Electricians again threaten to strike during collective bargaining

The Swedish Electricians’ Union, Elektrikerförbundet, has threatened strike action 26 times in less than 20 years. This is unusual in Sweden where the industrial relations landscape is generally peaceful. A report by an employer organisation says the electricians threaten strikes to put pressure on the employers, not because of serious concerns over wages or working conditions. The union says strike action is a legitimate strategy during tough collective bargaining.

Background

Since 1993, the Swedish Electricians’ Union (Elektrikerförbundet) has been involved in 26 disputes with employers, the Electrical Installer Organisation (EIO), over collective bargaining. In only six of these 20 years has there been industrial peace, without any strikes. No other industry in Sweden has seen such a high degree of industrial action.

Such a conflict-prone sector is a unique phenomenon in the Swedish labour market. According to a report (in Swedish) on the website of the Swedish National Mediation Office (Medlingsinstitutet), such conflicts are infrequent in most other sectors. In 2012, more than 100 contracting parties concluded more than 650 collective bargaining agreements. The Mediation Service’s annual report (in Swedish, 3Mb PDF) highlights the contrast between the electricians and other sectors in Sweden, where positive social dialogue meant there were only six strikes in the whole of 2012.

The sector’s bargaining conflicts

A new report (in Swedish, 911Kb PDF) from EIO has looked at the 26 disputes with the electricians’ union since 1993. A newspaper article (in Swedish) focusing on the EIO report described the disputes, which ranged from a widespread strike in the entire sector to strikes limited to one specific workplace. The impact of the strikes varied and, in some cases, they were sympathy strikes in support of other trade unions.

According to EIO, the Elektrikerförbundet strategy was often to give notice of an upcoming strike that would involve a few workers who held key positions. Their function was often vital for the smooth running of parts of the economy, and their absence would cause the greatest economic damage.

One example put forward by EIO was when Elektrikerförbundet called for industrial action as a result of disagreements with the Energy Companies Employers’ Association (EFA) over contractual wages in the electric power sector. This dispute resulted in the periodic closure of 40 hydroelectric power stations, and one of Sweden’s three nuclear plants was in danger of being forced to shut down. It was said that the strike increased costs for energy suppliers and had an environmental impact because other energy resources had to replace the hydroelectric stations.

Reasons for the regular conflict

According to EIO, the root cause of the high frequency of bargaining conflicts cannot be explained by lower wages or poorer working conditions in the electronics sector compared to other professional groups. EIO said it was convinced that Elektrikerförbundet was using the disputes as a strategic method to put pressure on the negotiating partner, rather than as a last resort in locked bargaining positions.

Elektrikerförbundet argued in its policy report, The future of collective agreements (in Swedish), that industrial action was a natural and necessary means of exerting pressure in the collective bargaining process. At the same time, the report acknowledged that in the long run industrial action could ruin the entire industry and it should be used carefully.

Ronny Wenngren, Chief Negotiator of Elektrikerförbundet, said in an interview (in Swedish) that EIO had been so uncooperative that strike threats were the only solution to achieve the union’s legitimate demands for its members. Mr Wenngren added that the EIO report should be regarded as the employers’ way of causing Elektrikerförbundet harm and undermining the collective agreement process.

Commentary

Elektrikerförbundet gave notice of another general strike according to an EIO press release (in Swedish) beginning on 1 April 2013. The union wants EIO to retract its demand that Elektrikerförbundet scrap an agreement on charging union fees for work by non-union workers. EIO called for the scrapping of the agreement after a judgement in the Labour Court last year, which said charges of this type went against the European Convention on Human Rights.

The future of collective bargaining in the sector remains uncertain but the main partners state that there are on-going negotiations to reach an agreement.

Emilia Johansson and Lisa Ringqvist, Oxford Research

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