Second spring of syndicalism - trade union re-organisation within the SAC
An article by Mattias Wåg, first published in 2008 in From Thoughts to Action, summarising the Swedish syndicalist union SAC's re-organisation.
Lilla Karachi is hardly regarded as one of Stockholm’s more up-market restaurants. However, it has a good location at the centre of the tourist district of the Old Town and not very far from the Parliament once now and then, the MP’s stop by to eat.
As in the case of many other restaurants, they are playing around with the finances, wages are not reaching the collective settlements and parts of the salaries are paid under the table. Many of the workers are immigrants lacking work permits cheap throwaway labour. When sans papier Muhammad Riaz was sacked in April 2007, Lilla Karachi assumed that their action would not result in any problems whatsoever thus not paying the due under-the-table salary. Normally, they would have got away with it: Swedish Social Democrat trade unions do not organize paperless immigrants and do not represent them in workplace conflicts. Syndicalist trade union SAC is an exception of which Riaz was a member.
The Syndicalists took on the issue during December 2007 and began attempts to bring about a meeting with the management of the restaurant. However, the restaurant refused to negotiate or admit that Riaz had been working on the side for them. In February, SAC gave notice of action in order to impose a blockade on the restaurant and simultaneously began to hand out leaflets and created picket lines outside Lilla Karachi demanding the wages they failed to pay. A highly visible union action that close to the Parliament naturally provoked strong reactions. Maria Abrahamsson, head journalist of the conservative newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, rampaged because of the “mafia methods” and the “blackmail” of an employer used by the Syndicalists and right-wing politicians began to eat at the restaurant to express their solidarity and mark their hostility towards unions. But when information about black wages and the ruthless exploitation of paperless immigrants came out, the right-wing front began to crack. The restaurant owner was forced to accept conciliation and paid the missing salary.
The Register and Blockades
SAC’s blockade and victory was not an isolated event. The self-organized group for paperless immigrants within the trade union had built a register which listed the companies using paperless immigrants and paying salaries way under an acceptable level. When a paperless immigrant affiliated to the register, s/he also agreed to not work under a given wage level. Within a short time, 500 paperless workers affiliated to the register and the SAC began to win victory after victory. Only weeks after the victory against Lilla Karachi, McDonalds was forced to pay the wage demands of the SAC after blockades during which their hired dubious cleaning company disappeared without paying any wages.
Thus, it is not only in conflicts with small companies that these methods have had success. The syndicalist blockades have proved highly effective against exactly those companies that the trade union movement has had difficulties with; where production is flexible and mainly outsourced to subcontractors. In cases when subcontractors have refused negotiations, the SAC have been able to direct their actions towards the main offices, towards those companies which use subcontractors and then put pressure on them to resolve labour conflicts with the union. In this way, the SAC have managed to win conflicts against multinational corporations such as McDonalds and recruiting companies such as Manpower, where the established trade union movement has had a hard time to organize. Internet among other things has made it easy to quickly coordinate national (and international) solidarity actions against the company which the Syndicalists are in conflict with.
“The blockades have been effective even amongst the paperless. We had a conflict with a cleaning company where many paperless immigrants worked. We gave notice of blockades and the cleaning company did not give a damn. So we went straight to the big hotel chain that contracted the cleaning company in Stockholm. We informed the hotels concerned about the union blockades their contracted cleaning company was about to be subjected to. They called the cleaning company immediately, angry for having to face their conflict. Even though the hotel found out about the conflict on a Sunday, it was resolved within six hours” says Torfi Magnusson, former editor of the SAC members’ paper.
However, the blockades have been more difficult to win when directed against the municipal public sector and state companies. These companies do not risk the same economic damage through negative publicity and blockades. Employers’ organizations have refused to retreat against trade union actions due to ideological reasons rather suffering economic losses.
Even though the SAC is a small trade union, the effectiveness of the blockades has caught the attention of the business world. The counter-reaction has taken shape in two ways. The business world’s organisations are warning against the development; according to the Swedish Institute of mediation, the SAC’s actions increase more than those of any other Swedish trade union. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise is promoting restrictive measures against “high conflict” trade unions demanding the introduction of a ”proportional principle” for trade union action and also wishing to forbid trade union solidarity actions and political strikes. At a more concrete level, police have begun to intervene more actively against the union actions of the SAC.
