Peoples' movements and protests




A popular movement line in the Swedish trade union movement





By Frances Tuuloskorpi

A classic from, 1996


Deterioration of working conditions and attacks on workers similar to those we were subjected to at Bagarn in 1995 are not unique, on the contrary. There are certainly more people than us who are fighting against such things. But what we hear most is that nothing can be done - "these are the times". Such resignation creates such times!

How did we come to fight and win as much as we did? I think the answer lies in the union line that our union uses. Maybe we would have reacted and stood up to the harsh attacks even without that line. But would we have resisted the threats for so long? Would we as negotiators have dared to trust our members to hold out? Would the members have dared to trust the negotiators to hold out? I really don't think so. We needed all the experience and all the methods that we have acquired over the years.

The most important experience we have is that you have to trust the members. We at Bagarn are as grumpy and slow and disagreeable and impossible as any other worker -- and together we have the same enormous strength as any other worker. When we who lead the union have dared to rely on that strength, we have succeeded.

When we have missed or forgotten or not dared to turn to the members, we have failed. We had enough experience of both successes and failures to withstand a prolonged struggle.

We have gained this experience as we have tried over the years to develop a militant, member-driven and independent trade union line. Our method and our goal is that people should be on the move - it is a popular movement!

People should decide and people should act. The ideas we develop must come from this movement. Activities should be in motion, from experience to experience, from worker to worker, from members to elected representatives and back again.

What does this mean in practice? I'm going to take a few points that our club board has previously formulated and describe how we are trying to develop democratic and member-driven forms of work. We try to

- Use member votes, surveys and issue meetings. We should ask, not guess, what members think the club should do. When we develop our demands and proposals, we often go through several rounds: meeting; survey; meeting; vote.
Similarly, if the company comes up with something, we have to ask the members what they think about it and how the club should act. Every time we've thought we could skip that step, we've missed something important -- and disappointed the members. "No, not another vote!" Labour colleagues sometimes huff and puff. But it's better for them to complain that we're boring than that we don't bother to ask them! Better to ask too often than to ask too rarely. And it is right to make demands on members, to show that everything depends on them. I don't need to explain that it is a strength vis-à-vis the employer that the club has the support of the members and votes on the agreements.
We not only ask what demands and proposals the members have. But also how important the demands are to them. If you ask "What do you want?" you can easily get a lot of tough proposals. You also have to ask - are you prepared to fight for it? What does this mean for the company, what will they oppose? What are we prepared to do? Such questions may cause members to lower their demands, but we raise the awareness that we can only get what we are prepared to fight for.

- Bring the people concerned into negotiations. When we negotiate, we bring in people who know from their own experience what the issue is about in every detail. We supplement this with experienced negotiators from the club board. Then we get the best negotiation result.
We also show that the union is the members' organisation. Being involved in negotiations is also the best school for future elected representatives (= all our members).

- Go back to the members when the shit hits the fan. The union's courses teach you how to proceed to the ombudsman and to central negotiations. And it does happen that we go to the centre, we have even taken disputes to the labour court a couple of times, but that is not the important thing. When we say that we go to a "higher authority", we mean that we go to the members. We should always do that when we are unsure of how to act. If a negotiation breaks down, we should tell them what the situation is and ask: Should we back down? Should we stand our ground? What are you prepared to do?
Make use of all suggestions and initiatives, including criticism. Obvious things. But it is important to remember this when members come up with something new, because your head is full of everything that is already going on. You must also decide that criticism is always justified. Moreover, you should be happy to hear it (if you don't hear the criticism, it's still there and growing).

- Encourage opposition and discussion within the club. Unity is strength. Try to decide what you want and fight for it together. We often say this to our members. But to achieve a good and vibrant unity, it is important to have a free discussion, where nothing is taken for granted.
We almost always use secret ballots on both small and large issues. Sometimes members say "there's no need to write notes, we already know what we think".
But using a secret ballot is a way of saying to each member: we want to know what you think. You can't just listen to the discussion and then vote like your mate or the President. You have to think for yourself.
When we count the votes, it often turns out that there are one or two who vote differently from the majority - even if we seem to be in agreement in the discussion. This is an important reminder that there are other views and that we should try to bring them to light.

- Give a round of applause for the minority. Imagine a meeting where a member expresses an opinion that goes against what most people think. He is shouted down and outvoted. He might feel stupid and not speak up again. We try to counteract that effect. When the decision is made, we applaud the minority. We point out that anyone who expresses their opinion is making an important contribution to the club. Often the result is that we come up with something new, thanks to the discussion that took place. In time, it may also turn out that the minority was right.

- Avoid passivizing courses. This may sound provocative. After all, knowledge is power, they say. Can education really be passivizing? Yes, if you go to a lot of trade union courses where you don't learn to trust your members and apply the popular movement line, then you actually learn something else! There is also a risk that you will be drawn into a world of your own - the courses, the Council of Representatives, socialising with other elected representatives, the party.
The "union" becomes something you go to, not the one at home in the club with the grumpy workmates. That's it! Even in this excellent initiative with an inter-union contact network there is such a risk. You get to talk to people who think like you, get somewhere, something happens. But don't confuse that with trade unionism! You do that with your workmates and nowhere else. Everything else is superstructure. And the superstructure is a castle in the air if you don't have a foundation at home at work.

