Healthcare union strikes for better wages for nurses

Members of the trade union representing health professionals went on strike as result of the failed wage negotiations with the public sector employer organisation. It is the only major strike which has occurred during wage bargaining in 2008. The strike mainly concerns nurses and their wage demands, as well as a general demand for better and more equal wages between men and women. Mediators have been called in, but so far no agreement has been reached.

Wage demands lead to industrial conflict

This year’s wage negotiations have been unproblematic in Sweden with the exception of the healthcare sector. The Swedish Association of Health Professionals (Vårdförbundet) has not been able to reach agreement on pay with the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (Sveriges Kommuner och Landsting, SKL). Regarding pay, nurses demand a minimum wage of SEK 22,000 (€2,358 as at 30 May 2008) and an average monthly wage increase of SEK 1,700 (€182), or a pay increase of about 7% in 2008 and 2009. The employer organisation, SKL, is willing to offer a minimum wage of SEK 21,100 (€2,261) and a pay increase of 4% in the first year and 2.5% in the second year after reaching agreement.

As a result of the failed pay negotiations, members of the Swedish Association of Health Professionals went on strike. Since the strike action has started on 21 April 2008, it has gained in momentum with the participation of more than 7,000 nurses and biomedical analysts in 14 regions to date. A further strike notice has been issued which will involve an additional 2,750 employees. The public appears to understand the nurses’ wage demands and is patient regarding the resolution of the conflict, albeit being affected by the consequences of the strike. According to SKL, at least 4,000 surgeries and 12,000 health checks have been cancelled during the first couple of weeks of the strike. Patients have to be moved between different hospitals across regions to ensure adequate healthcare in acute cases.

Social partner views

The Swedish Association of Health Professionals claims that their members’ wages are unacceptable and unfair in relation to the three years of university studies completed and the high level of responsibility in the profession. The trade union believes that the low wages in the sector are a result of the over-representation of women in healthcare occupations. Therefore, the trade union emphasises that increasing the wages in healthcare is also a gender equality issue, as wages of female and male workers are to become more equal in the labour market.

SKL argues that the demanded wage increase will trigger inflation and that it will require a substantial increase in taxes to finance the union’s wage demands. Furthermore, SKL argues that nurses receive a relatively high wage and that their wages have increased at a higher rate than those of other occupational groups in recent years. Wages in the healthcare sector are more equal between women and men than in the labour market in general, according to the employer organisation. Nonetheless, SKL agrees that some female-dominated sectors of the economy, including healthcare, have lower wages than certain male-dominated sectors. To overcome the gender pay gap requires a very broad agreement in society as a whole. Wage increases in the healthcare sector without such a broad agreement for more equal wages between women and men will only result in demands for compensation in other economic sectors and thereby cause increased inflation.

Public opinion

Politicians in Sweden are usually reluctant to take side in wage negotiations, because these negotiations are traditionally regarded as being part of the responsibility of the social partners. Nonetheless, many parties have made clear in general statements that they support low-paid women’s struggle for higher wages. Moreover, there are signs that the general public supports the strike. A survey, conducted by the Swedish television channel TV 4, revealed that a large majority of the public (73%) supports the nurses’ wage demands. Overall, women show greater sympathy with the nurses than men. According to the survey findings, a large proportion of the public believes, however, that nurses earn much less than they actually do. The survey was carried out during the first days of the strike and it is likely that the public support will decline as the strike continues and may lead to the malfunctioning of healthcare provision in the country.

Commentary

The main question regarding equal pay between men and women for work of equal value is whether other male-dominated sectors will seek compensation for wage increases in the healthcare sector in future wage negotiations. If so, wage increases for nurses are likely to lead to an increased inflation rate. It remains to be seen how successful the strike will be in creating a more gender-equal wage pattern in Sweden’s labour market.

Thomas Brunk, Oxford Research

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