Sweden's libertarian union

A member of the Irish platformist group, Workers Solidarity Movement interviews a member of the Swedish syndicalist union, the SAC.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 11, 2012

During a trip to Sweden last year, Kevin Doyle of the Workers Solidarity Movement met up with Lars Hammarberg, an organiser with the Swedish syndicalist union the Central Organisation of Swedish Workers (SAC). The SAC was founded in 1910 as a breakaway from the main Social Democratic union in Sweden, the Trade Union Conference (known as the "LO"). It has maintained its independence of all political parties since that time and states in its "Declaration of Principles" that it is "a workers' movement whose aim is to realise libertarian socialism".

WS: Can you tell us a little about the organisation of the SAC, and how it functions?

LH: The SAC is organised along the lines of Local Federations. They are based around a particular geographical area - for instance Stockholm City is one area. In Stockholm city, the Stockholm Federation has about 1,700 members. There are also Local Federations for the suburbs and for other outlying areas. A Local Federation organises all kinds of workers, irrespective of their work or job. But within the Local there are branch groups called Syndicates.

If there a sufficient number of members from a particular workplace, you can form a section. A section in the SAC can negotiate for itself. They can take decisions and negotiate for themselves, for instance to go on strike, without asking any other level in the organisation. Syndicates in a particular industry, say Health, also federate nationally.

WS: How is the SAC doing in the present situation in Sweden? Is it getting new members? Where are they coming from?

LH: At present, a lot of our newer members are coming from the public service area - from hospitals, schools, the post. Workers are facing a lot of cut-downs in all these areas, a policy that is being pursued by all the political parties irrespective of what they promise at election time. The LO, the main union in the public service, is doing nothing to fight these cuts.

The postal workers, that is the postal workers in the SAC, have fought in a very good way against these cut-backs. People like it. Our postal workers syndicate has had a lot of actions. Over two years ago they were locked out by the Government in a lot of towns and in Stockholm. They have had blockades about work safety and so forth. They've been successful.

WS: You mentioned the LO, the main union in Sweden. Why are they not fighting these cuts? How have workers in the LO responded?

LH: At present there is a Social Democratic (SD) Government in Sweden. This means that the LO, which is tied to the SDs has been less than critical of the cuts. After all a lot of the LO leaders are in the SD. What can you expect of them in such a situation? One particularly good example of what is happening now is in the hospitals. There are plans to fire 6,000 workers from the hospitals in Stockholm. The LO hasn't even organised an action or a strike. There was a demo by the workers, but that was organised separate from the LO. Many of the right wing parties also turned up to this demonstration.

The general problem is that the LO organised workers are quiet - they have accepted the situation, really. This is the problem with the LO and the Social Democratic Party. They have destroyed the workers' movement in the sense that they have made people very passive. After so many years of LO collective agreements - most of which involve no-strike clauses as part of the deal - there is little initiative left among the ordinary members. The tradition of struggle and of winning through your own efforts is missing.

Everything the LO has won for its members over the years has been organised at Government level, between the LO leaders and the Government ministers. These collective agreements, that the LO was mainly responsible for, brought a lot of stability to Sweden when things were going well. But now, with things changing and employers being more aggressive, many workers are left with out any sense of how to fight. In the hospitals the LO has been a disaster.

WS: Can you tell a little about your own Local Federation? Are you in the Stockholm Local?

LH: My Local Federation is in the suburbs, in an area known as Slegrholmens. It is a very new Local and was formed last year. We have members in the post, in transport, in social and health. We built our Local Federation because we think we can reach a lot of people in our area. It is mainly an immigrant area and there is a lot of unemployment.

WS: What is the situation like for immigrants in Sweden?

LH: It is very hard. They suffer high unemployment irrespective of whether they are educated or not. It is simply because they are immigrants. Over the last five years more and more immigrants have joined the SAC because there are a lot of comrades from other countries living here now. These comrades have helped us make to contact within their communities and are a link to the SAC.

A couple of years ago we helped a group of Ethiopians who were working as cleaners. As a result a lot of other immigrants made contact with us, because there is a network among the immigrant groups. A lot of Iranians also came into the unions. It is probably worth bearing in mind that many of the immigrants that come into Sweden have left wing ideas - a good number are political refugees. The Ethiopians have promoted the SAC a lot.

WS: The SAC is an anarchist union or a libertarian union. Can you explain a little about that and your own involvement, Lars? What attracted you to becoming an organiser with the SAC?

LH: The terminology marxism, anarchism doesn't mean a lot to me. I feel like an anarchist, but I am also a syndicalist. I'm a libertarian socialist I suppose. I don't see a lot of difference in these terms - anarchist, libertarian socialist. For me I don't see any point in discussing whether Bakunin or Marx had it right or wrong. The practice is what matters. You have to fight for the working-class. Direct action and negotiations, that's what matters.

We organise all types of workers. Not everyone is an anarchist or a libertarian socialist or syndicalist. We have communists and social democrats and green party members in the SAC. We've even had priest, a pastor I think, in the SAC at one stage. The man above was neglecting him - the SAC got him a good deal!

WS: How do your libertarian ideas translate into practice in a union like the SAC. Some people would argue that libertarian ideas are bit utopian, and not much use in practice. Can you give an example?

LH: In the SAC a lot of our union work comes down to negotiating. Whether this is about wages, or about a worker or workers being fired, the union should be there for its members. Because there are quite a lot of labour laws in Sweden members often need help with understanding the implications of these laws or agreements. Though the SAC does employ ombudspersons to assist workers in negotiations, we don't believe it is healthy for the union to leave such an important area as negotiating to specialists.

We want our members to know as much as is practical. We think that this improves participation in our union. We have set up what is known as a Bargaining Committee here in Stockholm and in other parts of the country to help the members on an ongoing basis, to get more knowledgeable about bargaining and to spread the skills of negotiating. The BC is made up of volunteer union members who have built up experience over the years. This has been going on since 1991.

WS: How many are involved in these Bargaining Committees?

LH: It varies but there are about fifty here in Stockholm. We meet every month. Every branch has a person who is a contact for the BC who will be in some way familiar with what we do. And any members can go to a BC meeting if they want to get involved. If a person wants to learn they can sit in on negotiations and learn that way. In turn these members can deal with their own situations better. In the long run we think that ideas like the BC can make the union more democratic, and less bureaucratic.

WS: Is this national policy of SAC or is it local?

LH: Now it is in operation throughout Sweden in the SAC. So far it has been quite successful.

WS: We heard that the SAC has been assisting the Liverpool dockers in their struggle?

LH: Yes. We were contacted by Anarcho-syndicalists in England. They met Kieran Casey our International Secretary, who is Irish by the way. We heard in this way that the Liverpool dockers wanted to meet us and also the dockers union in Stockholm. The dockers union in Sweden is like the SAC, it is an independent union. So in December, last year, we met two of the striking dockers from Liverpool, and from then we started to collect money to help them. In January they invited us to a conference in Liverpool, along with delegates from the Swedish dockers union. I and another comrade were chosen to represent the SAC at this conference. It was a honour.

WS: What are your feelings for the present and for the SAC's future?

LH: Stockholm is quiet at the moment, but in general the negotiating situation is going in a positive way. Things are getting worse in Sweden, that is without any doubt, and that means that whereas five years ago people didn't listen to us, now they listen. They see that what we said was right - that the rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer. The best propaganda we can have is what the Government is now doing, but there is a downside.

The high unemployment takes people out of the union, because it is more difficult to stay involved if you are out of work. The LO has been losing members with the increase in unemployment; we've held up our numbers in the last three years. That is good, we feel.

Another positive thing has been the formation of the SUF, the Syndicalist Youth Federation. This is a national organisation. They are young, and though many SUF members are without work, they are very active. They always turn up for demonstrations and they are good at organising. When we occupied Atlantic Container Lines in Stockholm, that is the offices of the company at the centre of the Liverpool dispute, the SUF were there. They were great. I think, yes, the SAC can be optimistic for the future.

WS: Thanks for doing the interview.

Originally appeared in Workers Solidarity No. 50 (Spring 1997) and taken from Spunk.org