From International Socialism, No.43, April/May 1970, pp.3-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In Sweden – the land of the myth of the ‘reconciliation’ of capitalism and socialism, the holy cow of all opportunists – a strike broke out on December 8, 1969, in the pits of Svappavaara. Some two days later almost 5,000 workers in the pits of Kiruna, Malmberget and Svappavaara were involved. The mining company is called LKAB, and is owned by the State, It is a member of the ‘Swedish Employers’ Federation’.
Something of its history should be sketched in. In 1938 a law on collective agreements was introduced, which was later extended and developed. This, firstly, imposes on the workers an obligation to keep industrial peace for the duration of the wage agreement. That means, that to engage in any form of struggle is illegal, and can be punished by an ‘industrial court’. Thus it means in fact that with every new agreement the unions let themselves be bound hand and foot. Secondly, it means that the wage agreements are settled centrally – that is, that all the unions are brought together into a single organisation, and any wage increases that are won are shared out among the federations and local organisations. 
It should also be mentioned that throughout 1969 strikes had broken out in many places, and were more extensive and violent than at any previous’time in the 25 years since 1945. For example, the strike in the port of Goteborg in November, which involved up to 1,000 men (a very high figure for Sweden).
In this year of strikes the socialist writer Sara Lidman published her book The Pit; this describes conditions at LKAB by means of factual material and interviews, sharply attacks the inhuman working conditions, and contains a call for action. At the same time a theatrical group began to present NJA (’Norbottens Ironworks’ – likewise nationalised). Both provoked anger and cries of anguish from the bourgeoisie and its Press (’Tendentious, untrue accounts – it can’t be like that’, ‘The State can’t be an entrepreneur’, etc.). Later, at the Aros Fair, the Social Democratic Finance Minister Strang said: ‘People who work at machines ... have better things to do with their leisure time than take part in discussions’, ‘I know that these accounts [The Pit and NJA] are not typical’, and ‘There is no conflict of interest between private enterprise and society – it is a fabrication’. Two days later the port workers’ strike broke out; a month later, the miners’ strike.
The causes of the strike can be described in the words of a coal-miner:
It is obvious that the strike is spontaneous and is economic in nature. How could it be otherwise? We have done everything we could for many years to alter and improve our situation. But the management and the union bureaucracy, from top to bottom, took no notice. But all we got was speed-up and, despite the increase in production, lower wages ... But at the same time it is true that there is political motivation behind the strike. You don’t go on strike for fun. For a long time we have been looking for other solutions. Since Sara Lidman’s The Pit drew attention to the abuses and bad conditions at LKAB, many believed that the management would at least put the worst abuses right. But the speech of Gunnar Strang at the Aros Fair destroyed the last illusions, and it was clear to all miners that there was no longer anything to be hoped for from above. If anything was to be changed, we had to take things into our own hands. So the political force of the strike is directed at the Social-Democrats and the union bureaucrats, who say they represent us, but are serving the wrong masters!
At a general meeting the strikers elected a central strike committee and also a negotiating delegation of 21 men from the three pits. The management and the trade union leadership were forced by the unity of the workers to recognise the delegation. They demanded, however, that work should be resumed before talks could begin. At the same time attempts were made to divide the workers by accepting the demands of one pit for higher wages. These devices were unanimously rejected by the workers, and the demand for local negotiations and the fulfilment of certain basic demands were made preconditions for a resumption of work.
The tactics of the trade union leadership now became clearer; they wanted to smash the unity and combativity of the miners, so that in the future they would be able to exercise their leadership without any constraints.
But in the middle of January strikes broke out in many places; strikes which were produced firstly by the local wage negotiations then going on, and secondly by the influence of the miners’ strike. (This was the case with Volvo, Saab, and many other engineering firms.)
In order to further weaken the strikers, a virulent campaign against foreign workers was launched on all sides, but especially in the trade union and social-democratic Press. Leaflets were distributed in the immigrant workers’ own languages pointing out the provisions of the law and the possible penalties for ‘breach of the peace’. On the radio and television this often took grotesque forms. The Employers’ Federation forbade its members to enter into negotiations with the strikers, but gave financial support to the firms affected by the strikes.
On January 27 the delegation put forward their demands. The following are the most important of their 12 principal demands: LKAB should give guarantees that the results of the negotiation would be legally binding and could not be overruled by the Employers’ Federation; wages of 15 to 17 crowns an hour; monthly payment for some sections; better facilities for sick leave; lowering of the pensionable age from 67 to 60; abolition of all time and motion study; better medical provisions; better safety measures; LKAB to be compelled to leave the Employers’ Federation.
The return to work took place on February 11. The main demands had not been fulfilled, but certain guarantees had been given (on which the workers did not set too much. store).
The miners had held out for two months. During this time they received effective support from collections taken throughout the country, both in workplaces and by various political organisations. This also happened in the case of the port workers’ strike. Over this period 4,500,000 crowns were handed over to them.
Surveys showed that at the beginning of the strike about 80 per cent of the adult population regarded it as justified.
What are the results and experiences of this strike? The recent strikes, especially the miners’ strike, mark the beginning of a new phase of working-class struggle. Not only have the workers succeeded in making a breakthrough, but also the revolutionary movement has been in the position to make real contact with the workers for the first time since the Second World War. It should be understood that, unlike, for example, Germany, Sweden has a working-class movement with traditions not interrupted by a period of fascism and then anti-Communism. This tradition was carried on by the social-democracy. The workers regarded the Social-Democratic Party as their own, for want of an alternative. The Communist Party had a tail-ending policy and was never in a position to take over the leadership of the working class, even when it temporarily had control of the trade unions at the lower levels, for example in Kiruna. Until the mid-sixties there was no revolutionary movement in existence.
During the post-war period many demands of the workers could be granted before they were raised. In this way the workers’ militancy was temporarily emasculated, while at the same time the union leaders secured for themselves the right of veto and centralised negotiating procedures, raised their own salaries and established their own personal interest in holding leading positions. The workers do elect their own stewards in the factories, but these can do nothing other than mediate and carry out instructions from above. In this way the leadership has totally isolated itself from the masses. This also has meant that workers attend union meetings in ever decreasing numbers to take part in pseudo-decisions. For a long time there has been ferment under the surface. Today we see the strike as a breakthrough, or, as a member of the central strike committee put it in a speech to a solidarity meeting in Uppsala:
The strike has shown us what strength we have ... The people up there [in Kiruna] are not the same as they were before, they are militant and more conscious. We can now only rely on ourselves and on you [the participants in the meeting] ... We had to strike against the union, for we could no longer have any trust in it ... The unions must be radically changed, .must be changed from an organisation of conciliation into an organisation of struggle.
The recent spontaneous upsurge by workers offers the revolutionary movement the possibility of at last making contact with the workers. What previously was looked down on by workers as a movement of students and intellectuals was now able to show, and in the future will be able to show even better, which side it stands on. Revolutionaries assisted actively in the collection of money (even though the majority of the money was raised by workers in the factories); they were able, by means of propaganda, to contribute to a communication of the true facts about the events, and to show the workers that they had acted as a class, and must continue to act as a class.
From two comrades in Uppsala, February 11, 1970.
STEN OLOFSSON and LISE-LOTTE LINDGREN
1. This has contributed to bureaucratisation – for example, the right of veto by higher bodies in the organisation, election of the general secretary for life.
Last updated on 28.2.2008