The strike that shook a country

Report from Denmark

Pete Clark (1985)

Socialist Worker Review 76, May 1985, pp. 9-12.

Overfĝrt til internet af Jĝrn Andersen for Marxisme Online 20. juni 2008.

DENMARK on the Monday before Easter was like no other country in the world. A million workers, from a total population of just five million, were on strike. The strike was illegal—the government had rushed a special law through parliament just 48 hours before to ban it. The strike was unofficial—union leaders had urged a return to work after official strikes the previous week.

But on Monday in thousands of meetings throughout Denmark workers voted to strike. In nearly every factory, most offices, docks, airports, the print, the breweries, many shops, hospitals, nurseries—hundreds of thousands voted to strike.

The national radio broadcast four news bulletins throughout the day, but otherwise just played music. The workers refused to allow normal programmes. Local community radio stations became organising points for pickets. Requests for pickets were rung into the programmes so the carloads of pickets would know where to go next.

In the afternoon there were enormous demonstrations. No buses were running, so throughout the afternoon workers and their families streamed in from the suburbs to the centres of all Denmark’s cities to take part in the demonstrations.

In Copenhagen petrol ran short as oil delivery and refinery workers joined the strike. The national television stayed on the air just long enough to broadcast news and pictures of the size and strength of the strike. Then at 7.30 in the evening all programmes stopped.

On Tuesday thousands more joined the strike. Factories where workers had hesitated on Monday now joined in. The home helps struck. The forestry workers in the north struck. By Tuesday afternoon most of Denmark was in the grip of an unofficial and illegal general strike. From the strikers came one clear demand—‘Kick out the government.’ The right wing coalition government of Paul Schlüter was unable to cope.

But by the next afternoon the strike movement was dying. Although many thousands stayed out over Easter the unity and momentum of those two days had been broken by Tuesday afternoon.

The story of the Danish mass strike is the story of initiative and heroism by tens of thousands of ordinary Danish workers. It is also the story of muddle, cowardice and outright treachery by the official leaders of the Danish trade unions and their allies.

The strike had its origins in a manoeuvre by the trade union leaders. In Denmark all wage negotiations take place every two years, as the result of a peace agreement signed between the Social Democrats and the employers following the great strike wave of 1899. Most of the private sector unions are organised into a single federation of unions, the LO, and they negotiate with the national private sector employers’ organisation. At the same time parallel negotiations take place for all public sector workers.

Traditionally the Danish government has intervened in the negotiations to suggest and if necessary impose a compromise settlement acceptable to both sides. The Social Democratic governments of Denmark in the 1970s turned this intervention into part of the normal business of industrial bargaining.

This year there was a difference. The right wing coalition under Schlüter, elected just over two years ago, announced that they would not intervene in the talks. Like Margaret Thatcher in the miners’ strike Schlüter said it wasn’t his affair. The employers refused to make any concessions. After two years of Schlüter Danish workers had begun to feel under economic pressure. For the previous 12 months expectations about the next set of wage negotiations had been rising. Trade union leaders had headed off problems by saying, wait for the talks in 1985. There were fewer strikes in Denmark in 1984 than at any time for 20 years—even an attack on unemployment benefits was greeted with quite small demonstrations. But underneath the surface the workers expected something out of the negotiations.

The union leaders faced a problem. They understood the pressure from their own members; they wanted to find a way of getting some concessions from the employers. Eventually, as the talks made no progress, the leaders of the private sector unions, the LO, decided to threaten a strike by all their members. The point in the threat was twofold—either the employers would give way to prevent the strike or the government would intervene and impose a compromise to prevent the strike. Either way the union leaders would have shown their continuing importance even to a government like Schlüter’s. And they would have won some concessions. The last thing most of them expected was a strike. At the most they expected a short, token action, under their control, as happened in 1973.

The government still refused to intervene. The employers still refused to budge. The deadline for the strike approached. In the public sector talks a similar deadlock had been reached. A date for strike action in the public sector was set for one week after the private sector strike. Employers in the four main areas not covered in either set of talks announced a national lock out to coincide with the start of the public sector strike.

The Danish unions continued to drift towards the strike, still expecting the government to step in. There were virtually no preparations. One office worker describes how on the Thursday before the strike was due to begin, ‘I went to my union branch. The strike notice was read out. There was no discussion on it. The meeting moved on to a long wrangle about safety provisions at work. The strike didn’t seem real.’

Just 24 hours before the strike was due the metal workers, one of the key LO unions, held a national meeting where those present talked as if the strike would still be averted.

