Labor Lessons from Scandinavia

By George Lakey

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A century ago, the Nordic countries were in such bad shape that masses of their people emigrated to the United States and Canada. Scandinavians had extreme inequality, major poverty, and faux democracies run by their economic elites.

Today, they are at the top of the international charts, playing tag with each other for “firsts” in individual freedom, income equality, shared abundance, and real democracy. Fierce class struggle made the difference. In the 1920s and 1930s, Swedes and Norwegians pushed their 1 percent out of dominance to invent what economists call “the Nordic model.”

None of the countries are utopias devoid of racial, ethnic, or economic conflict. In formerly homogeneous Norway, one person in five is foreign born; mosques and head scarves are part of Oslo’s streetscape. Sweden has taken in more refugees from the Middle East per capita than any European country.

Even though the majority in each country continues to support the presence of foreigners, there is pushback from the right wing, especially marked in Denmark. However, the not-so-secret strategy for success in resisting the right has been unity at the grassroots. What does the labor movement do when tens of thousands of Polish workers come to log Norwegian forests on short-term visas? Organize them!

In the 1920s, the then-communist-led Norwegian Labor Party ignored Lenin’s advice, united with family farmers, and won. Study groups sponsored by co-ops, union locals, civic associations, and radical students shared the Marxist insight that class domination survives if working people can be kept divided. Their answers to division included campaigns, coalitions, and the cooperative movement. The synergy could be seen in Sweden when housing cooperatives were formed that hired construction workers to build new housing, and credit unions financed the projects.

Activists in the United States worry that U.S. labor is too weak, compared with the Scandinavian unions that did much of the heavy lifting in bringing about a power shift. We mustn’t forget that Nordic unions also suffered their ups and downs.

Although the U.S. labor movement is currently in decline, it, too, could come back. The growing power of labor pre–First World War was curbed in the 1920s and then roared back to new heights under the impact of the Great Depression. We may be seeing the beginnings of such a comeback despite the current dismal state of organized labor. We’ve already seen an increased level of struggle. Actions on immigrant rights, specific campaigns such as Fight for Fifteen and Medicare for All, and the burgeoning cooperative movement are hopeful signs.

Scandinavian workers fully expected repression as a response to their growing movements; they knew who controlled the state and its troops. Correspondingly, they counted on what’s now called civil resistance or nonviolent direct action to win that round of the class war. Most dramatically, in Sweden and Norway, direct action forced a power shift and the opportunity to invent the world’s most just economic model to date.

The Scandinavians had a cynical view of political parties. The unions saw that the existing parliamentary parties were accountable to the economic elite. That led to two fundamental strategic decisions: (1) they didn’t expect to be well represented by a political party they didn’t control, and (2) they battled on strategic terrain where grassroots power was the strongest, such as the streets. When it became useful for the movement to have political parties to represent it, activists created their own parties to lead their governments. After mass direct action forced a power shift, the new governments could implement the movement’s program.

George Lakey has lived and taught in Scandinavia and led over 1,500 social change workshops on five continents. His most recent book is Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got it Right and How We Can, Too (Melville House, 2016; paper, 2017).

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

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