Lernia Correctional Facility: a story from a Swedish unemployment programme

A short 'militant investigation' about struggles at a Swedish employment programme, run by 'Lernia', a state-owned training/employment agency, written by Kim Müller of 'Kämpa tillsammans!'.

Submitted by Khawaga on February 22, 2012

I have spent about two years in different unemployment programmes in a mid-size Swedish town and this is my story about that experience. For most of the time I was training to become a cook in the Lernia programme (nicknamed "Lernia Correctional Facility" by its inmates). The following story will not discuss much the time I spent in different restaurants as a trainee, instead I will save the stories from that sector for later.

At the Lernia Correctional Facility I spent a total time of about 18 months at Lernia, starting in 2001 and ending in 2003. A few months before spending eighteen months at Lernia I was fired from a big industrial bakery that closed down (see the text Faceless Resistance – Everyday resistance at a Swedish bakery). However, the first programme I was forced into was a computer education programme. This was in the mid-1990s and the course lasted for twelve weeks. And that's where I will start the story:

“Who has stolen a mouse from the Obelix classroom?”

Boss at the computer programme for the unemployed

The fact that a classroom in an unemployment program is named after a character in a comic book for children will not surprise anybody who has ever in these kindergarten for adults. The first unemployment programme I attended was a twelve week computer program dedicated to MS Office. We had seven weeks of lessons and five for practice. This was in the mid-1990s when home computers weren't that common, so during the course we could not e.g. use the internet. The five weeks of practice was a joke. One group of five people had five weeks to make a new menu for a local pizza restaurant. I had some prior experience with computers and learned far more from just playing around than from the actual lessons. Sometime during the course a few representatives from the local employment office made a huge mistake. They seemed to be unaware of how much people hate them and detest the employment office. While talking to a large group of unemployed in the program they hadn't realized that the only reason we had been civil at other meetings (often as individuals) was because they could threaten us. As we were already forced to do something we didn't like they could hardly threaten us! We were divided into two groups to meet one dole adviser each. It was great. For once we were in a large group and could act with the power and protection that the group gives you. The adviser we met with got the yelling of his life. People brought up all the pointless shit the dole office had ever handed to them. It all started when the old bastard of an adviser said that there were no more back breaking labouring jobs anymore. We gave the man a thorough lesson in class hatred and we left the class room smiling and stronger as a group. When we proudly told the other group of our achievement, they smugly replied, "That's nothing! Our adviser started crying!".

The five week computer practice that a few others and I had to do was running the coffee house at the school. It was a bit unclear to us what we were supposed to learn about computers doing that, but of course it meant that the school board did not have to hire anyone to work there. It wasn't so bad, we played some cards, drank a lot of coffee and could steal cookies. Since it was more than ten years ago, the computers sadly had no internet connection, but a nerdy teacher still gave us a lesson in netiquette, so we would not be totally lost and rude. He gave us an inspired speech telling us that if we only wrote in big letters we would be in serious trouble – “I promise you, the other users will bash you, they will for sure!”. We were scared stiff – nerds would threaten us over the internet!

The advisers promised to organize field trips to different companies for us, asking us if we had any suggestions. Karin who was a young mother of three and a woman of vision, suggested that we should go to the court. Stunned and surprised by her proposal they asked Karin if she planned to become a lawyer or a judge. She replied that she considered becoming a criminal since that career seemed to provide the best options for the future in her situation; her husband was in jail for armed robbery. In the end we never went on any field trips, not even to the court and I didn't get any computer-related work after the course.

Lernia Correctional Facility

Lernia is an education company founded by the state, but is an independent profit-making entity selling education programs to the state's employment office. Being run for profit means that Lernia takes on as many students as possible and it's rather hard to get expelled. Their basic business plan is many students, few teachers and low-cost facilities. The consequences this has on the education people get at Lernia is another issue.

When I had been out of work for a few months after being fired from the bakery, the employment office decided I had to be activated. I was told to check out some of the education programmes and they made it reasonably clear that the best thing for me was to enrol in a program, get a job or else...

I picked the chef's education. While I had no real interest to work as a chef because the restaurant business is a shitty business, I decided to take that course because I just love food and cooking. I thought that I could learn something. Because of reasons unknown to me it seemed to be an advantage that I had worked in a bread factory so I was easily admitted to the program. It lasted for about eighteen months and we made food for other Lernia programs, for some students and for those that were taking the "Swedish for Immigrants" course. As part of the program we had practical work placements at six different places, mostly private restaurants but also at some larger institutions (e.g. hospitals).

