A tough period for the SAC

A 2002 article from Arbetaren, the publication of the Swedish syndicalist union, SAC about the contemporary state of the organisation and the challenges it faced.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 20, 2015

It isn't just the nazi murder of the syndicalist Björn Söderberg and the involvment in the protests against the EU summit in Gothenburg that has put it's stamp on the activities of the SAC the latest congress period.

The organisation, which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year, has also suffered from internal turbulence and low participation in important referenda.

But the activity on the job is also in its road to a new ignition, and the syndicalists have thrown themselves into industrial conflicts of non-conventional character.

Ingemar Sjoo, from the former Working Committee, points out four things that before others have affected the organization since the last congress 1998: The murder of Björn Söderberg autumn 1999, the taxidrivers strike at Arlanda airport spring 2000, the Gothenburg demonstrations 2001 and the beginning of the "union reorganisation".

In any case there is no doubt that SAC has been more in the public spotlight now than for a long time.

These events together have led to that perhaps three times as many Swedes know who the syndicalists are today compared to 1998, Ingemar Sjöö speculates.

He points out the SAC:s very visible and active participation in the Gothenburg Action network as a "propagandistic triumph".

We got a very good reputation amongst other organisation, who perhaps envisioned us to be a gang of anarchist loonies, but in reality we proved ourselves to be very competent organizers.

The secretary of the SAC, Hannele Peltonen, wants to emphasize an aspect of the Gothenburg events that haven't got the same amount of attention, namely the European industrial branch-meetings that SAC hosted.

We have established better international cooperation with our sister organisations and have begun to create a global network. As well Ingemar Sjöö as Hannele Peltonen believes that the massmedias picture of the Gothenburg events originally cast SAC in a negative light, but that the organisation has won out as the picture has become more and more balanced.

For a while many members were worried, but when people who weren't there realized that we stood behind the peaceful activities they calmed down, says Hannele Peltonen.

But what kind of picture has the SAC put up for the outside - is it one of a union or more like a organisation concerned with general politics?

Before most people didn't have any idea at all who we were, so I think that it is positive that people now know that we exist, says Hannele Peltonen. For her, there is no doubt that it was the almost unrealistic time after the murder of Björn Söderberg that was the most turbulent time during her four years as Organisational Secretary.

SAC succeeded, amidst sorrow and worries, to mobilize giant manifestations against nazism and received a seldom seen attention. This was attention of a whole other kind than the suspect picture that was delivered in the massmedia after the Gothenburg events. Diametrically opposite pictures of one and the same organisation have been offered in the same newspapers during only a year.

Already before everything happened we had planned to reach out and take more space in the public debate. This meant that we weren't totally unprepared. Amongst the positive things that have happened, Hannele Peltonen wants to point out successful work with public opinion, the campaign against the proposed new draconian version of the labour laws that the so called Öberg-investigation produced, a campaign in which Björn Söderberg was very active. We took part in creating opinion against the attacks on union rights and freedoms and thus helped so that all of the new suggestions weren't realized.

There has been concern about possible galloping escape of members both in connection to the Gothenburg riots - which sparkled quite a lot of internal debate - as well as the murder of Björn Söderberg. However the concerns turned out to be groundless. The consequence of the fact that nazis murdered a union man and carried out a bombing of the SAC Industrial Secretariat in Gävle was instead a tightening of the ranks in the organisation. In Ingemar Sjöö's opinion it was even the traumatic autumn of 1999 that marked the end of SAC long period of sinking membership.

Presently the amount of members is largely in a status quo, even though it depends on how you count. Traditionally the rather large group of retired workers are counted as SAC-members, even though they do not work or pay membership fees. With the retired members in the calculations, the membership curve is still sinking, but if one looks at the dues-paying membership the numbers instead point upwards, and ends around circa 6500 members. The official membership, counting the retired workers, is 7761.

One thing that is striking, and according to Hannele Peltonen one of the organisations main problem, is the high throughout. About 500-600 people join each year, but almost as many leave the SAC, even though it partly can be attributed to a group of "sporadic members".