But there was no way of backing out of it. The government and the employers had the LO on a hook. On Monday 25 March, to the surprise and dismay of the people who called it, the private sector national strike began. It was nearly 100 percent successful. But there was little enthusiasm. One factory worker described how people felt there was ‘no point going on strike. We saw it as a way of getting the government to dictate a compromise to the employers. We knew the LO would accept. There didn’t seem to be anything to fight for. After all it had been the same for years—whatever the government came up with, people would say, that’s fair, that’s reasonable.’

Leaders surrender

This time it was different. On Tuesday night Schlüter said the government was intervening. He announced a special law, to be rushed through parliament by Saturday, impose a legally binding wage rise which amounted to less than half the rate of inflation. It meant a wage cut for the whole Danish working class.

But Schlüter had miscalculated. On Monday workers assumed they just had to wait for a reasonable deal. By Wednesday morning they knew they had to fight. The first sign of the changing mood came in Copenhagen. Some 1,500 workers from different factories, organised through an unofficial group of a shop stewards from different factories, assembled on the bridges which provide the only entrance to Denmark’s parliament. Some half of the MPs couldn’t get past the pickets as they held off the police for two hours.

Inside parliament there was outrage. One right wing MP called it ‘high treason’. But in the homes of the strikers and in the thousands of still working public sector offices, hospitals and nurseries the response was completely different.

A laundry worker described how they heard the news on the radio: ‘It was marvellous. Everybody started to cheer.’ A dairy worker said, ‘Everyone in the canteen went quiet to hear the news and the furious debate in parliament. People who the day before would have been horrified said, good for them. Everyone was talking about it. We all laughed about the MPs. It was the start of what followed.’

There were more immediate signs of what was to come. In Aarhus, a large industrial city in the north, the dustmen approached workers in the LO and asked for pickets. They weren’t due out on strike for another week, and they hadn’t the confidence to come out themselves. But they wanted an excuse to join the strike. Pickets arrived and the Aarhus dustmen joined the strike.

But at this stage most workers still followed their union leaders. Now the LO leaders decided to organise mass demonstrations for Friday in protest at the govemment’s action. This meant calling meetings, getting people together to organise. The leaders called the demonstrations, but the workers organised them. In town after town groups came together to discuss picketing, to make banners, to get everyone there.

In the public sector most people went to work as normal on Friday morning. But there was nothing normal happening at work. One hospital worker described how

‘We heard on the radio in the laundry that another laundry on the other side of town was coming out. We discussed what to do. There was no agreement. But then the hospital porters said they were organising a meeting and anyone was welcome to come. We went along. From all over the hospital other groups came as well. We decided to join the strike and marched out to the demonstration. I was amazed.’

The walk outs by some public sector workers on Friday afternoon were the first sign that the official strike was going unofficial. The demonstrations were enormous—125,000 in Copenhagen, 30,000 in Aarhus, 10,000 in the small town of Aalborg. Thousands of public sector workers joined in. The slogans and demands of the demonstrators were already shifting from the question of wages to the one all embracing slogan, ‘Schlüter out’.

But it was the last day of the official strike. The next day the government legislation imposing a settlement and making the strikes illegal would become law. The manoeuvre by the leadership of the LO had failed. They now faced a choice—continue with the strike or cave in to the government.

The lid back on

The national trade union leaders did not hesitate. They surrendered. The left wing leader of the SID, the transport and general union, Hardy Hansen, announced on Friday, `We have made our protest. Now we must return to work and establish normal working conditions. But remember where to place your cross at the next election.’

Other officials joined in. The leaders of the Social Democratic Party added their voice. The radio and television broadcast appeals from the union leaders to return to work.

On Monday morning throughout Denmark meetings were held before anyone went into work. Just one week before workers went on strike without enthusiasm because they had been told to by their union leaders. It was a mass strike called by the bureaucracy and controlled by them. No one was asked to vote.

But now, just seven days later, the workers had to choose for themselves. Their leaders had surrendered. The government was determined to extract every advantage from the failure of the LO. Across Denmark, in the largest factories and the smallest offices, the argument took place.

And in their hundreds of thousands Danish workers voted to carry on with the strike. The bureaucratic mass strike passed over into a strike organised by the workers. Pickets went to groups who still hadn’t the confidence to join in. The dustmen who had asked for pickets the previous Wednesday in Aarhus now went and picketed the bus depot.

One picket outside the bus depot describes how:

‘We really controlled what was happening. I was standing on the picket line. This well dressed man came up to me and I asked him—have you anything to do with the bus company. And he replied. Yes, but not today. Now I have no control or influence, but normally I am the director.’

At the post office the manager approached the pickets and asked them how long they were staying and when could he start work. Across Denmark there were no newspapers, and no buses; the docks, airports, factories, hospitals and many shops were shut. Each strike required a conscious decision by groups of workers arguing out the issues. One factory worker explained:

‘We always had before this the feeling that even if we did something, no one else would. But once LO had called the first strike, we knew we weren’t alone. If you like, the leaders called the first strike, but we, the workers, had to make it. And that gave as the confidence to carry on when the leaders backed away.’

The dairy worker describes how, on Monday morning,

‘We all assembled. There’d never been a real strike. I didn’t know what would happen. Then one worker who had voted for Schlüter in the last elections, lifted his voice above the talk. “Now they have passed this law we have to do something,” he shouted. Some of us went off together to join other picket lines—the previous Wednesday I hadn’t dared to tell anyone I’d been on the dustmen’s picket. Now this incredible change had come over everyone.’

A warehouse worker describes how:

‘We held this union meeting. Even on the Wednesday of the official strike there had only been about 40 people at it. Now there were 400 or more. Stewards kept walking up to the front and announcing that their factory was on strike and at each announcement everyone clapped and cheered. Of 32 factories at the meeting all but two were staying out on strike. It gave us a sense of courage. We really thought we could get rid of the government. It all seemed possible.’

A hospital worker said:

‘On that Monday, we just knew we couldn’t be the only ones to stay at work. There was this excitement, this fever of talk and hope. It was gripping everyone.’

Another oil factory worker said,

‘We had this enormous feeling of security on the Monday, this feeling that we couldn’t be knocked down, we couldn’t be stopped.’

In meeting after meeting the vote to strike was nearly unanimous. A few abstained. Very few voted against. Some factories that did return to work on the Monday morning were out again the afternoon or by Tuesday morning when the workers realised what was happening. The isolation, the feeling that nothing can he done, that someone controls you, was, for 48 hours, broken down. Danish workers took control of their own lives.

The movement went so far that in Randers the police met and voted by just 10 votes not to join the strike. Either way, the vote showed how rapidly the controlling mechanisms of Danish society were slipping away in the crisis. The moment was brief, but it was there.

But even as the movement was sweeping forward, plans were being made to end the strikes. The plans were not being made in the government. There was no plan they could make. Instead those same LO leaders who had called the first strike, the one they controlled, now searched desperately to end a movement which had left them behind.

Dangerous argument

Early efforts to end the strike were a failure. In Copenhagen the pro-Moscow Danish Communist Party, the DKP, began to argue for an end to the strike. Jan Anderson, a metal workers’ union local official and a leading member of the DKP, argued that the strikes should end to allow local negotiations to take place. He was shouted down. In Aarhus another leading member of the DKP, Paul Erik Hougaard, argued the same. He too was shouted down. No frontal attack on the strike was going to work.

Instead on Tuesday afternoon a far more dangerous argument was put forward. Sometimes the national union leaders, emerging from their hiding places of the past few days, made the argument. More often the argument was put by the local fulltime officials of the unions, particularly in those where the DKP had a strong influence.

The argument was simple and deceptive. To qualify for Easter holiday pay in Denmark you must work on the Wednesday before Easter and the Tuesday afterwards. Surely, the argument went, we should all return to work on Wednesday, the following day, then take the five day Easter break, return to work on Tuesday, get the holiday pay, and then carry on with the strike.

The effect of this argument was catastrophic. All the doubters, all the workers with hidden worries about what was happening, found their voice. The atmosphere in the dairy changed dramatically.

‘People started hacking at each other. The question of money at Easter changed everything. We just couldn’t hold the strike. This social democrat argued, if we are against the government, why should we strike against our employer! It’s not his fault. You could see people nodding. They thought it sounded sensible. Everyone was new to anything like this. We’d never really talked at work before.’

In the Aarhus oil mill it was different. The shop stewards fought back.

‘We held a long meeting. We went through detailed arguments about holiday pay and about the campaign against Schlüter. We had to take up both. We’d had an active strike from the very beginning. Lots of us had been on picket lines at other places. We won the vote to carry on with the strike.’

The trade union leaders, assisted by their troops on the ground, the DKP members in the lower reaches of the bureaucracy, got the movement back under control in the only way they could. They broke it. In the DKP dominated nursery workers’ union—a very important union in Denmark where child care is taken serously—strike pay had been paid out on the Monday and Tuesday. On the Wednesday it was stopped as part of the effort to get a return to work.

