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Why No Wage Solidarity Writ Large? Swedish Trade Unions under Conditions of European Crisis

Chapter in book
Authors Erik Bengtsson
Magnus Ryner
Published in Rough Waters: European Trade Unions in a Time of Crises
Pages 271-288
ISBN 978-2-87452-440-0
Publisher ETUI
Place of publication Bryssel
Publication year 2017
Published at Department of Economy and Society, Economic History
Pages 271-288
Language en
Subject categories Sociology, Work Sciences


As far as Swedish unions are concerned, the analysis of Bengtsson and Ryner supports this view for the years 2008 onwards as no perceivable change in the role of the unions was caused by the crisis. As the two authors argue, the change had happened much earlier, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Sweden suffered from its deepest economic crisis for decades, which turned out to be a crisis of the socio-economic model which had previously shaped the country. In the ‘Rehn-Meidner’ decades, trade unions’ ‘solidaristic wage policy’ had played a key role in guaranteeing an economically and socially balanced development path. In this era, unions could draw on a mutually supportive interplay between their strong structural, organisational, institutional and societal power resources: high and rising rates of employment, high union density within the ‘Ghent’ framework, high collective bargaining coverage and strong links between unions and the Social Democratic Party. The two authors analyse the restabilisation – if on different foundations – of the system following the turmoil of the 1980s. The unions retreated gradually from their leading role in macroeconomic policy and established the so-called ‘Europe norm’ in wage bargaining: the share of profits claimed by leading export-oriented manufacturing companies has been accepted ever since as an ‘exogenously given’ condition of the annual corporatist framework agreements on a ‘wage corridor’ for all sectors. Against the background of the rise of public and private services in union membership and the persisting gender wage gap, the ongoing dominance of the blue-collar LO in setting this guideline has sparked increasing inter-union tensions and conflicts. Nevertheless, the ‘decided shift towards supply-side oriented competitive corporatism’ is still being widely regarded as ‘the best within the limits of the possible’, which is attributed by Bengtsson and Ryner to the fundamental shift in the balance of power: the rise of international financial market capitalism, which entails a dramatic increase of foreign (mainly US-and UK-based) ownership by institutional investors, which has changed fundamentally the terms of corporate strategy, including the required rate of return on capital. The two authors assess this fundamental structural change to be more important than a certain weakening of institutional and organisational power resources in the 2000s triggered by right-wing governments.

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