During the past few months the Hotel and Restaurant Labour Union has attracted media attention by attacking a young entrepreneur in Gothenburg. The saga started around two months ago when the union demanded that 24-year-old Sofia Appelgren, who runs a small salad bar in Gothenburg, sign a union contract for her employees.
Appelgren discussed the issue with her employees who said that they were not interested in becoming unionized as they believed that they were making more money through their existing contracts. When she explained to the union that neither she nor her employees were interested in signing the union contract, the union started a blockade of her salad bar.
For more than two months up to twenty union activists have been standing outside Appelgren’s salad bar and telling potential clients not to enter. The unions have repeatedly attacked her in media, and members of another labour union are supporting the action by refusing to collect waste from Appelgren’s neighbours. The unions hope this will put social pressure on the young business owner to sign the union contract.
Appelgren’s fate has been widely discussed in the media, putting into focus how powerful unions have the potential to crush the lives of small company owners who do not play according to the union’s rules.
But this is far from a one-off incident. In fact the Hotel and Restaurant Union have launched a campaign in Gothenburg with the sole purpose of forcing every restaurant in the city to sign on the union contract. Those businesses that refuse will be blockaded, which can easily result in them being put out of business.
In a remarkable move, the labour market minister in the centre-right government, Sven Otto Littorin, has defended the actions of the union. His Moderate Party is attempting to market itself as a centrist party, sharing many Social Democratic values. Leading figures are reluctant to criticize the mighty unions – which are easily the strongest and wealthiest political organizations in the country.
But the actions of the unions deserve to be criticized. Today the unions in Sweden have the power to force companies sign union contracts (by threatening to put them under blockade) and the power effectively to force workers become members of the union (a “first in last out” law means that if you have worked a long time in a workplace, you will probably not be amongst those fired when things are going bad for the company, however the labour unions often have the power to exclude non-members from these rules).
Forcing companies and workers to join a union should not be acceptable in a democratic society. Besides, in a situation where more than 20 percent of the adult population in Sweden is supported by one kind of another of government handouts, we should encourage young entrepreneurs to start businesses.
What message are we as a society sending if labour unions have the right to crush the dreams of young entrepreneurs and are supported in these actions by those in power – both Social Democrats and Moderates?
Nima Sanandaji is chief executive of think-tank Captus