- Combat uniformity and passivisation within the department and the union. We belong to Livs (Food workers) Stockholm branch (branch 4) and have representatives in the branch's committee. It's no fun to go to the committee meetings and vote on decisions that have already been made. And when you have a dissenting opinion, you don't exactly get applause for the minority. For a long time, we had difficulties getting people to stand as representatives.


We decided to use the same methods as in the club's other activities. Organise member votes on which issues we should pursue in the Council of representatives. Invite both regular representatives and all alternates to the committee meetings (they shouldn't be there just to vote, but to follow the discussion on an ongoing basis). Prepare the committee meetings with our own discussion where we also discuss who can stand up and speak on different issues.

We became a comparatively large and active group that went to the committee. The other clubs' representatives were rarely full. It also began to happen that we got a majority at the meetings when we voted against the department board on certain issues. Especially at meetings that were relatively well-attended, i.e. when not only the most board- and party-loyal representatives from other clubs were there, but also their representatives outside the inner circle.

Guess what happened then? Well, the departmental board said that because it is so difficult to get people to join the committee, and because the discussions are so poor, the committee should be reduced.

Instead of appointing one representative per 50 members of the club, only one representative would be appointed per 100 members. This is to improve democracy, said the department board. We protested, of course. But in the end the committee decided to reduce itself. Since then we have been totally outvoted on all issues where we have a dissenting opinion.

We have realised that there will be no real change if we from Bagarn stand and shout in the committee. It has to be the members in the other clubs who pay attention to what is happening in the committee and put pressure on their representatives. If we want to help with that, we have to try new ways. We have a number of things in the pipeline, which we will hopefully be able to tell you about later.

We have also set ourselves the goal that by 1997 we will have achieved co-operation with other trade unions for a fighting and member-driven union. Among other things, we are discussing inviting interested parties (both unionised and non-unionised) from other workplaces to a study circle on the popular movement line.

In summary, we are trying to make the union a fighting organisation. This does not mean fighting and striking every day, but that we are constantly fighting for our interests.

Not running ahead but always in motion. Members come and go. Experiences have to be made over and over again. It often gets boring, but you must not run away from your own colleagues. The key is to talk to everyone, to build from the bottom up. Not trying to find those who think like me or the most aware. Then you miss the real strength.

If you focus on those who are "at the front" and run away with them, you will pull out the workers' collective like a rubber band. It will break or fight back. If, on the other hand, you succeed in getting those at the "back" to move - they will push everyone else ahead of them.

Our trade union activity is often awkward and tentative. Some periods have been incredibly exciting, others have been dreadful slumps. There are things that we have failed to sort out again and again. Sometimes you have to take a step back, but you can always learn from the difficult ones. With that lesson, you can take two steps forward.

We assume that all members can take responsibility for their workmates and the club according to their abilities. For a few years, we tested this idea in practice by appointing all members as contact representatives. They took it in turns to represent a group of about 12 members for a month at a time.

Everyone volunteered, even those who "would never take a trade union job". It was a different matter when it came to everyone. But it was too difficult to get together and talk to the "contact representatives of the month" as we wanted, because of the many different working hours. Therefore, their tasks were rather one-sided, mostly spreading ”Livstecken” (Signs of Life).

We gave up the attempt. But this was not because of the members, but because we failed to adapt the organisation to the real capacity of the members.

On the basis of this lesson, we set ourselves new objectives. In 1996 we want to ensure that the elected representatives (contact, language, protection and equality representatives, etc.) take more responsibility together for what happens in their own area of work. They should gain experience together with their colleagues in pursuing issues and resolving conflicts. The club board should then play a more supportive and educational role. Board members should participate in their areas of work together with the others. The club will become stronger in the work areas and we will find new methods to solve old problems.

The objective also includes making everyone more aware of the popular movement line. For many people, the club's methods are a matter of course. They don't think about how things could be done differently. But if, to begin with, all elected representatives (=25 per cent of our full-time members) become aware of the existence of different trade union methods and why we use our methods, they will eventually be able to use the popular line independently.Is the popular movement line something you can only develop if you are in charge of a trade union? No, it is not. You don't even have to have a trade union position.

If you think that solidarity is the basis of trade union ideology, you should show it. You can take your colleagues with you and talk seriously to a manager who has treated someone badly. If you think the union should have member votes, then you should also gain experience of this in practice. You can talk to your colleagues at the coffee table about a demand you want to make (whether it's a coffee machine or a higher salary) and hold a secret ballot on the napkins before presenting your demand together.This is how I made my first experiences with my workmates 18 years ago. It was neither easy nor quick! It took about a year before we first managed to unite on a demand (five minutes break per hour!), push it -- and win.

For me, as a newcomer, it was important that I had trade union friends at other workplaces, who inspired me and gave me advice. An inter-union network of workers who want a fighting and member-led union could, at worst, serve this purpose. We could give each other advice and inspiration.

It is important for us at Bagarn that the contact network does not have party political overtones. We do not ask for the political opinion of our colleagues. We assume that because we work together and share the same conditions, we have common interests and will fight together. And this is almost always the case.

It is with that confidence that you can win the battle. This is what we can proudly call unity on the basis of class struggle. It sounds nice, but it's simple stuff - it's bread and solidarity.

Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: