and-file control of the whole union. They were very different, each of them, but they all suffered the same fate, except for the dockworkers’ union and the part-time firemen’s union.

There were several reasons for this. The dockworkers union went on strike, had national strikes, in 1974 and 1980, in order to get their own CBA. The strikes in 1974 and then in 1980 were very hard-fought. The one in 1980 was a national strike which lasted six weeks. Both strikes were unsuccessful. They didn’t win the CBA and the employers were very close to destroying the union entirely, in 1980. But they managed to survive.

After that, the employers didn’t surrender to the union, but they couldn’t destroy it either. So they had to recognize that the union had a lot of power and that the members were very motivated. The union didn’t gain the CBA but they were feared after those strikes. And the fear meant that a compromise, an informal one, was reached. And that compromise was that the union was allowed rights that are normally connected to signing a CBA within the Swedish Model, because the Swedish Model is kind of an all-or-nothing model.

Until now, the right to strike has been fairly unlimited in the Swedish context as long as you weren’t bound by a CBA. A few limitations came in during the 1970s, that you have to give notice a certain number of days before, but if you don’t have a CBA and you give notice in the way the law requires, you’re basically allowed to do whatever you want — overtime stoppages, strikes, etc. You are pretty free to move but you don’t have any other rights. The same freedom applies for the employers concerning lockouts etc.

Once you gain the CBA, the law grants you a lot of rights, a whole series of laws kicks in, for example, certain articles that require the employer to negotiate with you before any big changes. There are even some areas where the union has a veto against certain actions of the employers and so on. You have a right to representation on the board of each company of a certain size. You have a right to paid union time. And all of these are linked to the fact that you have signed a CBA.

The dockworkers were not strong enough to win the CBA in 1980 but they were strong enough to win some of the rights that would follow a CBA. So after that, they were granted the right to elect health and safety officers and they were allowed to participate in union negotiations, or local negotiations, in the ports. They were not allowed to sign the contracts once an agreement was reached. That was still the privilege of the Transport Workers Union. But they were allowed to participate.

And over the years, the dockworkers learned to work within this framework. They had limited rights but though they didn’t have a CBA, they still had the right to take industrial action. And that threat made it possible to keep the union relevant by just doing a good job.

The key also is that the rank-and-file structure of the dockworkers’ union gave us a lot of advantages compared to other professions. Because of locality, we still work in the same area. A lot of workers interact on a daily basis instead of just being two, three people going up and down the country in a train, talking to other drivers when they stop for breaks. You work shoulder to shoulder with a lot of people all the time which meant it was possible to build a stronger relationship and maintain the tradition and to really get the advantages of a rank-and-file union where you were both allowed to take part in the decisions of the union and you were also expected to do your part for the union. You don’t just pay the dues and then expect someone else to do all the work. That made it possible for us to maintain a strong position while most of the other independent unions that were formed during the same era just petered out and died.

KFH

How is the SDU viewed in the trade union movement and on the Left more generally in Sweden? What is its reputation and how has that materialized?

EH

The union has always been very internationalist. That is partly because of circumstance. We work directly with ships that call on other ports that we find out things about and we want to interact with them and so on. But also, when the dockworkers union was founded, it was attacked by the Transport Workers Union and the LO. We were a pariah from the start. No one wanted to interact with us, or they were not allowed to in any official capacity. We couldn’t build official collaboration. We could only interact or cooperate with other groups of workers on a personal level because it’s a very controlled environment. You can’t really break through and have a good relationship with the construction workers union or something like that within the Swedish context because everything is so centralized. If the top level says you’re the enemy, then you’re the enemy. And they have the power to make sure that each official in each trade union complies with that or he’s replaced.

So instead we reached out and kind of interacted with other movements, solidarity movements, that were present in the 1970s. Chile was the first major one. The dockworkers were very involved in Latin America in general but in Chile after the coup, the dockworkers were the first to refuse to handle cargo from the dictatorship. They let fruit rot on the quays, and they refused to discharge other cargo.

During apartheid, we had a lot of dockworkers who were engaged in that struggle. And the dockworkers were the first. Before the LO agreed to the boycott of apartheid South Africa, the dockworkers started a boycott of South Africa cargo, products, ships, and so on.

So we’ve always had this reputation within the solidarity movements, for internationalist causes in general — Iran, Latin America, the Middle East, everything. The union has never been aligned with any political party but it was from the beginning a very political union. The basis for this was that the union members turned up to meetings, raised different issues, and then the issue was voted upon. If the argument was good enough, then the union supported the cause and, in some cases, went all the way and issued boycotts or tried to build pressure in other fashions.