“The factory worker lives and breathes dirt and oil.”

Paul Romano, The American Worker

The Swedish out-of-worker lives and breathes dreariness and boredom. The obvious reason for some people to call Lernia "Correctional Facility" or "Penitentiary Lernia" was that they saw the place for what it is: a place to keep us locked up. Sure, there were education programmes running, and some of us (me included) do actually work in kitchens now, but most of us had been forced to take the course and had no interest in food whatsoever. The chances of getting a job at a restaurant was slim – show me one restaurant owner who hires a chef of 55 years fresh out of school! The teachers had a divided attitude towards their work. The ones that were ok just taught us how to cook to those of us who were interested. They didn't care about the managing part of the job, something the other teachers did. They were more interested in controlling us, such as what times we were present at Lernia. To begin with there was one teacher that hid in the bushes by the entrance to spy on people leaving the institution early. To out relief she was given other things to do.

Being at Lernia was a bit like going back to school, but with a greater mess of people of different backgrounds, ages and experiences. Some of the older students seemed to feel they had to explain why they were there – maybe because they identified themselves with their former job or something like that. But most of us were pretty used to being unemployed or flexible workers, and to being shovelled between lots of different jobs and programmes. We spent a lot of time in the school yard bullshitting and playing cards. The 'entrepreneurs' among us smuggling and peddling moonshine and cigarettes had busy days, so at least some work got done.

Different backgrounds – different struggles

Almost all of us who went to the restaurant program had some previous experience of either the restaurant business or in food processing. It was easy to see the differences in the people coming from the two different backgrounds. I myself had worked in a big bakery, and I was used to regular breaks at certain times and to a collective spirit among the workers; a certain us-against-them attitude towards the management. These attitudes weren't so strong among the restaurant workers who instead had a more individualist cockiness. While we were more used to fighting as a collective, they were more used to taking on the bosses as individuals.

Better stand up

I was honestly a bit tired of the huge conflicts and constant battles we had had in the bakery – I even thought they were rather funny at times, but they also wore me out a bit. After a bit of thinking I had decided to be a bit more hesitant when it comes to taking part in the conflicts that always occur in all workplaces and unemployment programmes. However, my desire to keep a low profile did not live long. Maybe this happened because you can't always choose your battles – they simply happen and you have to decide whether you want to prove that you have a spine or not. There's nothing honourable about it really. During this programme we had fairly common experiences and interests and that is always a good breeding ground for solidarity. That doesn't mean that we all got along fine all the time (at a few occasions even fist-fights occurred) but on a general level we solved our conflicts among ourselves without running to the management.

Injuries and boredom

Every time someone burned or cut himself badly, which happened a lot in the beginning, there were always jokes about that the person did it on purpose to get a sick leave. This points to how boring it was being in the programme. We tried to avoid being there as much as we could, and at the same time trying not losing too much money because of it (if you called in sick you lost a day’s dole). The general scheme for getting away wasn't very imaginative: we simply went home early.

'Arseface Andersson'

Some of the teachers had become more and more annoyed by our habit of leaving early. One day one of them went mad because of it. He addressed "Arseface Andersson", who was a typical arse-kisser and yes-man, and sent him running around with lists of attendance. He runs up to me, Pavel and Markus while we're loitering around chatting, and says to me "Kim, you are an orderly guy. You take attendance for the basic programme and I will do the advanced programme." I was surprised at being called orderly but answered: "I am not checking any attendance, it's not my job and I don't care if people go home early or not." He gets very surprised by that reply and asks Pavel instead. Pavel, cool as always, answers in the Czech language which makes Arseface speechless for a few moment before he asks Markus, the youngest of the crowd. Markus looks like he is going to panic but answers in a high piping tone; "I can't read or write!" Arseface then puts his tail between his legs and run away to snitch to the teachers. The next day everybody is talking about the incident and a kind of pride spread among the students. It is now unthinkable to help out with taking attendance.