Here we have one of our big problems. This is why educational activity is important - to take care of the new members, says Hannele Peltonen. The SAC is good at agitating and being visible, and very many submit their interest in joining. But somewhere along the line something doesn't click: partly the Local Coorganisations (LS) in general are bad at following up the interest and grab hold of the new members, partly the SAC isn't good enough at involving new members in the activities and stay for a longer while, according to Hannele Peltonen.

Some very deep changes can be seen in the composition of the SAC membership. Traditionally syndicalism has been a movement dominated by men in the countryside. Timberworkers and stonecutters were initially very strongly represented in the organisation, and this trend continued for a long while. Even if there still is a lively Forest industry-federation in the SAC, there can be no doubt that the trades that traditionally have been organised are on the way out, to slowly be replaced by others.

The larger group now comes from the public sector dominated by women, and usually live in the larger cities, says Hannele Peltonen. That SAC - which became the first feminist union in Sweden - still has only about 35 percent women members is said to be caused by the fact that the large numbers of older male members.

Amongst the members below 65 years of age the distribution in terms of breakdown by sex is almost even, says Torfi Magnusson, who has taken care of the statistics for the membership registry.

The differences are also big between different LS. SAC in total has many young members, possibly far more than a couple of decades ago, but some LS which seem to live a fading life mainly consists of only older persons. So, at present neither more or fewer choose SAC as their union organisation. Ingemar Sjöö feels that this is quite natural, because the membership development historically has been intimately tied to the business cycles of society.

SAC had great increases in membership in connection to deep economic crisis, for example post-WWI. The happy 20's meant a massive loss of members, a trend which was broken with the stock market crash in 1929. SAC lost almost 10 000 members in your years time, to regain the same number almost as quickly, he says.

I believe it will continue in this fashion. We must be available when people almost in desperation search for union alternatives. Aside from the more dramatic events that SAC freely or forced took part in, the syndicalists that The Worker has spoken to want to hold forward a less spectacular tendency that has grown noticeable the latest years. It is what is referred to the "union reorganisation", which has revolved around a number of union conferences and aims at rebuilding the union activity at the base in the form of sections at workplaces and trade-organising in the form of syndicates and federations on local respectively national level.

We have earlier focused pretty much on general political questions that admittedly have bearings for the union struggle, but we have forgotten to invest energy in the union organisation, says Hannele Peltonen. Will the debated reorganisation escalate, or is it more of a hope?

Yes, but it isn't going as fast as one would like. I worked with the SAC Women's Committee to bring in feminism in the organisation, and now in the mirror you can see that it took 10 years.

Ingemar Sjöö believes himself to see that things already are starting to happen. He tells about how he heard plans from members in the half-and-half sleeping construction worker's federation to disband the federation, at the same time as a group of younger construction workers who had been to a union reorganisational conference showed great interest in a construction worker's federation without even knowing about the formally existing one.

One could expect that this would take place during a general increase of membership, but it is more the already existing members that are beginning to get more alert, says Ingemar Sjöö.

He says that there is a consensus in the organisation about "turning the wheel" in the direction of rebuilt syndicates and federations, and believes that the taxi strike, which attracted much attention, has played a vital role in the vitalization.

The taxi strike was successful, but at the same time led to some internal controversies. That a union organises taxi drivers, who formally are a one person-business, and struggles, with a combination of direct action and anti-trust laws, for their demand to equal access to the taxi lanes at the Arlanda airport is hardly a conventional way to do things for a Swedish union. SAC has also stood for two much written about one-person this year, though with lesser success. Last spring it was Karolina Bergh in Gävle who struggled for better workplace conditions and higher wages, and now Rasmus Hästbacka in Umeå who alone went out in strike against indivudual and secret wage-setting policies.

Particularly the taxi strike was very odd. But I believe that we are quite open for new ways, to use the strategies, methods and laws that are available to us, says Hannele Peltonen. Ingemar Sjöö concurs.

That one has to be flexible in the choice of methods and not lock one self up in certain patterns of behaviour is a very far-reaching syndicalist tradition.
Torfi Magnusson, who has been involved in the work with the union reorganisation conferences' points out that the amount of innovative union activity that he has observed is limited to a small section of the membership and a younger generation, but that it nevertheless is decisive for the survival of the SAC.