And that has kept going into modern times with the boycott of Israeli cargo and ships after the flotilla massacre and protests against the EU when they started imposing all these neoliberal programs. The dockworkers took a very clear stand and most of the unions did not, because the Social Democrats agreed with the changes or didn’t protest them. And that’s how it works. We’ve always had the luxury of being free to do what the members want us to do. We don’t have to make evaluations of how will this affect our political party, what is the party’s opinion of this and that? We just do it if it’s the right thing.

Also, we built a reputation by supporting other dockworkers internationally. We have taken direct action by blocking ships or cargo to support struggling dockworkers in Scandinavia, Europe, and all around the world. In the last years we’ve been doing our part to practically support striking dockworkers in Norway, Portugal, and other countries.

But we also interacted with the non-official labor movement in Sweden, like, for example, during the cleaners’ strike. There were cleaners all around the country that started a wildcat boycott of their own jobs because the working conditions were so bad. And the dockworkers were part of organizing a kind of gala fundraising thing and tried to raise awareness about the issue and so on. But most of the unions wouldn’t touch it because they were wildcat strikes and that just doesn’t fit into the framework that is set up by the Swedish model.

And I think that’s also the reputation that we have. In the last few years, we’ve been very active in supporting nurses organizing for higher pay. The nurses have not been organizing wildcat strikes. But they started a movement of reinventing one of the key elements of the trade union movement as a whole. They started promising each other that no one would take any job that was less than 25,000 Swedish Crowns (SEK) a month. Because they identified one of the problems as that when you leave nursing school or the university after earning your professional title, then the wages differ a lot and some of them are very low. And nurses who started very low could not catch up. So they had a big movement amongst the students that no one would go under a certain amount of money. And it worked. We’re also very supportive of that. That was not in protest of, or in conflict with, the nurses’ union. But it wasn’t a union initiative. It was a rank-and-file initiative and it had to be carried out outside of the normal union channels. So that’s where we can interact with the rest of the union movement in Sweden. At the official level, we’re isolated.

However, in later years we’ve been officially asked to provide solidarity action to trade unions within the confederation like the public sector workers, the paper industry workers, and even the STWU (Swedish Transport Workers Union). We’ve always agreed to do that, knowing none of them would ever be allowed to support such a request from us. We don’t want to compromise our integrity and class solidarity on the basis of trade-off politics or organizational sectarianism, but I can honestly say it’s been frustrating to be attacked by top-level union officials who have previously asked for our help.

KFH

The SDU is currently engaged in an existential struggle with the sector as a whole. What began as an industrial dispute with APM terminals at the Port of Gothenburg eventually became a national dispute involving the entire sector and the introduction of new anti-trade union legislation. Can you please explain the background to the current conflict?

EH

I think we’re regarded as a very big threat on the labor market, not so much because we’ve been able to negotiate good work hours or good pay at the local levels in the port, but because we represent an alternative. There is growing disapproval of the way trade unions are run, more and more like insurance companies run by CEOs instead of rank-and-file involvement in the union as a whole. And the unions have a problem with this that they identify. They can’t even get people to accept the positions at the local level anymore. But they still don’t change any of the structures that made this outcome come to be in the first place.

We’re very small compared to the Swedish labor market as a whole. Dockworkers are less than 3,000 in the whole country. It’s a very small profession and we’re a very small union — about half of the dockworkers are organized with us, about half are with the other union, the Transport Workers Union. But for some reason, the fact that we still exist and that we still keep talking about these old but new structures where we still have these membership votes and we still elect whomever we want to office instead of someone who would be loyal to the top level or a paid official, for some reason, it’s kind of threatening, both to the employers — though I think less to the employers — and more for the top-level of the LO.

The origin of our current problem is the APM dispute. The APM dispute was a local dispute which happened a few years after the Port of Gothenburg, which is the biggest port in Scandinavia, was privatized. It was taken over by APM, which is owned by Maersk. Maersk appointed a new CEO with a different agenda that was very anti-union. He was brought in to just fuck everything up: terms and conditions, pay, everything. He was brought in to do this and he met resistance from us. And this resulted in a local dispute that ended with a lockout in 2017 where we were locked out for six weeks and after that, a third of the workforce was fired and replaced by temp agency workers. The issue is still not resolved. It’s an ongoing problem.

