Danish workers conduct general strike for gains in wages, jobs, and vacation days, 1998

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Timing
Time Period:  
27 April
1998
to
11 May
1998
Location and Goals
Country: 
Denmark
Location Description: 
city streets, front of Folkenting in Copenhagan, private sector businesses
Goals: 
The goals of the workers were: a six percent increase in wages, an increase of paid vacation to six weeks, and a six hour work day for production line employees
 

Since the signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that formed the European Union, Danish employers used the treaty’s requirements as a justification to cut social services and reduce wages. Over the several years prior to 1998, the Danes’ unemployment had surged and real wages had dropped. Nevertheless, Denmark’s economy had experienced a boom and employers’ profits had more than doubled over the preceding five years.

Denmark's employer-labor relations includes collective bargaining on wages and other issues; the negotiations are conducted by a nationwide council of employers with a nationwide council of trade union representatives, the Danish Federation of Trade Unions. The federation covers the private sector of industrial unions, composed of approximately 500,000 members and sympathizers (representing 10% of Denmark’s population of 5 million),

Prior to the upcoming negotiations scheduled to start in January 1998, some Danish metal workers were inspired their comrades' efforts in Germany and France to campaign for a 35-hour week. The Danes developed a set of demands for a shorter hour work week that would lead to the creation of 40,000 new jobs for the unemployed. The proposal required the reduction of corporate profits.

The workers agreed on “three sixes:” six weeks of paid vacation, a 6% pay increase, and a six-hour working day (35-hour work week) for production line workers. Some of the associated unions, such as the Women Workers Union, pressed for even greater demands including 20 extra paid days of leave.

These demands were timed to be released at Denmark’s metal industries conference for shop stewards and union activists, where it was passed. The leadership of the Danish union Federation of Trade Unions reluctantly accepted the program of “6s” as part of their biennial demands to employers.

Following negotiations with employers in the spring of 1998, the Danish Federation of Trade Unions’ union leadership announced that the workers’ demands won them only one additional day of paid vacation, which was Christmas Eve. Most of the workers already had Christmas Eve off, so this would not make a difference to them.

Another concession by the employers offered most workers an additional day and a half off, at below average hourly pay rate.

55% of the union members voted "No" to the proposed contract. The alternative was to go on strike.

The Danish Federation of Trade Unions offered little leadership for the strike. Local union leaders and shop-floor stewards stepped into the vacuum. Union leaders from Copenhagen served as the strikers' executive committee. The shop stewards council organized the grass-roots activists.

Approximately 500,000 union wageworkers walked out on the morning of 27 April. The walkout represented roughly a fifth of Denmark’s workforce, which immediately impacted industries throughout the country, such as manufacturing, food, petroleum, service transportation, construction, and even sanitation.

The government of Denmark had recently privatized sanitation, thus making it legal for sanitation workers to strike in a way that greatly affected the public sector. The lack of cleaning service providers forced many schools to close.

The strike halted the fishing industry. Workers abandoned shipping of agricultural exports. Buses stopped, and citizens stayed home due to the shortage of fuel. The international airport shut down except for the arrival and departure of small aircraft.

The effects of the strike even spread to Sweden’s airport workers, who refused to load cargo on planes destined for Denmark. Finland’s labor confederation affiliates promised to turn down work in Denmark or transferred from Denmark. The Swedish auto manufacturer Saab stopped production due to a lack of parts normally supplied from Denmark.

On 28 April employers rejected the offer of government mediation, and some employers threatened a lockout. Also, in an attempt to counter the strikes, employers used the media to spread scaremongering stories announcing that chaos would result from the lack of food and fuel.

In response to employers’ threats of a lock-out and media scare tactics, 1,200 shop stewardspeople, who already had the tradition and structure to lead a strike both regionally and nationally, held a meeting in Odense, Denmark, on 29 April. They discussed the extension and coordination of the strike and the delivery of essential food and medicine.

The unions issued a public statement reassuring people that vital food supplies and fuel services would continue, with the written permission of the General Workers Union. Even police and emergency service had to get consent from the union for petrol.

The private sector stewards also dialogued with public sector union leaders about possibly joining them in the in the strike. The public sector union leaders, though, refused to poll their membership, which made their inclusion of public sector employees in the strike up in the air. By this time, the stock exchange had dropped by £3.5 billion.

On 1 May, the international workers’ day that is also celebrated in Denmark, nearly a half million workers and supporters demonstrated with solidarity through the streets of Copenhagen. The public sector unions showed their support by issuing posters.

Amidst the enthusiasm of larger-othan-expected turnout, Hans Jensen, the Danish Federation of Trade Unions Labor Organization chairman, made a disappointing declaration that the strike’s objectives were unattainable and that the leaders were planning to accept a compromise. However, Jensen did not endeavor further negotiations because of his fear of losing his base of support in the unions.

According to Jyllands-Posten, one of Denmark’s national newspapers, 50% of polled citizens expressed sympathy for the strikers’ cause; 39% indicated that the workers should accept the 8.5 % pay increase and one extra holiday offer by employers.

As part of a national day of action on 5 May, roughly 20,000 workers protested in front of the employers' federation building in Copenhagen.

On the same day, employers decided to institute a lockout that affected roughly 60,000 workers.

Countering the employers’ move, the unions guaranteed everyone that one supermarket chain would be exempt from the strike and remain open. Next, the government issued a statement that it would impose a settlement between the employers and workers.

After a week, Denmark’s economy continued to show a billion Kroner (200 million USD) a day loss. Many foreign companies warned that if the strike continued more than 10 days, they would withdraw their investments from the country, sparking panic for both the government and the union leadership.

