Swedish cuts in unemployment insurance

(CV #39, January 2007)

. Below is the lead article from 'Red Dawn' #1, Nov. 15, 2006:

The government's attack on unemployment insurance is
an attack on the entire working people!

. The new government had barely installed itself before it set about its so highly prioritized task: to make the conditions for the unemployed worse. Among other things, the size of the dole is going to be smaller, the "ceiling" of it lowered, it is going to be more difficult to qualify for it, there will be no more possibility of having a period of dole extended, the fees to the unemployment-benefit funds will be made a lot higher, etc. All these measures are to be decided on December 20, so as to be in force by January 1.

. Usually, austerity measures of this kind come in times of recession and crisis, with the stated reason that economy has to be saved. This time they hit as profits are higher than for many, many years, and as the state and municipal budgets have solid surpluses. So, the government cannot make the excuse that "we" can't afford abstaining from doing these cutbacks. Instead it points to the fact that unemployment rates are high, and sheds crocodile tears about the marginalization the unemployed suffer. As if marginalization would be alleviated when people get even narrower economic margins! To that, the government replies that worse conditions provide more "incentives" to look for work. Minister of finance, Anders Borg, even threatens with penalties in the form of suspension of the dole each one who doesn't seek enough jobs. As if the number of jobs available were determined by the unemployed themselves!

. This talk is so absurd, that the government itself hardly believes in it. What, then, is the point of it all? Just to save money in order to lower taxes? In some part, but not only and not even in the first place. More than that is at stake. It's a matter of strategy in the class struggle waged by the government on behalf of the rich and propertied against the working people.

. In spite of the boom, in spite of an all-time high at the stock exchange and flourishing "public" finances, both private enterprises and the "public sector" are determined to get rid of labor power and to avoid hiring new labor power -- in order to try to press wages and salaries down and push for more "flexibility" (worse employment conditions) by using a high unemployment rate as lever. Of course, capitalists and state/municipal operations can't manage without labor power: no, along with unemployment increases also the working pace and enforced overtime. Then those who have jobs have little free time, little time to function socially, to be with their children, to manage their relations, to take care of themselves, etc. So, the situation deteriorates anyway, one way or the other, whether one loses the job or keeps it.

. But as long as the unemployment insurance functions tolerably, the employers' artificial creation of unemployment doesn't really have the intended effect since there is a certain protection against dumping of wages, against being forced into a "race to the bottom". The task of the government is to change that by political means. Deteriorated benefits puts pressure downwards on wages and employment conditions. The head economist at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Stefan Fölster, confirms (in the business supplement to the daily paper Svenska Dagbladet, Oct. 17) that market demand for labor power won't increase, only the supply of it.

. That this actually is the strategy of the government can be seen in other facts, too. Like, for instance, that those just finished with their studies are no longer to be entitled to any unemployment benefit if they are left without work. And that the various measures hitherto offered through the authorities -- however cosmetic -- like special programs to fill vacancies, etc. , are now to be withdrawn. Likewise, there are proposals (worked out by the social-democrat and former trade-union economist, Anna Hedborg, by commission of the former government) to limit the number of days of sickness benefit; decision on that is to be made later on, during the next year.

. It is no accident that the plans for so-called household services are proceeding. Not only the minister of trade and industry, Maud Olofsson, continues to push this issue; recently, the mayor of Stockholm, Kristina Axén-Olin, announced that the city's own employees are to be offered home-maids as a perk. It will surely be the well-paid officials in high and medium position who are going to use it. Since the senior officials in the city of Stockholm, with the director general at the head, now have been granted salary increases by up to 20%, maybe that's where the first home-maids are to be put to work? The supply of willing home-maids will be ensured by whipping more and more people to compete over the few other jobs available.

. Still another aspect of the government's strategy is that the trade-unions risk losing members as many simply can't afford to continue paying their fees when the fees to the unemployment-benefit funds is to be much increased. That this is not simply an effect that "happens", but really an intended aim, is made clear by the plans by the government to make affiliation to the unemployment insurance compulsory -- despite that such a thing formally would be contrary to the individualistic ideology hailed by the parties in government.

. But what about lowering the ceiling of the benefit level, then? That is a measure which is easy to demagogically justify "from the left": why, those whose economic situation already is good won't suffer much, and as those who are worse off are being hit, then. . . In reality, however, this, too, is a strategical point. The decisive reason why in Sweden there has been no "tax revolts" like in many other countries, including neighboring Norway and Denmark, is precisely due to the fact that the social-security system has been useful also for the middle strata. That's the so-called general welfare policy (rather than the selective one, directed only to the poor). Therefore, it has been difficult in Sweden to play out "middle class" against "underclass": far into the part of the electorate that votes for right-wing parties, there has been a widespread scepticism before too big political shifts rightwards. Rightist rhetoric about "system change" has had the effect of scaring away electors. Despite the fact that this rhetoric has been dropped in the course of the past few years, the strategical problem for the right nevertheless remains; so, lowering the ceiling of the unemployment benefit is simply an attempt to by-pass it. If sufficiently many with incomes above a certain level don't feel that they get anything out of the insurance any longer, then it might be easier to gain support there for more measures which worsen the conditions for the unemployed. Why, those who can afford it might possibly switch to private solutions of insurance. To sum up: although a good many workers are not affected by the lowering of the ceiling, it is important for the scope of the resistance to wage the struggle also for the benefit of those who earn more.

. The sole really efficient way to stop the attack by the government would be a political strike. Such a strike would also -- just like when the youth and workers of France through the huge mass protests early this year managed to stop the government's attack on employment conditions of the youth -- give a signal both to the governments and to the working class in other countries.

. However, the trade-union leaders only too often act as roadblocks to a proper resistance against the capitalists and their state. Most trade-union leaders are more interested in the profitability of big business than in the conditions of their own members. To be sure, the [national trade-union center] LO (and TCO, too) have condemned the government's measures in words, there has been expressions to the effect that it's a "declaration of war" and so on and so forth. But at the same time, LO has made a statement at its homepage explicitly rejecting a political strike against the government. And in the business supplement to Svenska Dagbladet on Oct. 28, Wanja Lundby-Wedin [the LO chairman] cautioned that if LO were to go in the forefront of political struggle, it would then be regarded "as an opposition party, and that would weaken our position at the bargaining table on labor matters" (read: there would be problems with class collaboration). It can't even be excluded that there might be secret accords between government and "opposition". The fact that some 30 backup tapes of the former government's internal mail traffic have disappeared despite being put into the new government's safe, might possibly indicate some kind of "gentleman's agreement", and if so it makes sense to suspect that the price for the social-democrats to pay is to do more to hold back protests against the government's attacks.

. Yet this doesn't mean that nothing can be done. The decisive thing is what the members of LO -- and the salaried-employee unions -- are prepared to do themselves. By bringing the matter up at one's own workplace, by calling meetings open to all regardless of trade or form of employment, it is possible to build a coordination in order to either put strong pressure from below on the union leaders or -- if need be -- to call a political "wildcat" strike. The last-mentioned option presupposes, however, that both the scope and the participation are big enough to achieve the proper effect and to render reprisals against the strikers politically difficult. Scattered "wildcats" are, in the situation of today, prone to lead to defeat. <>

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February 25, 2007.
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