The great train robbery: Swedish railroad strike against Veolia escalates

SEKO leads the strike against Veolia.

SEKO leads the strike against Veolia.

Stockholm, Sweden — A train strike in southern Sweden has evolved into a major battle about worsening working conditions in the labor market here. In its drive to increase profits, the French union-busting company Veolia is meeting contract resistance from a unified union movement.

Resistance is all the more intense because of the spread of temporary contract employment. The increase in part-time employment in recent years threatens to undermine the collective bargaining gains made after decades of struggle by Swedish trade unions.

Veolia fired 250 full-time employees in hopes of forcing them to reapply for their jobs. In many cases what were full-time will become part-time positions. Workers will then have to be on standby for extra hours as needed. This puts the workers both in competition with each other and with expensive temporary staff from private employment agencies.

SEKO, the Swedish Service and Communication Employees Union, called the train strike when contract negotiations failed to reach agreement. It has the backing of the entire LO, the Swedish union confederation.

SEKO had offered to compromise if temporary contracts were transformed into permanent jobs after one year’s employment and if a limit was placed on the total number of hours per year to be filled by temporary replacements. Many workers have split-shift jobs, which also require them to be at the disposal of employers.

Veolia´s response was to demand 13-hour passes and forced night shifts, to eliminate the existing contractual every second week off, and to force workers to take their vacations only in May and September!

The union has announced that it will pull out hundreds more train personnel just before the upcoming midsummer holiday, which is comparable to Thanksgiving weekend traffic in the United States, including those in the commuter system in the Stockholm area. The Electricians Union was the first to announce sympathy measures, which are legal here. The Restaurant Workers Union will stop all catering services to lines operated by Veolia.

The strike has received wide press coverage. Public support for the workers’ side is solid among the tens of thousands of commuters affected daily by the conflict. A Facebook group, “We commuters who support the SEKO strike,” carries new photos every day of groups as varied as local unions, teachers, hospital workers and tenant associations who endorse the strike. The union workers often pose in strike vests, which some have called the latest fashion statement from Sweden.

Behind the outpouring of public support lies a general dissatisfaction with the privatization of much of the public sector in the last decade and the profits it has generated for risk capitalists and the new actors in the market it has created. Frightening examples in education and health care conditions have alarmed the Swedish population, who are prepared to pay taxes for quality services. Opinion polls show that from 80 percent to 90 percent of the people support a movement that demands no “profit” be made in the welfare sector, unless that profit is ploughed back into public services rather than exported to foreign tax havens.

Since deregulation of the formerly nationalized train system, it is increasingly impossible to keep track of who owns the trains or operates all the different lines or bus routes and who is responsible for repairs or upkeep. The principle of awarding contracts based on the lowest price has caused total anarchy. This deregulated system is incapable of preventing stoppages, cancelled trains and delays.

One well-known Swedish author, Mikael Nyberg, has written a book, “The Great Train Robbery,” which describes the deterioration of public transportation. The greedy tactics of Veolia are a symbol of what neoliberals are trying to achieve with their aggressive anti-union practices.

Only increased struggle by progressive forces can force the unions to remain firm in their resistance. This is a struggle that is important not only for the railroad workers but for everyone fighting for full-time jobs they can live on.