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Why are strikes so rare in Sweden?

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Why are strikes so rare in Sweden?
Dockworkers on strike in Malmö earlier this week. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
10:07 CET+01:00
Around 1,000 port workers were involved in industrial action this week, when a dockworkers' union organized a strike and employers responded with a lockout. But in general, workers in Sweden strike much less than in almost every other country in the world.

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"Sweden has many fewer working days lost due to strikes, lockouts and labour disputes than other Nordic countries, even though we have by far the biggest labour market," says Per Ewaldsson from the National Mediation Institute, which mediates in labour disputes when they occur.

"Looking further afield, at international statistics, it seems that generally Sweden is among the countries which loses the fewest working days," Ewaldsson tells The Local.

The Mediation Institute's own statistics show that on average 21,000 working days have been lost per year due to industrial action over the past decade, with a major strike by a healthcare workers' union, among others, in 2008 contributing to 106,801 lost workdays that year alone. The figure for 2017 was only 2,570 lost days. The figure for the past decade is significantly less than the 84,000 days a year not worked in Finland over the past decade, which rose to 128,000 in Norway and was almost 300,000 in Denmark.

In Sweden, only 0.6 days per 1000 workers were not worked in 2017 due to industrial action, according to statistics from the International Labour Organization, which compared to 8.9 in Norway and 45.2 in Spain. And there were six strikes or lockouts in Sweden in 2017, the ILO data shows, compared to 79 in the UK and 426 in Denmark.

If a trade union, employers' organization or individual employer is considering industrial action, they are required to inform not only their counterpart but also the Mediation Institute. This is in contrast to countries like France and Italy, where strikes tend to precede negotiations or occur alongside them, rather than be called as a last resort.

Ewaldsson does not have exact figures for how many of these mediations are unable to resolve the conflict, but according to him "in most cases" a solution is reached before any industrial action takes place.

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A miners' strike in Kiruna in 1969. Photo: Pressens bild/TT

Sweden has a long history of strikes, with the first major one occurring at the Sala silver mine in 1552 when miners refused to work – though these workers were accused of mutiny and imprisoned by the king at the time. Throughout the 20th century, there were multiple strikes including those organized by unions (the Swedish Trade Union Confederation or LO was founded in 1898) and others organized by employees alone.

One milestone came in the form of the 1997 Industrial Agreement (Industriavtalet) between unions and employers' organizations, which was replaced by a new version in 2011. These agreements regulate collective agreements (kollektivavtal); the agreements between employers and unions on issues such as pay levels, working conditions and benefits. 

One of the main effects this has is to regulate wage increases, to ensure that employees continue to get real wage increases but also that Sweden can be competitive in a globalized economy, because wage increases in other sectors won't push up pay so much that companies are forced to cut jobs or even relocate abroad. And the fact is that wages have increased steadily in real terms since the turn of the century, meaning employees may be more likely to be satisfied with their working conditions so that strikes aren't necessary.

"If you look at labour disputes historically, they were much more common in earlier decades than they are now. Back then, it was a very different country with many more social tensions and where income levels were much lower, also in relation to other countries – it was a much poorer country," explains Ewaldsson.

"One part of the explanation is that the labour market model functions relatively well, not least in the way competitiveness is secured in collective agreements at the same time as real wage increases are secured. There's a basic consensus that this is good for a small exporting country like Sweden. A guideline for our mediators is that they should not propose solutions to conflicts which would exceed the wage increases agreed in industry. That's really the top priority."

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A rail strike in France brought trains to a standstill last year. Photo: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

The biggest exceptions to the rule are independent trade unions; those which are not part of the LO. This includes the Dockworkers' Union which called this week's strike, as well as the alternative left-wing Central Organization of the Workers of Sweden (Syndikalisterna or SAC).

Other unions, particularly the builders' union and the municipal workers' union, have also held strikes and threatened industrial action on several occasions.

There have also been so-called wildcat strikes, organized by workers without the authorization of their union. One recent example is the Stockholm waste collectors' strike in summer 2017, when dozens of workers walked out over a pay dispute. But that was later ruled as unlawful by Sweden's Labour Court, because it took place during the term of a collective agreement.

This highlights another reason strikes are comparatively rare in Sweden: the strength of the unions. Unions represent around three quarters of workers in Sweden, and strong unions are likely to be able to negotiate reasonable terms with employers' organizations. Again, this stands in contrast to France, which has Europe's highest number of trade unions but the lowest rate of union membership, creating competition between them which may encourage strikes to win the support of frustrated workers.

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While it might be tempting to draw a link between the stereotypes associated with a country and its attitudes to strike: the hot-heated French versus the 'lagom', conflict-averse Swedes, the frequency of strikes comes down to a combination of factors relating to how the labour market is set up, and how the economy of each country works.

This in turn affects how strikes are viewed by fellow workers. In southern Europe, there is often a higher level of sympathy for striking workers seen as standing up for their rights, especially in countries which were hard hit by the recession.

In Sweden, many workers accept that their rights are already protected by kollektivavtal and the strong union movement, and some argue that strikes can be damaging to Sweden's export-reliant economy. This is particularly evident in a dockworkers' strike last year, which risked impacting the movement of goods in and out of the country and even led to the Liberal Party proposing that the right to strike be restricted.

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