If a new ignition doesn't come now, SAC will quietly fade out and die, he says.

It isn't as simple as that one must become more workplace oriented, because that might to mean jurisprudence and MBL [the Co-Determination Act, a law which gives the worker opportunities to affect the situation at the workplace by for example the right to form a union and sign collective agreements]. The interesting thing is not to chase collective agreements, but to successfully press for improvements. How they then are formally carried out and if it is LO [Swedish main trade-union federation connected to the Social Democrats] that signs them, it doesn't mean shit.

Torfi Magnussan is of the opinion that SAC cannot hold on to the old majority-thought, the goal to organise all workers.

We must be able to be a minority but still have the ability to put questions on the agenda. If you have three syndicalists in a workplace it is more interesting if they manage to carry out changes than if they recruit five co-workers.

Many of the proposals to the SAC congress touches on to the "union reorganisation" in different ways. Amongst other things there is a longer proposal for a union programme (which is debated in this issue of Arbetaren). Despite that many syndicalists seem to have a feeling that SAC is in a critical stage, which both can lead to total stagnation or a new ignition, most don't seem to view the congress as very decisive. Instead most are glad that the number of motions this time isn't as large as at the congress in 1998.

Last congress flipped out. It wasn't able to make all decisions during the allotted time, says Hannele Peltonen.

The aftermath was a number of referenda in important questions, which she means has created a democratic problem by numbing the SAC-members. In important referenda about the SAC economy and election of a new Working Committee, only a few percent of the member participated.

Two years ago the members chose between a number of alternatives to manage SAC:s million kronor deficit. Increased dues, closure of Arbetaren, firing of personnel or borrowing money from the conflict funds were some alternatives, and 1200 member took part in the decision.

The result was higher dues for the ones with the highest wages, the internal organ Syndikalisten cut down on printing costs and Arbetaren was left to mange itself without additional money from it's owner, the members - even if a clear majority voted against closure.

Now the economy of the SAC is OK, but the situation is worse for the companies: the property in Stockholm, Federativs printing press and Arbetaren. As well the printing press as the company taking care of the real estate has suffered losses when customers when bankrupt.

During spring 2001, the Working Committee (AU) resigned, after a membership referenda accepted a proposal to strip the AU delegates of voting rights in the Central Committee. This changed the mission "from being a political commission to being a service function" the delegates wrote, and chose to leave since this was not what they had candidated for.

When a new AU was to be voted for only 200 members took part in the election. A number of conflicts has since showed up around the Gothenburg-based AU that came into action the 20th January this year - after SAC had been without AU for almost a whole year.

We were forced to have seven-hour meetings to work off the mountain of matters that had accumulated and it burnt us out from the start, says Ingemar Sjöö, one of the delegates in the AU that now resigns when the congress votes a new one.

The critics mean that the present AU has acted authoritarian and tried to direct the organisation politically rather than administrating the running work. But Ingemar Sjöö means that hard measures were necessary after a period of degeneration

We broke into different authorities in the organisation and wanted transparency and it things got heated. During the time that there had been no AU, committees, companies and officials had found themselves quite comfortable. A sort of praxis had been developed, unwritten routines that didn't comply with the organisations constitution.

One of the more controversial actions of the AU was when the boards of SAC:s companies were exchanged. Not the least the fact that Arbetaren received a board compromised exlusively by men woke upset feelings.

I get the impression that we are intensively detested among many. But we don't give a shit about it now, because we are resigning now anyway, says Ingemar Sjöö.

Six individuals are canditating for a new AU this congress. One lives in Gävle, one in Uppsala and the rest in Stockholm. Two of them are women. Three persons - Liv Marend, Arwid Lund and Lars Hammarberg - want to take over the post as SAC:s secretary after Hannele Peltonen.

These four years has been a tough period. We have been very visible in the media, but at the same time periodically lacked a function AU and been forced to heavily cut down on personnel. Add to this the threats from nazi groups and that our headquarters in Gävle was bombed. Together all this makes people to feel bad, says Hannele Peltonen.

