Industrial conflict at low levels

Figures on industrial action in Sweden in 2002, published in January 2003, confirm that labour conflicts are at a low level in historical terms. Changes in legislation, new bargaining procedures and economic factors seem to be the main reasons for the decline in action. This feature looks at the current situation and outlines the legislative and collectively agreed framework for industrial disputes.

In January 2003, the latest statistics from the National Mediation Office (Medlingsinstitutet, MI) (SE0105195F) on industrial conflicts during 2002 highlighted the current low level of industrial action in Sweden. Relatively few lock-outs or legal or illegal strikes occur at present. The only major exception in the past 10 years came in 1995 when about 70,000 nurses went on strike for better pay, the employers responded with a lock-out and about 620,000 working days were lost.


Collective bargaining in Sweden began with blue-collar workers in the private sector, who organised trade unions in the second half of the 1880s. The trade unions' rights to negotiate and to take industrial action were recognised in 1906 through the so-called 'December compromise', an agreement between the Confederation of the Swedish Employers (Svenska Arbetsgivareföreningen, SAF) - now the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) - and the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Svenska Landsorganisationen, LO). Also in 1906, the first state mediation office (Förlikningsmannaexpeditionen) began its activities. Corresponding rights for white-collar workers and public employees came later, for the former in 1936 through new legislation on the right of association and bargaining. Public employees received similar legal rights in 1966. In 1938 the 'Saltsjöbaden' Basic Agreement (Huvudavtalet) was concluded between SAF and LO. This agreement regulates, among other matters, bargaining procedure and industrial action, and is still valid (see below).

In 1909, a major general strike broke out. Some 7.8 million working days were lost when 300,000 blue-collar workers stopped work for more than a month, the reason being that the employers had started to decrease pay. The employers won this conflict. The biggest industrial conflict in Sweden in the 20th century, measured in lost working days and lost production, occurred in 1945 when 120,000 metalworkers went on strike for five months for more pay, resulting in 11 million working days being lost. A major LO/SAF conflict occurred in 1980 when a lock-out by the employers resulted in 4.4 million lost working days. In 1990, there was a conflict in banking resulting in 770,000 lost working days. During the rest of the 1990s, conflict was at a relatively low level, compared with earlier periods.

Few recent conflicts

Over the past five years, 1998-2002, there was an average of 11 disputes per year, involving a total of fewer than 1,000 workers per year in 1998, 2000 and 2002 and a little under 10,000 workers per year in 1999 and 2001. The number of lost working days averaged about 900 in 1998, 2000 and 2002, and about 45,000 in 1999 and 2001 (compared with a total of 4.3 million employees). There were a few cases of advance notices of industrial action, but most of these were resolved through mediation. (SE0203105F).

Over 2000-2, according to National Mediation Office statistics, the labour disputes were divided as follows:

  • 2000 - no lock-outs, no legal strikes and two illegal strikes;
  • 2001 - two lock-outs, 12 legal strikes and six illegal strikes; and
  • 2002 - two lock-outs, four legal strikes and six illegal strikes.

The new practice of cooperation agreements on bargaining and dispute procedures between the social partners (see below), the creation of the National Mediation Office in 2000, and the three-year collective agreements signed in most sectors in 1998 and 2001 may explain some of this peace on the labour market (SE0203105F). There was little industrial action of note in 2000 and 2002, while the only significant strike in 2001 involved a two-day stoppage by building workers (SE0105102F). The reason for conflict was that the Federation of Swedish Building Employers (Svenska Byggnadsindustriförbundet) wanted to change the whole wage formation system in the industry. The Swedish Building Workers' Union (Byggnadsarbetareförbundet) feared that the employers wanted to change the old piece-wage system and refused to cooperate. In 2001, there were also two 'political' strikes (included in the statistics as legal strikes) held by the Swedish Transport Workers' Union (Svenska Transportarbetareförbundet) and the Swedish Dock Workers' and Master Stevedores' Association (Sveriges Hamn- och Stuveriförbund) (see below).

A conflict in December 2001 between the Swedish Journalists' Union (Svenska Journalistförbundet) and the Swedish Newspaper Publishers' Association (Tidningsutgivarföreningen) ended after a couple of days of an overtime ban by journalists. The main reason for the conflict was an authors' rights issue, which was resolved by mediation (SE0112129F).

Legal rules and collective agreements

The general freedom to take industrial action is established in the Swedish Constitutional Law (Chapter 2, Article 17 of the Instrument of Government [Regeringsformen] 1974). This law states that, failing any provision to the contrary, by law or agreement, trade unions and employers and employers' associations are entitled to take industrial action against each other. Provided no collective agreement is in force between the parties, work stoppages and other traditional form of action are generally lawful. Since the 1960s, the right to take industrial action includes also the public sector.

