1998: Danish private sector strike

Police arrest picket at Aarhus Harbour

A short history of the massive private sector strike that gripped Denmark for 10 days in 1998. Although ending after negotiations between the government and union leaders left workers demands largely unmet, the strike, involving about 10% of the Danish population was nonetheless a spectacular show of workers' strength.

April of 1998 saw a series of talks between private sector unions and employers in Denmark. Initiated by the unions in response to a general economic upturn in the country, the talks represented for many Danish workers the chance for improvements to their working conditions. Focusing mainly on issues of working hours and extended paid leave, the negotiations ended when union leaders agreed to accept a weak deal from employers. Put to a ballot of union members, the deal was rejected with 55% voting against it. The Danish economy was booming, and with many workers angry that their working conditions remained unchanged while employer's profits had more than doubled in the last five years, the unions had no choice but to call a strike.

Beginning on April 27, the central demands of the strike were; the introduction of a 35-hour week, an extra week of paid holiday and a 6% wage increase. Although these demands were accepted by most unions, many went further with organisations such as the Women Workers Union (the third largest union in the country) demanding an extra 20 days paid leave.

Around 500,000 people walked out on the morning of the 27th, roughly a fifth of the entire Danish workforce, and the effect of the strike was felt immediately across many industries. Work in manufacturing, construction, airports, the food industry, media outlets and private transportation comapnies ground to a halt, and many shops, bars and petrol stations had to close as employees joined the walkout. Many schools were also forced to shut due to a lack of cleaners. Effects of the strike even managed to cross over to Sweden where airport workers refused to load planes heading for Denmark.

Employer scaremongering instantly went into action, and many newspapers (those that were still running) began to print stories warning readers that the strike would bring "chaos" to the country, and that food and fuel supplies would run out. After guarantees from unions that food supplies would be ensured, this bid to turn public opinion against the strike failed to sway many sections of the population, who remained sympathetic to the strikers' cause. The essential supply of food was put under union control, and fuel required for vital services (such as running ambulances) could be obtained with written permission from the General Workers Union. Not wishing to undermine the fuel workers involved in the strike, requests for fuel that didn't constitute emergencies were turned down, including requests from the police.

A shop stewards meeting aimed at extending and coordinating the strike was held in Odense on the 29th, and the possibility of participation from public sector unions was discussed. Hopes of involvement proved groundless however after public sector unions refused to ballot their members, despite maintaining that they supported the strikers' demands. Commenting on the level of control the unions had so far exercised over supply of essential goods, one shop steward was quoted as saying, "You see, it is the employers who want to shut down Denmark, not us. They cannot run the country without the workers, but we can run the country without the employers".

Economic pressure was increasing on employers, and the strike continued to grow. Within a week the strike was costing the economy a billion Kroner (about $200m) a day in lost output, and many foreign companies threatened to withdraw investment in Denmark if the strike went on longer than 10 days. Growing increasingly desperate for a solution after rejecting an offer of government mediation on the second day of the strike, some employers began to threaten a lock-out.

May Day marked the fifth day of the strike, and a gigantic demonstration took place in Copenhagen. Exceeding all expectations, up to half a million workers and supporters took to the streets and marched through the city. Far from the optimistic feeling amongst the marchers, leaders of the main unions declared on the same day that achieving the main aims of the strike would not be possible, and a compromise would have to be accepted, despite the solidity of the strike.

May 5 saw the employers threat of a lock-out become a reality. Affecting some 60,000 workers, mostly shop workers and electricians, the lock-out panicked union leaders, and it was resolved that a quick end to the strike should be sought.

On May 7, the social-democratic led government stepped in. Calling the strike "irresponsible", the government offered an extra two days paid holiday a year. The proposal was submitted to parliament and approved, with active support from the conservative opposition, who had advocated outright strikebreaking throughout the conflict. A shop stewards meeting was held on May 8, which saw union leaders urge an acceptance of the agreement, saying that it was the best that could be achieved. Calls for a general strike erupted throughout the meeting hall, and many union officials did not get a chance to speak. The next day saw a protest outside parliament of 20,000 strikers. However, the legislation pushed through parliament had declared the strike illegal, and the deal was accepted by unions without putting it to a vote of their members.

Most strikers returned to work on May 11, although there were sporadic one day walkouts in many areas in protest at the end of the strike. Many workers believed that had they stayed out for another week the strike could have been won, and the premature return to work served only to increase already widespread dissatisfaction within the unions. The reach of the strike and resolve of the workers involved was remarkable throughout, and despite not achieving their main demands after the deception of the unions, Danish workers had demonstrated the power that lies within the mass strike.