Calling in sick

Even though it cost a bit, calling in sick was also widespread and a common way of not attending the programme. During the World Cup of 2002, skiving took on enormous proportions. The World Cup was played in Japan and South Korea so games were played during school hours because of the time difference. We suggested to the management that they could show Sweden's games at school, but they refused. So naturally when Sweden played their first game, there were so many kitchen students calling in sick that the kitchen had huge problems supplying food for the rest of the school. The teachers got mad about this and threatened us with expulsion from the programme and being cut off from the dole for those that called in sick next time Sweden were to play. I missed most of this conflict as I had taken a week-long sick leave. Since every time you called in sick you got a day of waiting before you got your benefit, I had decided that it would be financially wiser to take one longer leave instead of several shorter ones. Besides I didn't want to miss the World Cup. Eventually it turned out that the threat was just words – they couldn't really kick someone out for just getting a game-day flu.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Despite the fact that we made a hell of a lot of food and were unemployed and broke, the management actually thought that we should pay for our lunches. Of course, from the start we were only “tasting” the food and ate when we could do so without being noticed. After a while however, this habit became more and more widespread and open. When the teacher went to lunch a group of us stayed behind and organized something that became almost a little ritual. When the last teacher had gone it was like a signal for everybody to draw their spoons. We went around and tried each other's food, had a good time, ate together and gave each other critiques on the dishes. When it was my birthday, the ones training in desserts had made a cake so this also turned into a tradition. Another way to get more good food was to order too much from the whole sellers. When we planned our dishes we had to tell the teacher how much we wanted. We started to order too much of the ingredients everybody liked so that we could share among ourselves. We could also steal some of the more expensive and easily concealable ingredients – for example, I have never eaten so much pâté de fois gras as when I attended Lernia. But generally the management were prepared against theft. For example, the knives were chained to the walls and the door to the phone room was locked. We could use computers and internet for finding recipes, but as soon as we started playing games and music on the computers, the teachers reacted on this and forced us to sign an “agreement” not to use the computers for anything not related to the "education" we were given. We weren't allowed to check email, pay bills, play games or listen to music. But the agreement was of course only a paper and those of us who didn't take signing it too seriously didn't really care anyway. You don´t stop something like that with a paper.

“As a union, we must be better in speaking out for better conditions for the employers.”

A representative for the Hotel and Restaurant Union (social democrats)

One fine day, a representative for the Hotel and Restaurant Union came to visit the programme to persuade us to become members and tell us how great they were. I looked forward to hearing what kind of stupid bullshit they had to say and in any case, it was something that broke up the everyday monotony. The student who had invited them had never worked himself, so it wasn't a surprise that he held some illusions about the union. The union representative held a short introduction and then we could ask questions. Josefa then points out that the Swedish unions are wimps and that we should “do like they do in France” (this generally refers to strikes, blockades and riots – the mythical French working class is the true vanguard for the Swedish workers...). This opinion is so widespread that you can tell that the representative has heard this many times before. The representative responds by saying that the results the French workers achieve by strikes and riots, we achieve through negotiations in Sweden. I wish I could say that I had a clever answer to this and that everybody cheered when I spoke up, but as usual the answer turns up a little later when you have time to think about it. If it is true that the French workers get their results from their own self-activity then they are aware of their own strength and learn through their strikes and riots. We have on the other hand have been “granted” our results as a kind gift by “our” talented negotiators. So in reality it is not the same results by far. However, the meeting ended with a gem from Pablo “The restaurant owners are also thieves and bandits, just like us!“. On the other hand we only steal back a small part of the profit we make for the owners.

Friday afternoon coffee

Students in our programme were divided into basic and advanced level, and some of the teacher actively tried to encourage this hierarchical division, promoting pennalism and things like that. Of course a few of the students got a hard-on from the idea that they were a bit superior because they had spent a few more months on an education programme for the unemployed than others. One might think that it was a bit unnecessary with a division among us; the leftovers of the job market, the dregs of society that wasn't even useful enough to get a job. Depicting us as useless was an image that we had been bombarded with by the media and the employment office, and sadly some among us really felt bad about being unemployed. The division between the two programmes had been even greater before I started – e.g. it had been customary that the basic students acted as dishwashers for the advanced. But a new tough group among the students had refused to do the dishes and it had stopped. On the traditional Friday afternoon coffee break, it was a custom that people from different programmes sat at different tables, which was encouraged by teachers by them sharing tables with their respective groups and controlling conversations. When my group moved into the advanced programme, we knew what was expected of us on the first Friday. Instead we went in late and just sat down with our old mates from the basic programme and that was it. The division at that specific occasion was broken down, even without turning into a conflict. No screaming or yelling, just a few evil eyes. It was obvious that we did as we pleased and that no one openly questioned it. The following Fridays everybody sat where they wanted. Later on we started to go to the pub together with people from both programmes, and this also strengthened us as a collective. It was great to see how people acted when they were in a leisurely environment.