The Syndicalists have been operating in a union grey zone on the basis that the actions were under constitutional protection. In contrast, the Social Democrat trade unions exclusively take measures during periods of transition between contracts to enforce collective wage settlements. When a settlement is reached, a non-strike agreement prevails. However, the SAC make use of the actions in their continuous union practice to attain direct goals within wage negotiations, contracts, working environment and against discrimination without being subjected to the non-strike agreement. Within the so-called “Swedish model”, trade union conflicts have been resolved by the involved parties, by the employer and the union representing the worker, while the State has (in theory) remained neutral. In recent years, the police have made a re-interpretation of the right to take union action and have instead begun to treat the SAC’s blockades as “expressions of opinion”, meaning ordinary demonstrations of opinion. In this way, the actions fall into the usual regulation of order within the law. Thus the police have been able to, often in a violent way, break up the blockades or the leafleting outside workplaces and then charging the participants with offences accordingly.
Rebuilding the Union
The SAC was founded in 1910, soon celebrating its 100th anniversary. Despite its long continuity, base level union activity has not been top priority within the organisation, but a change occurred around 2001. In the midst of the upswing of the Anti-globalisation movement, in the aftermath of the anti-capitalist protests in Gothenburg, many activists chose to get involved in the union. The importance of returning to the workplaces, that anti- capitalism must begin with our everyday lives, was discussed simultaneously both within and outside the SAC. However, an influx of activists alone was not a guarantee of the return to trade union practice.
“I do not always see it as an advantage to have ex-activists entering the organization. They may be too politically oriented but having zero experience of trade unionism. Many times they have a ready plan for how to work politically although lacking an idea of how workplace struggle is to be done” says Torfi Magnusson. “Everyone agreed upon the importance to strengthen the union practice, but how and what union practice?” There, opinions clashed. A series of union conferences became the point of departure. Soon, two lines became visible: those who wanted to commit to rank-and-file members focusing on the workplaces and, on the other hand, those who wanted to strengthen the union representatives and the ombudsmen’s role. The polarized discussion resulted in the representatives and the ombudsmen leaving the organization. Union practice was instead re-organized on the basis of self-activity and self-organization.
“The re-organization of the union is about maintaining focus of interest on the workplace. It means to move away from the ombudsman-ism when you have a client relationship between the individual member who has a problem and a hired ombudsman that solves it. The member has to be involved in his or hers issues, has to try to recruit working colleagues and to build sections. It is much about experimenting, see how one may win over an issue before it goes as far as an open conflict” says Torfi Magnusson.
Syndikalisten, the member’s journal for which Torfi Magnusson was the editor, became the hub for this re-organization. Every issue now covers reports from sections and syndicates, trade union direct actions and rank-and-file negotiations which mirrors the life the union has gained from below through its base activity. Even though the blockades have become the union action most visible to the public and have received the most attention in the media, it is not a solely positive method. The blockades have most of the times been used at workplaces lacking a strong collective but individual members and the rest of the organization have been used as an external resource.
“We have been too hard in some conflicts. You have one single member on a workplace, 20 people may come and support a blockade outside. But what happens when the blockade is over? This is not only about blockade conflicts but a rather usual phenomenon. When the open conflict is over or won, the person in question does not return to his workplace but instead quits. And it is not possible to build a long-term trade union activity on that, that every conflict results in losing the only member that we had on that particular workplace” says Torfi Magnusson.
A less spectacular work to strengthen the support within workplace collectives, to help members to create sections at their workplaces and create industrial syndicates is therefore going on within the union re-organization. In order to give all members the tools to carry out union struggles at their workplace and to stimulate self-organization, the SAC has begun to organize rank-and-file union workshops, a kind of information meeting where the members meet to discuss their workplace problems helping each other to find solutions. These workshops are public meetings where the members can bring their colleagues who do not necessarily have to be members of the union. This creates a simple and natural way for the experiences from union work to circulate and be transmitted between the members.
The re-organization of the SAC is only in its beginning but has reshaped the whole organization in a year or so and has created a level of union activity not seen within the organization since the thirties. The syndicalist ideas of organization that had its heyday between the 1910-30′s was born out of a class composition consisting of unskilled part-time and flexible jobs has had a renaissance under today’s scattered production, whether one is describing it as post- or hyperfordist and corresponds to a need created by flexible employments, paperless immigrants and precarious part-time jobs. The second spring of the “other” worker’s movement has begun.
For more information about the Swedish syndicalist union visit: www.sac.se