Thousands stayed out—shipyard workers in Copenhagen, brewery workers across the whole country, many factories, the national newspapers. But hundreds of thousands returned. The warehouse worker says:

‘Of the 30 factories on strike on Monday, 15 went back on Wednesday, seven or eight held out until the Thursday after Easter. We were united against the government. But the question of money—it just split the strike down the middle.’

On Wednesday morning as the strike crumbled, the police went into action. In Aarhus they broke the picket line at the bus garage. One worker described how:

‘For the first time for three days the buses were back on the street. You felt then that it was all over. In the afternoon it got worse. The local paper appeared for the first time for days. They got the buses back and the paper out to make things look normal again. And it worked.’

In the huge city-wide shop stewards’ meetings which had taken place throughout the action, fulltime officials now began to take a lead. One shop steward in Aarhus describes how:

‘On Monday the officials stayed at the back of the room. They were quiet. By Tuesday afternoon they worked over different sections before the meeting, and took it over. No one said it was a complete return to work. It was just to be over Easter. It sounded so sensible to many of the workers who were taking action for the first time in their lives. After all, these were our leaders, our officials. People wanted to believe them.’

On Wednesday, with the return to work well under way, the next stage of the trade union leaders’ plan became apparent. Instead of continuing the strike after Easter, there would be a ‘Day of Action’ the Wednesday afterwards. The word strike was dropped. Instead union leaders announced that ‘action’ would continue after the big day through the pursuit of local negotiations.

For strong sections this was appealing. For the weak it was a disaster. The political strike against Schlüter had begun on the question of wages. Now the union leaders and their allies in the DKP brought it back to wages to break it. Sectionalism was being used to break the movement.

But the decline wasn’t uniform—some workers stayed out all through Easter. In some parts of the public sector the strike movement grew, in some smaller towns the trade union bureaucracy had more difficulty imposing control. In Randers, a small town in the north, the strike was still growing in strength the Wednesday before Easter, when the unofficial movement was breaking down in most of Denmark, pickets organised through an unofficial local picketing committee managed to stop most of the town again. But this was an exception.

The demonstrations on the Wednesday after Easter were the biggest so far. Everyone stopped work. But the atmosphere was already reverting to that of the first Monday—the bureaucrats, not the workers, were in control. And the bureaucrats had decided to end the mass strike and steer it into safe waters of local negotiations over wages and conditions.

The lid was back on. The DKP could continue its warm relationship with the bureaucrats of the trade unions. The leader of the separate Eurocommunist party, Gert Petersen, could declare, ‘The press quote me as wanting to see society shaken to its foundations. Such rubbish I have never said. I don’t want to see that. I prefer a more peaceful development.’ The left wing parliamentary group, VS, raised a feeble mutter on Wednesday. Their solution to the betrayal of the great strike wave was simple. ‘Election now,’ they whispered, hoping they wouldn’t be heard.

The Social Democrat leader, Anker Joergensen, said, ‘We must now build patiently for the next election.’

But thousands of Danish workers saw it differently. After years of little strike activity, after feeble resistance for the most part to the attacks of the Schlüter government in its first two years in office, the Danish working class fought back. In some sections that fight will carry on. Schlüter has not won an overwhelming victory.

But neither has the Danish working class. For a brief moment the collapse of the government was a real possibility. For a brief moment the strike went out of the hands of the bureaucrats and careerists to the mass of workers. The results were amazing. Problems of organisation—information, pickets, demonstrations—all were solved by the initiative of different groups of workers, often meeting together for the first time in the course of the strike. Each immediate and specific individual problem of the strike could be overcome. But there was no way to solve the major questions.

A political leap

The only people with a plan were the trade union leaders and their allies in the DKP. And their plan was simple: end the action. Groups of workers could win the argument to stop their own factory. They could march and stop the factory next door or the bus garage down the road. But there was no way of deciding collectively what to do next.

More than that, there was no way to resist collectively, across the whole working class, when the union leaders raised the question of holiday pay. After all these were the respected leaders of the trade union movement. It took political confidence of a very high order to argue against them when their proposals seemed so reasonable. The union leaders played on the instincts of the most backward workers, and they encouraged the sectionalism of the strongest.

Within a few days workers’ ideas changed to the extent that they were prepared to take part in an illegal strike to overthrow the government. But it required another conscious political leap to go beyond that, to ignore and overcome the siren voices of their own traditional leaders. To do that more than marvellous initiatives and fighting spirit were needed. Conscious revolutionary political organisation was the missing ingredient.

Sidst opdateret 26.5.2012