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Swedish workers general strike for economic justice, power shift (Ådalen) 1931
The general strike in Ådalen, Sweden, in 1931 was part of a much larger industrial struggle between the Swedish Employers’ Federation (SAF) and the Swedish Union Federation (LO), a struggle that had been continuing since the late 19th century, if not longer.
After a failed general strike in 1909, the LO lost a lot of membership and the balance of power shifted in favor of the SAF. Negotiations and cooperation between the two organizations slowed due to decentralization of LO’s leadership. During the economic surge of World War I, LO’s membership grew rapidly and LO regained power during the 1920s. While SAF tried to lower wages with coordinated lockouts across industries, LO was able to resist by using the resources from a wide base of membership to support the workers affected by each lockout. A settlement after a failed lockout in 1925 effectively put an end to the efficacy of lockouts in Swedish labor conflicts.
The national government was also seeking its own section of power in industrial relations since industrial conflict greatly affected the national economy. The Conservative Party sought the dissolution of labor unions. Liberals, a party that was in favor of free market economy and limited government, wanted restraints against both laborers and employers. The Social Democrats were aligned with LO and promoted workers’ rights. The Conservatives and Liberals together held a majority in the national parliament.
In 1928, two important events occurred. The LO and SAF held a Labor Peace Conference in which they decided to create a labor peace council with members from LO, SAF, and the government. They in turn created a smaller council to monitor industrial conflict. Also in 1928, the government created a Labor Court to enforce collective agreements. The court benefited the interests of the employers.
In addition, economic depression hit Sweden in 1930, further stressing laborer-employer relations and increasing unemployment while employers worked to cut costs.
In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.
The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.
Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.
On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.
The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.
Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde
The county government needed help dealing with the strikers. Sixty national soldiers came to Ådalen that night. Demonstrators threw stones at the soldiers as they arrived. In Lunde the soldiers used smoke grenades and fired warning shots to disperse protesters.
May 14 was a public holiday as 4000 strikers met in a public park. Strike leaders met alone, prior to the mass meeting, to discuss strikebreakers and the military presence. They decided to call for a general strike throughout the region. During the leaders’ meeting, workers in the park grew agitated and began the march before the leaders had even arrived. The march was orderly and workers walked in four columns, forming a line a kilometer long. At the forefront they held banners and flags and a band played. This march was determinedly peaceful.
That same day, the provincial government had agreed to place a ban on the strikebreakers, preventing their further work in the mills. However, the government officials failed to deliver this news to the demonstrators who continued their march in protest of the strikebreakers.
The soldiers ordered the strikers to halt near the mill, but marchers continued, claiming their right to demonstrate. The soldiers opened fire, killing five strikers and injuring five more.
Photographs of the incident and mass media quickly spread the news of these events. Both the repressive violence and media coverage were new experiences in Swedish labor conflicts.
The next day workers began a general strike in Ådalen and several cities around the nation. In Stockholm, 80,000 people demonstrated on a military drill ground, protesting the killing of the five strikers near Ådalen.
Twelve thousand people attended the funerals a week later and work stopped throughout the nation for a five-minute period of silence at noon.
The strikers had successfully achieved their secondary goal of preventing the strikebreakers from working, taking away a strong negotiation tool from the management of the mills. The campaigners stopped the general strike at the end of May. I have been unable to find whether they successfully prevented management from imposing wage cuts.
The strike was an important influence on the greater industrial struggle between LO and SAF and the direction of Swedish governmental policy. The military intervention exemplified the governmental attempts at intervention in industrial conflict. As a result of this failed intervention, the military was banned from taking part in such internal conflicts. National sympathy for the strikers added great political momentum to LO and the Social Democrats. In 1932, the Social Democrats gained majority power in the national government. The Basic Agreement in 1938, facilitated by this new governmental power, ultimately ended any possibility of governmental regulation of industrial conflict and led to joint regulation by LO and SAF. Another important result of the rise to power of the Social Democrats was the creation of the Swedish welfare state, an attempt to lower unemployment and provide the basic needs for which the Ådalen strikers had been fighting.