Globalisation is the number one challenge
Stefan Löfvén, a welder who is now president of the Swedish union, IF Metall, heads a union facing major challenges, both at home and abroad.
Two years ago Sweden saw the creation of a new, very large trade union in the industrial sector when Svenska Metall merged with Industrifacket to form IF Metall. With 450,000 members it is one of the biggest unions in the country. With nine out of every ten blue-collar workers belonging to IF Metall it is a union with a lot of clout.
As IF Metall's newly elected president, the first few months were a tough time for Stefan. During his first year in office he was catapulted into a national election campaign, which resulted in a win for an alliance of four right-wing parties. This alliance quickly introduced a series of changes which had negative repercussions for unions and their members.
As soon as the election campaign was over the collective bargaining rounds started and the union negotiators found themselves facing employers who were tougher than they had been in a long time. Emboldened by having the political decision-makers on their side the employers set about trying to undermine the nation-wide collective agreements.
After months of negotiations IF Metall managed to conclude a three-year agreement which gave workers the biggest pay increases in many a year. "We got a good agreement. This agreement increases our members' real earnings and in addition we managed to raise the level of the lowest rates of pay."
Globalisation is the number one challenge for all trade unions and not least for a union in a small country like Sweden that is dependent on its export industry. "We have always had to live with globalisation in this country. It is with us now and will continue to be with us, but we must trust in ourselves and turn it to our advantage."
Stefan takes a particular interest in international issues. He always has, ever since the day when, as a young welder, he set foot in the workplace and took his first steps into the trade union world.
Working at a saw mill he was fascinated by the repair men's blazing welding torches. A year or so later, he was a qualified welder working for Hägglunds (now BAE) in Örnsköldsvik in northern Sweden. His job was to weld the chassis of locomotives.
Once there it only took a few days before he was taking trade union action for the first time. The welders only had wooden crates to sit on during breaks. "We can't have this," he said, "We have to have chairs and tables." And very soon they did. The trade union activists noticed the newcomer. They had been joined by a workmate hungry for knowledge, keen to take part in discussions and advocating contributions to the labour movement's international fund.
When Stefan moved to Stockholm ten years ago and started working for Svenska Metall he spent some time as its international secretary and now, as the new union president, he has, for instance, taken a special interest in Belarus because, as he says, "Our sisters and brothers there are having a very hard time and it is important that they get support so as to be able to build up a union structure capable of defending the rights of the workers."
The Swedish trade union movement has a long tradition of international work and support for trade unions suffering under dictatorships. Recently Stefan met with the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva in Stockholm. Lula was just one leader who received support from the Swedish unions in the 1970s and ‘80s.
"We wouldn't want to boast, but a lot of good work was done and the results speak for themselves in countries like Brazil, South Africa and South Korea. We have also gained a lot through providing this support. Our trade union has grown in stature and we have learned many valuable lessons from working with people in other countries."
According to Stefan the challenges of globalisation are such that trade unions can no longer limit themselves to working in the national arena. "We need global framework agreements between trade unions and employers to regulate basic working conditions within multinational groups. We began by building up our strength at the local level and then moved on to the national level. Now it is time to step out into the international arena in earnest and start cooperating across borders."
Here you may download the pdf file of the story with illustrations.Jan 16, 2008 – Alex Ivanou