Sweden: Debate on whether solidarity action should be restricted

A long-running debate about solidarity in industrial action by workers supporting another group, even though their own union is not involved in the dispute, has flared up. There are fears that the turbulence of the 2016 bargaining round will be repeated in 2017 and employers are seeking stricter regulation of the right to strike.

Background

The right to take solidarity action means that employees’ associations and workers have the right to support and co-strike with another group of workers who are taking industrial action, even though their own organisation is not directly involved in the dispute. In Sweden, trade unions are bound by a peace clause, but the right to solidarity action gives the unions an opportunity to take workers out on strike even if a collective agreement is signed and binding.

Historically, Swedish employer associations have campaigned for stricter regulation of the right to take sympathy action while trade unions have viewed it as a fundamental part of the Swedish model. The debate recently resurfaced as a result of the many conflicts seen in the previous bargaining round. Even though there were not many actual sympathy strikes in 2016, five notices of sympathy action (PDF) were submitted over the course of the year.

One event that received a lot of publicity was the strike by the Swedish Painters’ Union in April 2016. The union alliance, 6F, supported the strike by calling for a sympathy strike by its associations. In 2015, the trade union Unionen gave notice of a sympathy strike in support of the Danish employees’ association, the Flight Personnel Union (FPU) in its conflict with the airline company Ryanair.

Arguments for stricter regulation of solidarity action

Critics argue that solidarity action, such as sympathy strikes, is not a proportional response to a conflict between social partners. Svenskt Näringsliv (The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise) is firmly opposed to this particular form of industrial action. Ola Brinner, a legal advisor for the Confederation, has said that solidarity action threatens the Swedish model, since it undermines confidence in collective agreements. He also claims that it does not fit today’s labour market conditions, especially since job assignments have become increasingly individualised within a given organisation. This means that unions can cause companies a lot of damage by just taking a few people out on strike. Although sympathy strikes are often called off, the issue of a notice of solidarity action (PDF) can itself cause lost sales, inflict additional costs in preparing for a possible strike and affect a company’s competitiveness.

Svenskt Näringsliv proposes that the right to solidarity action should be restricted by a principle of proportionality. Such principles, which are in force in Denmark and Norway, require solidarity actions to be proportional to the conflict they are supporting. However, what is to be deemed to be ‘proportional’ in a Swedish context has yet to be defined.

The liberal think tank Timbro has argued that solidarity action should be banned altogether. In an article published in November 2016, the authors argued that unions use the right to sympathy action as a tool to force small and unorganised companies to sign collective agreements. A similar argument is presented by Teknikföretagen (the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries), which claims that unions use sympathy action strategically in ways that will have the most impact.

Arguments for current solidarity action rights

Trade unions generally argue that industrial actions, such as strikes and lockouts, are important rights for free and independent social partners. However, trade unions have not been as vocal as the employers in the debate about solidarity action. The authors of this article contacted Claes-Mikael Jonsson, lawyer at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) for comment. He argued that because there is no way to apply collective agreements or a statutory minimum wage across the board in Sweden, the right to solidarity action remains absolutely necessary. His view is that the only way to ensure that companies pay decent wages is through collective agreements, and sympathy action is an important tool in the enforcement of collective agreements so that wages could be normalised and fair working conditions achieved.

In answer to the employers’ proposal of a principle of proportionality, Jonsson says the principle would have no real application. The Swedish labour market, he said, is one of the most peaceful in the world, and it was hard to identify a case where a proportionality principle would have helped to settle a dispute. In addition, such a principle would disarm trade unions. To be deemed ‘proportional’ by an opponent, any industrial action needs to be ineffective and not cause problems for the employer.

Commentary

Interestingly, both trade unions and employer organisations use the concept of the Swedish model to support their respective arguments. Actors arguing for a restriction claim that this is a necessary intervention if trust in collective agreements is not to be undermined. Meanwhile, trade unions argue that the right to solidarity action is necessary for the Swedish model to work.

Lately, the question of solidarity action has engaged several political parties that now demand new rules for industrial disputes. The Centre Party and The Liberal Party argue for proportionality restrictions, and the Christian Democrats want to strengthen the role of mediation in a conflict. If a restriction such as a principle of proportionality were to be introduced, the issue of what action and when an action is ‘proportional’ would first have to be resolved. However, given the current coalition government’s stance on the issue, change to industrial dispute legislation is very unlikely.

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