During that period, APM tried to broaden the dispute to involve all the other ports and all the other operators. And they failed. A letter was sent out by the employers’ association in 2017 for all terminal operators to exercise the same policies towards the Swedish Dockworker Union as APM. That meant that the SDU should denied all information on what was happening in the company. We were to be thrown out from all negotiations. At APMT, they tried to threaten our union reps. And they got rid of all the elected health and safety officers who were members of the Swedish Dockworkers Union. They could do that in accordance with the law. Essentially, APMT just dumped the informal compromise that had been in effect ever since the big strikes in 1974 and 1980 and we were thrown out. The problem for APM and their supporters at that time, was that the other port companies wouldn’t comply with their policy towards the SDU.

In 2018, they tried again to broaden the dispute, this time with the support of the national employers’ association for all industries. With their support, they sent out a new letter to all companies in the ports saying that if the policy was not executed to the letter then the company would be thrown out of the employers’ association which would be a big problem for these companies, in the Swedish context. It could mean that the ports might be boycotted by members of the employers’ association in general which would mean devastating economic loss. So at that point, in April last year, all of them complied. And dockworkers were thrown out of more negotiations and health and safety work in all the ports.

Since then, we’ve tried to negotiate a solution in order to regain those rights. But we recognize that this time, a compromise like the one made after the strike in 1980 would not be possible. This time, we need to win a real CBA in order to ensure that we actually have the rights of a normal trade union in Sweden. So that’s what the dispute is about.

Basically, our demand is to sign a CBA parallel with the one already in place, with the same wording, the same wage scales, the same work-pattern rules, etc., as the one between ports in Sweden and the Swedish Transport Workers Union. But this poses a threat to a lot of different actors. The LO does not want us to be a fully recognized stakeholder in the CBA because they regard us as competitors. The LO has an internal decision that there can only be one trade union in each profession and the LO has the final word on which union organizes which profession. As they have already given that right to the Transport Workers Union, we are kind of an abomination, something really bad, intruding on their territory.

The employers, on the other hand, think we’re a pain in the ass that they want to get rid of. They know that if they get rid of the Swedish Dockworkers Union then they will not have to handle, for example, international solidarity action in the ports. We’ve been taking action with the rest of the International Dockworkers Council, for example, in support of British dockworkers in Tilbury, or the Portuguese dockworkers. And they would get rid of all that if they got rid of us. They would also get a counterpart that was much easier to handle. And I think they see the potential to erode the working conditions of the whole dockworker force over time if we are not at the negotiation table.

Since this was a coordinated effort last year, I think they’ve been preparing some kind of joint tactics to make this happen. We’ve been trying for eight months to negotiate a solution, but we’re still getting the same counterproposal as we have for the last ten years, which is that we should have a side agreement to the Transport Workers Union’s agreement. That would mean that our union would be subordinate to the other union. That in turn would mean that we would not be present at negotiations at all. We would be receiving paid union time for doing nothing, which might be very nice for one or two people but would basically make the whole union redundant. There’s no point in having a rank-and-file democracy or a rank-and-file union if we’re not part of negotiations, doing basic union work where our members are. We’re not interested in doing anything else, being a kind of PR organization or becoming another insurance company.

KFH

What role has the Swedish Social Democratic Party, ostensibly an ally of the trade union movement, and the national trade union federation LO, play in the dispute and the legislation?

EH

These efforts are then backed by politics. The LO are closely affiliated to the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats, in turn, are only Social Democrats in words. Like in many other European countries, the Social Democrats are now so far to the right that they can hardly be distinguished from liberals.

During the dispute at APM, the LO allowed the Social Democrats to sponsor new legislation restricting the right to strike for all workers in Sweden. Just before the state presented its proposal, the LO got very scared because the result was devastating. It would have had a huge impact on the major confederations as well, just to get rid of us, or hit us.

Instead, to avoid that proposal, they made a deal with Swedish enterprise and together they proposed their own limitations on the right to strike. And that is now going to become law in 2020 — new limitations to the right to strike at companies or in branches where there already is a CBA in place. It will impact all unions in Sweden. White-collar workers, for example, have several unions organizing the same profession. Those professions will be heavily affected by the new legislation. It allows, for example, for employers who have the intention of doing so, to introduce yellow unions to block any other union, a legitimate union, from signing a proper CBA.