Union leadership began lowering their demands and reducing their efforts to recruit other workers to strike to the point that they even advised the building sector apprentices not to join. Still, the strike continued to gain momentum, with the Copenhagen bus workers joining in as well.

To avoid massive loss of capital investments and hardening of positions -- even at the risk of antagonizing the working class -- Denmark’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen announced on 6 May the proposal of legislation to end the strike immediately.

On the following day, 7 May, both conservative and socialist sides of Folketing, the Danish Parliament, overwhelmingly supported and approved the amendment presented by Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. The legislation called for two extra paid holidays for all workers, with Christmas Eve as one of them. To qualify for the extra vacation days, workers would have to first work for the same employer for at least 9 continuous months.

In addition, employees would provide two additional childcare days the first year of employment and a third day at a reduced pay rate to workers with children under the age of 14 and who had been employed for at least 6 months. One source mentioned that employers would give a pay raise of 4.25% in 1998 and another 4% in 1999.

Concessions to employers counterbalanced the workers’ gains. The government reduced the amount employers had to pay for employees’ pension and health insurance payments from 0.9 to 0.5 percent of their payroll. This gave employers a way to finance the extra vacation and holidays for the employees. In addition, the government canceled a sick leave levy paid by employers per employee to the state; and it assumed the $63 million of employers’ taxes for employee sick leave. Essentially, the workers’ taxes paid to the government would pay for the extra benefits.

Lastly, the government ordered everyone back to work on the following Monday and announced that any strikes by the affected workers before March 2000 would be illegal. This provided the union leadership justification to accept the deal and call off the strike without putting it to a vote of the members. This law would affect only the private sector unions who participated in the strike. It did not cover public workers and the 50,000 people who had been locked out.

While Parliament was meeting, shop stewards gathered for what they had hoped to be a nationwide event, but only 1,000 shop stewards from the Zealand region attended.

Following the meeting, nearly 20,000 workers rallied outside of Parliament protesting the government’s interference.

On 8 May, union leaders recommended to the union members the acceptance of the proposed agreement. Some decided to return to work, but cries from others for a continued general strike overpowered and drowned out union officials’ pleas.

On 11 May, the majority of strikers had gone back to work; nevertheless, workers in many areas of the country would sporadically walkout for one day to demonstrate their discontent with the ending of the strike. For example, in 96 workplaces, 6,200 workers walked out for a one-day strike. Baggage handlers at Copenhagen International Airport stopped making their contributions to the Social Democratic Party, which led the government in that period.

Many workers believed that the ending of the strike was premature and that if they had continued the strike for another week they would have won all of their demands. What was seen by many as a hasty decision to end the strike only increased dissatisfaction within the unions.

While the campaigners failed to achieve their main goals, the workers did demonstrate their power through the mass strike, creating significant losses in Denmark’s economy. The workers did gain a slight increase in pay and extra vacation days.

Research Notes
Sources: 
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Chernyshev, I. (2003, June 1). Decent work statistical indicators: strikes and lockouts statistics in the international context. Retrieved from International Labour Organization (ILO): http://www.ilo.org/Search3/search.do?searchWhat=Denmark+Labour+strike+in+1998&locale=en_US

Chester, E. (1998, September-October). The Danish general strike. Against the Current, pp. http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/1799.

Cooper, J. C., & Madigan, K. (1998, May 24). Denmark: One strike against the economy. Retrieved from Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/stories/1998-05-24/denmark-one-strike-against-the-economy

Dixon, N. (1998, May 19). ‘We can run the country without employers’. Retrieved from History Archives: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/61/165.html

Dunkel, G. (1998, May 21). General strike shuts down Denmark. Retrieved from Worker's World: http://www.workers.org/ww/1998/denmark0521.php

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Henning, D. (1998, May 12). Danish government ends strike. Retrieved from World Socialist Web Site: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1998/05/denz-m12.html

International Trade Organization. (1998, June/July). Labor Issues. World of Work, p. 31. Retrieved from International Labor Organization: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/publication/dwcms_080630.pdf

Johansen, M. (. (1998, April 25). International Socialists. Retrieved from World History Archives: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/61/163.html

Lange, A., Mikkelsen, K. T., & Arbejderparti, S. (1998, April 28). 500.000 in conflict at the private labour market in Denmmark. Retrieved from History Archives: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/61/164.html

Martorell, J. (1998, May). Danish strike:"we can run the country without the employers:" ten days that shocked Denmark. Retrieved from In Defense of Marxism.

McAleer, M. (1998, May 2). Danes gloomy as strike effects spread. Retrieved from History Archives (The Irish Times): http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/61/162.html

Olsen, J. M. (1998, April 28). General strike disrupts denmark. Retrieved from AP News Archive: http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1998/General-Strike-Disrupts-Denmark/id-58d7ba8ee9ebc8ae934a20722ecf05c3?SearchText=danish%20workers%20general%20strike%20for%20six%20weeks%20paid%20vacation;Display_

Östling, A. (1998, May 25). General Strike Shakes Danish Rulers -- Government imposes settlement to end walkout by 500,00 workers. Retrieved from The Militant (62)20: http://www.themilitant.com/1998/6220/6220_6.html

Williams, M., Östling, A., & White, G. (1998, June 1). We're Stronger Because We Stood Up' -- Workers and youth in Denmark assess two-week general strike. Retrieved from The Militant: http://www.themilitant.com/1998/6221/6221_6.html

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Margaret Slusher, 21/03/2013