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Christian firms: Bible bans trade unions

Published: 19 Dec 2006 17:24 GMT+01:00
Updated: 19 Dec 2006 17:24 GMT+01:00

An unusual industrial dispute, pitting the Bible against the sacred cows of Swedish trade unionism, has run into its third month in the small southern Swedish town of Smålandsstenar.

In early October the Swedish Forest and Wood Workers' Union placed a blockade on two companies that have refused to sign collective bargaining agreements.

But the companies say that their religious beliefs prevent them from entering into agreements with third parties and have no intention of signing.

"They are trying to squeeze us as hard as they can," Olle Malmström, one of the owners of Ji-Ma Produkter, told The Local.

"It has affected us but we are still struggling along," he added.

The two wood packaging companies Ji-Ma Produkter and Skandro Trade are run by families belonging to the Plymouth Brethren religious movement.

The movement bases its reluctance to enter into third party agreements on the Bible, or more specifically, 2 Corinthians 6:14:

"Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?"

Aside from his biblical reservations, Olle Malmström also laments Sweden's lack of employment laws more generally.

"There is no minimum wage, for example. Instead there is the so-called Swedish model, or the socialist model as we call it," he said.

The Swedish model, as it relates to the labour market, emerged from negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the precursor to the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise in 1938.

The resultant 'Saltsjöbaden agreement' meant that employers and trade unions set wages in accordance with collective bargaining agreements for each respective industry.

This consensual arrangement has dictated employment policy ever since.

"We can't sign because of our beliefs, which are holy to us.

"And the trade unions can't understand us, because the collective agreements are holy to them," said Malmström.

The Forest and Wood Workers' Union first got wind of Ji-Ma in January, when they claim some other local companies informed them that the company was underpaying its workers.

Local trade union ombudsman Per-Åke Pålsson admits that this later proved not to be the case. The company meets all the wage criteria stipulated in the collective agreement.

But a temporary employee unwittingly threw a spanner in Ji-Ma's works.

"We had a worker who was foreign and wasn't sure he was going to be able to stay in the country. He was from Baghdad," said Malmström.

Ji-Ma told the man they would consider taking him on more permanently if he managed to attain a visa. In the meantime he was signed up to Alfa-Kassa, a non-union employment insurance scheme.

When the man paid a visit to local authorities in Gislaved, Malmström says that a woman helped him to sign an A-Kassa agreement, despite the fact that he already had insurance coverage.

But Per-Åke Pålsson disputes Malmström's version of events.

"Gislaved's municipality does not have those forms. We have them here," he said.

Because the A-Kassa employment insurance system is tied to the trade unions, Ji-Ma soon received a letter requesting a meeting. And the threat of a blockade for failure to sign a collective bargaining agreement soon loomed large.

The temporary worker subsequently put in a request to be removed from the trade union register, but the local ombudsman suspects foul play.

"We think the company talked to him and suggested that he leave the union. But we don't know for sure," said Pålsson.

The company's contract with the part-time employee ran out earlier this year. But by then the damage was done.

"The union leaders in Stockholm told us to put the company under blockade," said Pålsson.

Although none of Ji-Ma's employees are affiliated to a trade union, the Forest and Wood Workers' Union began its blockade on October 9.

The Transport Workers' Union and the Metal Workers' Union subsequently signed up to sympathy strikes, which has had an impact on Ji-Ma's deliveries.

In the early stages of the strike, Skandro Trade, also owned by members of the Plymouth Brethren movement, attracted the attention of the trade union.

"After two weeks we saw that Skandro Trade was getting a lot more work and realised that the two companies must have come to some agreement," said Pålsson.

Neither party can foresee an end to the strike action.

"They have told us they would rather close down than sign the collective agreement," said Pålsson.

When we call back to try to get a comment from Ji-Ma's former worker, Olle Malmström is livid to hear of the union man's suspicions.

"Pålsson is a liar from beginning to end.

"But one day he will have to stand before the judge," he said.

Does he mean a judge in a court of law?

"No, the one above," said Malmström with a laugh.

According to the owner, the company's former worker has already met a television crew and is not interested in speaking to any more media.

"He has come from a war and does not need all this.

"He's very sad about it. He is now in school to learn Swedish," said Malmström.

How is the man currently supporting himself?

"He's working black for a local company that has a collective agreement. Pålsson knows about it too," said Malmström.

"Pålsson only has one thing in his head, which is collective agreements.

"He will not be happy until we have signed. It's really communist.

But what will happen if the union blockade results in Ji-Ma having to close its factory?

"Close the factory? Then they will probably have to shoot me as well.

"We will have no problem surviving. A lot of people sympathise with us.

"As this begins to get publicity what we hope is that more genuine people in the union will see that this is crap," said Malmström.

Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.se)

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