Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Sweden: At the Turning Point?

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Sweden: At the Turning Point?

Article excerpt


The Swedish industrial relations system has long been characterised by strong labour market organisations, a centralised bargaining system, an active labour market policy, low levels of unemployment and a high labour market participation rate. For much of the eighties, the Swedish industrial relations system seemed relatively stable in the face of the pressures for change which were transforming industrial relations in many other countries. Major changes have, however, been placed on the agenda by SAF, the employers' organisation, and these generally had the backing of the former conservative-liberal governing coalition (which lost office in 1995). SAF is working hard to dismantle the centralised bargaining system which it helped to build. It aims to replace the old system with a new workplace-centred bargaining regime. The former Government tried not only to roll back the rights unions gained in the 1970s but also to destroy the very institutions which, since the thirties, have contributed so much to establishing a balance of power in the labour market.

This paper describes the moves to dismantle the Swedish industrial relations system and analyses the stances taken by the main actors. It focuses on wage bargaining strategies and outcomes, with particular attention given to a new development, "co-worker" (medarbetare) agreements. The latter aim to cross the blue collar-white collar divide which had long been one of the characteristic features of the Swedish industrial relations system. While elimination of this now-outdated distinction appeals to unions and employers alike, the two sides have markedly different visions of where the new agreements fit. For the unions, the new agreements should form part of a modified, but still coordinated, bargaining system in which national agreements at the branch level set the parameters within which local negotiations take place. For the employers, the new agreements, to be struck at the enterprise level, are the old system's replacement.


The Swedish industrial relations system has been characterised as a system of "centralised self-regulation" (Kjellberg, 1992). The Swedish industrial relations system has indeed operated in a relatively centralised manner throughout the postwar period and such centralisation has been possible because of the high rate of affiliation amongst both employers and employees. Swedish Employer's Federation (SAF) has long been the paramount employers' organisation in the private sector, and from the outset it has been a highly centralised organisation able to compel member associations to follow central directives in wage negotiations. It has showed its preparedness to fine recalcitrant members for failing to follow SAF policy, as recently as 1988 when the bakers were fined for concluding an agreement which fell outside SAF's guidelines. SAF's centralised mode of operation in turn set the pattern for its public sector counterparts, the S AV representing the national Government as employer, the Landstingsforbundet representing county Government employers (the main employer in the health care sector) and Kommunforbundet acting for local Governments.

Sweden also boasts the highest rate of unionisation in the world, with 84 percent of the labour force belonging to unions. The largest, and historically the most influential, is the LO (the Swedish Trade Union Confederation) which currently has over two million members (out of a total labour force of around four million) in nineteen affiliated unions. The blue collar unions affiliated to LO are mainly organised along industry lines with only one union per company or work place. Since the 1940s, LO has exercised control over the common strike fund and, from the mid-fifties on, has normally received a mandate to conclude a central agreement binding its private sector affiliates. The TCO (the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees) is the largest trade union central council for white collar workers. …

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