At the same time she means that SAC has learned much through the work of creating a feminist trade union.

We have gathered a common goal and cooperated between the office, the industrial secretariat in Gävle, Arbetaren, the ombudsmen and the committees. After our desire to break the male dominance it is a natural thing to continue dealing with the union reorganisation.

Rasmus Fleisher
Translation Mikael Altemark

Originally appeared: September 21, 2002 at Ainfos



7 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by altemark on September 3, 2016

And 15 years later, we are down from 7,761 members to roughly 3,000 (according to the latest Syndikalisten). We are not doing it right... (Granted that the largest exodus probably was because the political decision of the then right-wing government to increase the fee for unemployment benefit funds, which led to at least 1,000 members leaving.)


7 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on September 3, 2016

^^^^ I'd be interesting in learning more details on this
What was the government action? And why would so many leave? Did The reformist unions offer a lower rate of payment to members? Something else?


7 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by altemark on September 3, 2016

The right-wing alliance calculated that they would be able to weaken working class power by raising the cost for the subs to the unemployment funds - called "a-kassor". With raised costs, workers were looking at their union and a-kasse membership as something they had to choose between in order to be able to pay the rent at the end of the month. In short, overall Swedish unions suffered the worst membership loss since LO's failed general strike in 1909 - after two years of bleeding, 245,000 workers had left their unions. I estimate SAC's losses at 2,000 members, maybe? Not sure if I remember correctly.

The effect was not only that the number citizens outside of the a-kassa system grew from 750,000 to twice that number, but this also led to terrible tragedies with the sudden crisis hitting global financial markets not long after.

The SAC called for demonstration and a general strike against the reform, but with only about 5,000 members or so participating and none of the other unions catching on, the only thing this resulted in was maybe raising the profile of the SAC and syndicalists being able to keep their head high.

The a-kassor were originally run by unions, and only members of the union could join them. So the SAC had a unemployment benefit fund for its members, just like every other LO unions (electricians, builders, metal workers etc). This was one of the reasons that the SAC stopped paying its membership fee to the IAA/IWA/AIT, the controversy (and misunderstandings) caused by this.

The SAC a-kassa, the SAAK - http://saak.se/ - has always differed from others in that the union could replace its officials and had representation on the board of the a-kassa, all according to syndicalist principles. However, the a-kassa system has always been a bit of a odd bird, as these also have to adhere to certain government regulations on how to operate, and if a member violates rules a certain number of times, they can be quarantined or expelled from receiving something which often is considered a state benefit just as any other (but basically you cannot be expelled in the same way from other state services).

In the early 00s (I think) the system was changed, so that anyone could join any a-kassa.

The thing is, previous to 2008, there was a system were unemployment funds "evened out" the costs of the relative levels of unemployment in their different member groups. This principle of solidarity was cast out by the alliance, and for the SAC, with a proportionally higher number of unemployed, this led to a steep rise in the membership fee.

The right-wing alliance also did away with tax deductible unions membership fees (from 25 per cent to 0). They weren't satisfied with this, so they punished those who were unlucky enough to become unemployed by lowering the benefits for the initial 100 days of unemployment (from 730 SEK to 680 SEK), and they also tightened up the demands on the amount of hours you have had to work in a certain period (a year or so) to even qualify to for the benefits, even if you had paid your membership fee.

Edit: the coordination agency that all a-kassor have to belong to collect yearly metrics on "customer satisfaction", and the SAAK consistently score much higher than all others. I myself had very good interactions with them earlier this year. Their offices are located in the SAC property in central Stockholm, but not on the same floor as the secretariat or the offices of the Stockholm Syndicalists.

The current left-wing government has also undone parts of the alliance reform, but even with lower unemployment benefit fund fees, the ruling class managed to break away parts of the working class, of those in the most dire straits, and those who are a little bit better off, from the influence of the unions. Same thing goes for the totally insane deregulation and marketization of education - damn near impossible to undo within the confines of this system. The Left Party are trying but failing miserably at doing it. ( A good read on this : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/10/sweden-schools-crisis-political-failure-education )


7 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on September 4, 2016

Thanks for the clarifying info, that's really interesting