The abovementioned 1936 Saltsjöbaden agreement between SAF and LO is still valid. One part of the agreement contains rules for industrial action, and another rules for bargaining and for disputes regarded as posing a danger to society. The Co-Determination in the Workplace Act (Medbestämmandelagen 1976:580, MBL) regulates among other items the 'peace obligation' (fredsplikt) during the validity of collective agreements, mediation and damages in the event of a party breaking the rules. The regulations in MBL are mandatory. Another law regulates the labour disputes procedure (Lagen om arbetstvister 1974:371).

An important rule in the legal framework is that a 'third party' (tredje man) should not be involved in a conflict. By 'third party' is meant another trade union or employers' association. The Saltsjöbaden agreement states that action cannot be directed against a third party. However, this protection applies only to those who maintain impartiality. Furthermore, a neutral third party may be the target of secondary action in the form of work stoppage, ban or refusal to handle goods.

Disputes that threaten the public interest are covered by basic agreements in the public sector. However, there nowhere exists a definition of the concept, so the old formulation in the Saltsjöbaden agreement is still valid, describing a dangerous dispute as one 'disrupting the normal functioning of society'. Legislative intervention in a dispute happened only once in the 20th century, in 1971. A dispute cannot be prohibited by the system of state mediation.

Turning to the main types of industrial action that occur in Sweden, first there is the 'ordinary' work stoppage - ie legal and illegal strikes and lock-outs (on which the official statistics concentrate). Unlawful strikes are defined as those starting during the validity of a collective agreements (in breach of the peace obligation) without authorisation from the trade union concerned. Unlawful actions may be referred to the Labour Court (Arbetsdomstolen), and those who were involved in the action may have to pay damages.

Other forms of action include political strike, the blockade, boycotts, 'blacking', collective reporting sick, go-slows, industrial action to recover unpaid wages, overtime bans and several other more or less inventive actions, both legal and unofficial.

The political strike, which aims not at the employer but, for example, at the government or another party is an instrument seldom used nowadays, though in the 1960s and 1970s they occurred from time to time. In the past 10 years there have only been three such strikes in Sweden, concerning the same issue, a proposed European Union Directive opening up port services to competition (EU0302201N). In January 2003 about 3,000 Swedish dockworkers, afraid of losing their jobs in future, went on strike for three hours. The other two strikes on the same issue were held in September and November 2001. On the second occasion in 2001 the employers tried to convince the Labour Court to stop the strike, but the Labour Court rejected the application.

Secondary action

Secondary action (sympatiåtgärder) has always been important and was formerly used quite often in Sweden.

The right to take secondary action (or sympathy action) to support or express sympathy with a party involved in an industrial conflict is particularly extensive in Swedish law. If, for example, the workers in a local supermarket wish to show their sympathy with metalworkers at a local factory striking for better pay, they can choose to take some kind of secondary action, provided that their trade union supports it and that the primary conflict (the metalworkers' strike) is lawful. The Co-Determination in the Workplace Act contains rules about the conditions for lawful secondary action.

Secondary action is, however, no longer very common, following the decline in primary action. In recent years such action has above all been used by trade unions to force employers operating foreign ships, or ships flying a foreign flag, to conclude a Swedish pay agreement for the sailors on board, who are often low paid and have poor working conditions. Primary industrial action in such cases is ineffective, in the trade unions' experience. However, if Swedish dockworkers decide to stop loading and unloading a ship, this kind of secondary action has proved effective more than once.

Another example of secondary action is blockades to recover unpaid wages. For example, the Swedish Seafarers' Union (Svenska Sjöfolksförbundet) might start such a blockade of a ship-owner without effect. However, if the Transport Workers' Union (Svenska Transportarbetareförbundet) refuses to load and unload goods on the ship concerned, the action may succeed. A recent case in the Labour Court related to Swedish transport workers and hotel/restaurant workers refusing to touch goods moved from Denmark to Swedish airports during a major Danish strike in 1998 (SE9805186F).

'It seems that the mere existence of the possibility of secondary action is often enough. The fact that secondary actions are always allowed, if the primary conflict is legal, is restrictive on the counter party,' states Kurt Eriksson, chief lawyer at the National Mediation Office.

The Gustafsson case

One aspect of the freedom to undertake secondary action was present in a long-running high-profile court case involving Torgny Gustafsson, a restaurant owner on the Baltic island of Gotland who refused to conclude a collective agreement with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Trade Union (Hotell- och restauranganställdas förbund) - he was not a member of an employers' organisation and was not covered by any agreement. The industrial conflict started with a blockade and a boycott by the trade union against the restaurant. This primary action was followed by a secondary blockade of the business by five other trade unions. Among other effects, the delivery of goods and garbage collection for the restaurant ceased. After some time, Mr Gustafsson had to close the business and later sold the restaurant (SE9710144F).

However, the main aspect of the Gustafsson case was the primary conflict concerning a trade union's right to force a collective agreement upon a non-organised employer, and the clash between this and the employer's wish to remain outside an association. After losing a court case in Sweden Mr Gustafsson turned to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), claiming that he had the right to refuse to join an employers' association and to sign collective agreements. He stated that it was a human right to refuse - a 'negative right of association' under Article 11 of the Council of Europe's European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms- and that this right had been violated.

The ECHR tried the case twice, with its judgments published on 25 April 1996 and 30 July 1998 (SE9808103N), finding on both occasions that Mr Gustafsson's rights had not been breached. The case was seen as important in Sweden, showing the strength of the trade union movement and of the current rules on industrial disputes. The case was, however, not undisputed in Sweden, and there were claims that the ECHR had not been correctly informed by the parties. However, a majority of the ECHR judges found that the trade union was within its rights to claim a collective agreement and that the interest of the union in collective regulation was stronger than Mr Gustafsson's interest in staying outside the collective agreement system. A minority of the Court supported Mr Gustafsson in his opinion that he had a 'negative right of association'. The minority found that this right had been violated, as the harmful effect of the trade union's activities was not in reasonable proportion to the union's aimed effect. After 10 years of legal procedures, Mr Gustafsson definitively lost his case.

In 1998 a similar case was tried in the Swedish Labour Court. The Industrial Workers' Union (Industrifacket) gave notice of industrial action to an unorganised company, Kurt Kellerman AB, after failed negotiations over a collective agreement (SE9803173F). The employer claimed that this was a violation of the abovementioned Article 11 of the European Convention. It asserted that even industrial action which was not contrary to the European Convention could be inadmissible if it was contrary to Swedish legal doctrine. The Labour Court stated in its judgment (1998/17) that the planned industrial action was not contrary to the Article in question. The Court said that there existed no such basic legal principle in Sweden in the area of industrial action, so there were no legal impediments against the industrial action in this case.

In 1994, the centre-right coalition government of the time introduced a rule whereby trade unions could not take industrial action against sole traders or family companies employing only family members, in order to force a collective agreement upon the owner. This was revoked by the Social Democrat government which came to office in late 1994, but reintroduced by parliament in 2000 (SE0004132N).


The 'spirit of Saltsjöbaden' emanating from the first basic agreement in 1936 led to better cooperation in the labour market and a number of other basic agreements concerning matters such as health and safety (1942), vocational training (1944) and works councils (1946). The growing prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s also helped to produce a relatively calm labour market, and the number of industrial conflicts was mainly low. Fundamental laws in the fields of employment protection, co-determination and anti-discrimination and equal opportunities were introduced in the 1970s. The view that the social partners should function independently, without intervention from government, became strong.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, illegal strikes were relatively common, however not on a large scale. In 1993, an important change was made to the Act on Co-Determination. The rule setting a limit on the amount of damages, then SEK 200, that could be awarded against a worker involved in an illegal strike was abolished. Since them, the amount of damages awarded by the Labour Court in such cases has averaged around SEK 2,000. This change has led to a decreased willingness to hold illegal strikes, according to the National Mediation Office.

The industry sector cooperation agreement, concluded in 1997 (SE9703110N), first applied to the 1998 bargaining round, when three-year collective agreements were generally concluded in private sector industry (SE9806190F). The industry agreement contains practical rules for bargaining procedures, such as rules on: submitting demands three months before the current agreement runs out; having an impartial chair enter the negotiations one month before the current agreement expires; and enabling the postponement of industrial action for 14 days. Other sectors followed in concluding similar cooperation agreements (SE0006146N). The 2001 bargaining round followed the 1998 round, with new three-year pay agreements in all sectors (SE0105102F). The cooperation agreements have so far been very successful as instruments to avoid industrial conflicts. It is notable that 2000 and 2002, years in the middle of the two agreement periods, were very peaceful in terms of industrial action.

Sweden went through an economic crisis with higher unemployment than usual in the 1990s. The effect was that the social partners seemed to come to a better understanding about what society can take or not in the form of industrial action. The norms for cost increases and other norms have become known to all parties. The feeling for what level of pay increase is acceptable has grown, not least in the trade unions. The economic and competitive situation in neighbouring countries is also of interest when assessing pay rises in a way that it was not earlier.

The conflicts that persist on the labour market tend to deal with different kinds of issues, often matters of principle. For instance, the conflict in the newspaper business in 2001 dealt with author's rights issues, while two smaller recent conflicts (involving commercial and graphical workers) have concerned the incorporation of an allowance for inconvenient working hours into ordinary monthly pay. In 2002, there were advance notices of industrial action in aviation and the railways about differing views on the regulation of working time. In another case, 3,000 horticultural workers opposed employer plans to stop paying an examination fee. All these case have been resolved through mediation and have not concerned the traditional pay issue of wage rises. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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