The Danish General Strike
— Eric Chester
THE SCANDINAVIAN COUNTRIES have constituted the foremost outposts on the reformist road to socialism. One of them, Denmark, a small country of five million people, has become a flashpoint in the continuing clash between the welfare state and the globalization of capital.
This spring, 500,000 Danish workers paralyzed the economy for eleven days. Virtually the entire private sector went on strike. This in a country where unions have been dominated for decades by a centralized bureaucracy with close ties to the ruling Social Democratic party.
Only when the government brought the force of state power to bear did the strike come to an end.
Over the last two decades, Danes have seen the hard-fought gains of the welfare state sharply diminished. Unemployment has soared, real wages have declined, and the wealthy few have grabbed an increasing share of total output.
Nevertheless, Denmark is not the United States. Most workplaces are unionized, with most unions affiliated to the central union federation.
Earlier this year, as the unions geared up for another round of negotiations for the biennial country-wide agreement with the coordinating council of employers, rank-and-file militants began developing a comprehensive set of demands that would create a significant number of new, full-time jobs, while sharply reducing corporate profits.
As initially formulated by activists in the transport workers union, the “program of the 6s”included a six hour day, a sixth week of paid vacation and an across the board increase in the hourly pay rate of six kroner ($.84).
Implementation of this program would not only have overcome some of the worst features of a globalized economy, it would have also pointed the way forward to a very different kind of society, one that placed a premium on the quality of life rather than on an always increasing supply of consumer goods.
Reluctantly, and without any enthusiasm, the top union leaders accepted the program of the 6s as integral components of the union federation's demands. After months of negotiations, the union officials came back with the usual regrets, insisting that they had won the best deal possible: one additional day of paid vacation, Christmas Eve, a holiday already taken by many workers.
Beyond this, the deal lacked any gains toward a shorter work week or more vacation time.
This time the rank and file broke with precedent and decisively defeated the proposed contract by a fifty-five percent no vote. With this, the strike was on. Needless to say, the official union structure provided little in the way of leadership. Instead, a combination of shop-floor militants and local union leaders stepped in to organize and coordinate an impressive strike of 500,000 workers.
A committee of local leaders from Copenhagen, the largest city in Denmark, acted as an executive committee for the strike, with a shop stewards council providing the essential links to grass-roots activists.
The shutdown succeeded in spreading throughout the private sector. Those having an emergency need for goods and services had to apply for special exemptions from local strike leaders.
The strike held firm, and even gained momentum as it proceeded, although the strike leadership did dilute the demands, focusing on one key issue, a sixth week of paid vacation.
After ten days, with bargaining at an impasse, corporation executives began to openly threaten to shift investments to other countries.
With the strike at a stalemate, the Social Democratic government, which had previously sought to avoid taking a position that was bound to antagonize its working-class base, now felt it had to move quickly, to avoid a massive capital flight and a further hardening in bargaining positions.
On Wednesday, May 6, Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen announced that he would present legislation bringing the strike to an immediate end. Everyone would return to work the next Monday, or else. By an overwhelming vote, with only the two left-wing parties voting no, the legislation passed and the strike was over.
Under the emergency legislation, workers received two extra days of vacation, Christmas Eve being one of them. In addition, parents of children under fourteen could take three child care days, at reduced pay. These gains fell far short of the initial demands, even as modified during the course of the strike.
Furthermore, the limited gains were counterbalanced by significant losses, as employers were permitted to reduce their contributions to company based pension plans. Overall, the cost of the final package approximated that of the initial, rejected contract, four-and-a-half percent a year.
The Danish general strike represented a milestone in the recent wave of struggles against the globalization of capital. Although most of these confrontations have been defensive sieges, with one sector of the workforce singled out for attack, the Danes have set a refreshing precedent.
They did not just fight to hold on to what they had already won, they presented a bold, radical program pointing to the future. Furthermore, the Danish strike was fought from below, over the heads of a bureaucratized union structure.
As a result, morale remains high, in spite of the government-imposed settlement. Working people are ready to continue the fight for the program of the 6s. Socialist organizations are growing as young rank-and-file militants, radicalized by the strike, and by the government's action, join a more confident left.
Yet with all of its promising features, the Danish general strike failed to wrest significant concessions from an entrenched and powerful ruling class. With the rapid mobility of capital, the possibilities for reform within a capitalist market economy have drastically narrowed.
A basic demand such as full employment, which could previously be won by a militant, conscious working class, has now become a demand that transcends the limits of contemporary capitalism.
ATC 76, September-October 1998