The reward

One Friday the teachers made it clear that it was very important that everybody was present during afternoon coffee as they had an announcement to make. We sat down and the tension in the teachers’ faces were obvious when they told us the news. A company had given the school some kitchen equipment – knives and stuff like that – and instead of just using them as everybody's property the teachers had decided to use them as a reward. We were supposed to suggest someone as a winner of the reward and a name for it. They would provide a box that we could place our suggestions in. The criteria for the reward was that you should be “socially competent”, helpful and dedicated. I looked around the room and could see faces darken. It felt as an attack upon our unity and solidarity, as a way to whip up a more competitive and productive attitude in the group. No one had any suggestions or anything else to say and when the meeting was over we walked out in silence, feeling down and worried. Suddenly Juan says something that relieves all the tension as he asks: “Well, who are you gonna nominate for the Arselicker of the Year Award?”. Everybody starts laughing like mad and that second our collective mood changed – everybody started joking and everything is fine again. This move from the teachers was of course meant to sort out an “elite” among us who would speed up the production and rush the other, but in reality it had the opposite effect. If someone had been nominated for the reward it would have been a way to make fun of that person. But as far as I know, the teachers never mentioned it again, and no nominations found its way to that box. The reward had a name anyway – we all knew that.

The evaluation

As the end of the programme was approaching we were given the task of completing an evaluation form for our period spent at Lernia. Although it was supposed to be anonymous the worst teacher was circling around us like a vulture over a corpse. The form had different options and the possibility to write something extra. There had been some complaints about that teacher, especially his "fondness" for the female students (he was later fired). We were five people completing this form at the same time and all but one of us were very critical of both the programmes and of the said teacher. We handed in the form together so that no one could be singled out for repression. Hopefully we contributed to this asshole being fired. The programme hadn't been a complete waste of time: we had learnt a few things about cooking, but also a few tricks about fighting for our interests and being loyal to ones' mates.

A meaningless education?

If God decided to visit these Swedish programmes for the unemployed he would cry. The bureaucracy, boredom and agony that are built into these programmes and institutions are unbelievable. The vast majority of the participants had a hard time seeing any point in these day-care centres for adults. But if you think they are pointless you are very wrong; actually the lack of meaning is one of their most important purposes.

Lifelong learning – lifelong suffering

According to the employment office and the government, the purpose of these programmes is to fight against unemployment. However, this is wrong. Many critics claim instead that the purpose is to fight the unemployed. This isn't true either. The purpose is to fight the working class as a whole. I will try to explain how and why. For example, take this guy called Göran. He is 58 years old and totally uninterested in cooking when he is forced to join a chef-programme. He also knows that no restaurant will hire him when he is finished. At first I was puzzled about it; what was the reason for keeping him there? My basic attitude when I started was that the employment office do things to support the companies and that no company would hire him. After a while it became clear to me – the old git isn't being educated to work but to seek jobs i.e. to be unemployed. This a part of what a Marxist would call “the reproduction of the working class/work force”. Reproduction doesn't just mean the birth of new workers, but also to force the existing workers to their workplaces. The point of having many unemployed workers that is prepared to take any job puts a lot of pressure on the workers who actually hold a job. The ones who have a job are very aware of how you are treated by the employment office and that by itself is a good reason to shut up and do as your boss tells you. Another purpose of these programmes is the free labour that these companies is offered: they don´t have to pay for the actual work being performed and they don´t have to hire someone to do the work the students perform. This also means they don´t have to raise the low salaries of the kitchen slaves.

To learn how to work or to learn how to be a worker

One of the main purposes of the education was to teach us to become workers, to “reproduce” us. Just because we were out of work we couldn't be allowed to forget to get up early in the morning and do some pointless task that we hated. Even though today that doesn't only mean blind obedience, we were supposed to learn the “norms and values” of the restaurant business; the customer is always right, no taking breaks during rush hours and etc. In the Swedish kitchens the norm is very few workers per kitchen, which means that it's more important to learn how to work independently than to take orders. However, to learn how to be a worker also means to learn how to struggle together with others. The conflicts during an education are not the same as the ones that take place during "real" work. Nevertheless, the conflicts at Lernia was harder than I had anticipated.

Kim Müller, Kämpa tillsammans!