Unlike many other European countries the three main trade union confederations in Sweden are not divided by political ideology, but is rather broken down by class.
LO (The Swedish Trade Union Confederation) gathers the trade unions that organize, for example, industrial workers, shop assistants, and health employees without a tertiary education. In short, the working class.
TCO (The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees) organizes what for convenience may be called the middle class. For example, teachers, nurses, journalists and bureaucrats.
SACO (The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations) is different from LO and TCO in the sense that their unions organizes with regard to their members’ (university) education rather than the type of work they do. Here we find, for example, lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on.
But it is with LO that the Social Democratic Party (SAP) have close and historical ties. As someone who has trained trade union members in labour movement history and ideology the worn phrase, “The trade unions formed the party, the party formed LO” is close to my heart. Of the 49 delegates who gathered to found SAP on a spring day in 1889, a large majority was representatives of trade unions. And before LO was established in 1898 the party had a coordinating role for the trade unions.
Until the late eighties the members of LO trade unions were collectively affiliated to SAP (with the individual opportunity to opt out) and almost 70 percent of LO members voted for the party in the 1994 elections. In this year’s elections, for the first time ever, less than half of them voted for the Social Democrats. And according to a poll by the trade union weekly LO-tidningen earlier this fall only three out of ten members think that LO should unilaterally support SAP financially.
The late Anna Lindh, said in an election analysis after the electoral defeat in 1991:
“I do not believe in a party where everyone dances to the beat. I have with sorrow in my heart seen how many of my own age disappear from the political center, even though they should have been there. It is easy for leaders or bosses to reward the yes-men and repel the critics. Had the Social Democratic Party listened better to their own loving critics, we might have had a stronger position today.”
The Swedish social democracy needs more “loving critics”. The Swedish model of trade union-political interaction is about to end. And however the future will unfold, I think we can see the various options in our neighbouring Scandinavian countries (albeit that this is an outsider’s sketchy description).
In Denmark LO broke with the Social Democratic Party in 2001 to adopt a freer role and negotiate across the political spectrum. As I see it, it has meant a weakening of the left field in Danish politics. A center-right government with the support of a xenophobic populist party has had public debate in an iron grip and has managed to move the focus from an economic left-right scale to a culture war discourse which instead focuses on (Muslim) immigrants.
In Norway, there are still links between LO and the Norwegian Labour Party (DNA) remaining. But LO has in recent years pursued a more independent line where they do not uncritically support DNA, but rather ask their members in internal processes what the core political questions are and then make demands on all political parties before they call on the members to vote for the parties that will run on a trade union-friendly line. Something that also has meant that a red-red-green government has been in office since 2005 and won two consecutive elections. A government which, incidentally, probably is the most radical in Europe in recent decades and has taken on the neoliberal policies that even previous social democratic governments have implemented.
Personally I’m hoping for a Norwegian development. For the sake of Sweden, social democracy and the trade union movement. That Norwegian LO in addition to helping to secure a progressive government has – unlike other European trade union movements – increased its membership suggests that their way is the right one.