The LO allowed this to happen because they thought that we would be dead by the time that the legislation was launched. But in the end, they discovered too late that their own scheme had gotten out of hand. So they panicked and tried to make a less-bad deal with the employers. And that deal is now coming into law. But it will still hurt both them and all the white-collar unions in the other confederation. With the new law, the employers get an opportunity to pick their favorite union counterpart and isolate the other one. Because of the new legislation, the other union’s options will be very limited. This will be an effective tool in the employers’ hands. I think parts of the LO are discovering this at this point, but it’s too late.

There’s very little opposition to this. The natural opposition would be the Left Party, the Social Democrats and the Greens forming a progressive bloc, so to speak. But in reality, on economic issues and now also on labor issues, for example, when it comes to the right to strike, all of the parties agree on this except for the Left Party. The Social Democrats, the Greens, the Liberals, and the Conservatives and the far right all agreed on this legislation.

KFH

Where do you expect things to go from here and what will it take to win?

EH

The employers’ organization, Ports of Sweden, created this unsustainable situation yet remain unwilling to give us the opportunity to sign a proper CBA that is identical to the one that they already have in the Swedish Transport Workers Union. So the way I see it, the employers are pushing an agenda here. To what purpose, that remains to be seen. It might be to break our union, because they regard it as a dangerous example and also a counterpart that poses problems for them. As we are run by the members, they just can’t treat us the same way as many of the other unions. And therefore, they might have a political and to some degree an economic agenda to get rid of us.

But to be honest, I have a hard time believing we could be the main target. We’re just 1,300 dockworkers in a small section of the transport sector and a conflict of this magnitude may cost third-parties billions of SEK if it drags on through spring. It’s a very high price to pay just to get rid of us. It seems more likely that they were happy with the recent political outcome and are trying to use the national dispute to push a new agenda with even more severe limitations to the right to strike.

Ports of Sweden aren’t willing to do anything that would make us even close to a full stakeholder in the CBA. At this point they are making ultimatums that are way below the legal minimum standard for so-called secondary agreements in the Swedish labor market, demanding, for example, that we relinquish the possibility of participating in future local negotiations and agreements. This means that we will have to keep raising the stakes and they will respond by escalating even further.

What has happened so far is that we have given notice of a series of very short warning strikes in the ports. There are sixteen ports or terminals around the country involved so far and there will be others coming along. But these are short warning strikes. Most of them are just two- or three-hour stoppages at sensitive points in production, of course. The employers responded by very extensive lockouts immediately.

Up until February 20 we had given notice of about 189 hours of strikes spread out over 68 different dates and locations. They had given notice of more than a thousand hours of lockouts which effectively shut down some ports for days and whole weeks. Each two-hour strike was followed by an eleven-hour or a fourteen-hour lockout in order to damage the economy of the union and also to discourage the union members. So far, it hasn’t worked but it’s very clear that they’re trying to escalate this quickly and that they’re not willing to compromise.

At the same time, the behavior of the Transport Workers Union is getting also more publicly hostile towards us as they are now asking their members to work overtime to replace striking workers. They even brought cake in when the strike started in two ports in the north just to provoke people and create tension and stuff like that. On the other hand, many of their members have been reluctant to do the leadership’s bidding up until now. So it’s not very clear where we’re heading but I think a very fast escalation can be expected. And more lockouts are definitely expected.

In the end, public opinion may be a decisive factor if we can remain standing after enough rounds of strikes and lockouts. When the employers are this aggressive, they will go to extremes in order to win. They will not suffer public defeat if there is no outside pressure. But bullying tactics are risky, as the port dispute is increasingly viewed as a David vs. Goliath scenario. A growing number of union members and locals within the main confederations object to linking arms with employers. The arrogant approach of the employers has resulted in a situation where many of the municipalities and companies paying for their war have a very distorted concept about what we’re actually fighting about. That might prove unsustainable in the long run.

The other potentially crucial game-changer would be international solidarity action from our sister unions within the IDC or elsewhere. Direct actions against ships calling on Swedish ports or Swedish cargo being handled in ports abroad are very hard to predict and counteract for the employers. Such actions would instantly broaden the battlefield significantly and may create the feeling amongst industry stakeholders that things are getting out of hand. That might tip the scales at this point.

End Mark

About the Author

Erik Helgeson is a dockworker at the Port of Gothenburg who serves on both the local and national board of the SDU and is a member of the national bargaining committee.

About the Interviewer

Katy Fox-Hodess is a lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield.

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