Danish workers need their fighting tradition

May 24, 2017

Tim Goulet, a socialist living in New York City, and Drew Winter, an American anthropologist of Scandinavia living in Copenhagen, write from Denmark about the challenges facing workers in a country with a rich socialist tradition but lower levels of class struggle recently.

THE FIRST thing that strikes a U.S. visitor about May Day in Denmark is the sheer enormity of the crowd.

Dozens of flags, both solid red and representing assorted leftist organizations--soar above tens of thousands of people amassed in a Copenhagen park. In the radical tents, t-shirts and books are the most common wares, while the tents set up by trade unions and parliamentary organizations hand out balloons and serve beer on tap.

Dozens of food carts and street food vendors are on hand, and several stages with enormous screens magnify musical acts and political speakers. The event looks more like a music festival than a political rally, and it's difficult to avoid interrupting a drinking game while walking across the grass.

It's all a testament to the history of struggle that gives the Danish working class a rich tradition and culture--and also an indication that the current moment is not one of that history's higher points.

Like other Nordic countries, Denmark is known for its high standard of living and relatively low wealth stratification. Danish parents enjoy 52 weeks of paid parental leave, and higher education is not only free but comes with a stipend from the government. These social programs are supported by higher taxes, especially for the wealthy, and a much smaller budget for the military than in the U.S.

A May Day festival in Copenhagen
A May Day festival in Copenhagen

There is no legally mandated minimum wage in Denmark, but minimum hourly pay is negotiated between unions and employer associations, and the result is an average minimum wage across industries of approximately $20 an hour. This is achieved because about 66 percent of the Danish workforce is unionized. That's down from over 80 percent 25 years ago, but collective bargaining agreements still cover four-fifths of the total workforce.

THE SOCIALIST movement in Denmark effectively began in 1871, when the International Working Men's Association, often known as the First International, established a Danish section. 1898 saw the formation of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), which today is by far the largest trade union confederation in the country, with over 1.1 million workers. The LO has organized the Copenhagen May Day celebrations since the 1970s.

From this 19th century labor movement arose the Danish Social Democratic Party. The tight relationship between the trade union movement and social democracy would help the party maintain a strong hold on government during the next century.

But social democracy wasn't without competition. A syndicalist movement also existed, particularly among unskilled workers, and played a major role putting the eight-hour workday on the agenda. But this was the peak of syndicalism's influence--it dissipated in the rising tide of industrial action following the First World War and the growth of communism following the Russian Revolution.

The Communist Party of Denmark (DKP) had only marginal influence in the union movement and the parliament in the 1930s, but it gained considerable prestige through its role in the underground resistance to Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

The Communists' growth was bolstered by the fact that Social Democrats--the largest party at the time--bore the brunt of blame for Denmark's passivity. The momentum that the DKP experienced was set back, however, by its support of the USSR occupation of Hungary to smash a workers' uprising in 1956, as well as the revelations of Stalinist atrocities in Khrushchev's "secret speech" in the same year.

After the war, the Social Democrats played a key role in constructing the welfare state, in close cooperation with the capitalist class. European elites, wary of another communist upheaval in the wake of another barbaric war, found it necessary to compromise with the more moderate social-democratic wing of the left in order to safeguard capitalist prerogatives.

This was solidified in 1949 when Denmark joined NATO, and then the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which brought the country firmly within the Western capitalist orbit.

In so doing, the Social Democrats discarded any hopes of a planned economy in favor of a reformed capitalism that promised full employment and redistribution of social wealth through extremely high union density--close to 100 percent in basic industry.

Over the next 20 years, Danish workers would enjoy an almost unparalleled quality of life. Danish social democracy was quite powerful, but it didn't challenge privately owned capital and the capitalist system itself.

THE WELFARE state reached its apex in the 1970s, and that's also when it began showing its first fissures. During the global recession of this period and the contraction of the world economy, the space for class compromise began to narrow as growth diminished in scope.

Like their sister organizations throughout Europe, Denmark's Social Democrats began tacking right and implementing austerity in place of social legislation, losing electoral influence along the way.

The Nordic countries have withstood the rising tides of globalization and neoliberalism better than most. Much of this can be attributed to a mass strike wave in 1985 that involved 1 million workers--in a country of 5 million.

While the movement didn't win its prime material demands, it put a decisive brake on the neoliberal offensive--preventing the heavy defeats sustained, for example, in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and in the U.S. under Ronald Reagan.

Yet "free" trade agreements and porous capital flows enabled by Denmark's membership in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), European Economic Community (EEC) and European Union (EU) led to Danish companies being sold to foreign investors, outsourcing parts of the public sector and an erosion of benefits like student stipends.

Unfortunately, rather than blaming their increased precariousness on trade liberalization, privatization and lower unionization rates, sections of the Danish middle and working classes are following the rest of Europe in a resurgent nativism that sees immigrants and non-Western religions as the reason for social decline.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, this trend has only accelerated. In the context of economic malaise and austerity, Denmark has not been immune to the global political trend of polarization that weakened parties of the center.

Although both the labor movement and left-leaning political parties (known collectively as the "red bloc") enjoy a much stronger place in politics than is the case outside Scandinavia, the last election saw massive victories for the right-leaning "blue bloc."

THE PREVIOUSLY marginal Danish People's Party (DF)--a populist group best known for its strong anti-immigrant policies--gained more votes in the last election than every other party except the Social Democrats.

DF has been able to draw in social-democratic voters by presenting itself as champions of the welfare state and exploiting the insecurity among broad swathes of the working class, which has been strongest hit by the debilitating effects of neoliberal free trade and austerity--just as Trump was able to appeal to a similar electorate in the U.S. Rust Belt.

2015 also saw the founding of a new party, the New Bourgeois. New Bourgeois has an even more hardline anti-immigrant position than DF--and opposes the latter's support for strong welfare programs.

The once militant Danish labor movement was able to win major gains in the workplace, and to generalize them throughout the country through independent working-class political action. However, since the left has become more focused on parliamentary victories, its strength has withered because of bureaucratism, and liberalism is gaining ground.

The union movement, still heavily influenced by the Social Democrats, has been unable to play an independent role in mobilizing against the neoliberal attack. What is desperately needed is a united movement of labor unions, left parties and social movements fighting against the racism and xenophobia of the rising right.

In the final analysis, Denmark represents not only the victories of the labor movement, but the temporary nature of those gains under capitalism. It is a case study in how the working class is able to leverage power to extract major gains--and the danger that occurs when parliamentary electoralism is substituted for the pressure of mass movements that won those gains in the first place.

Rasmus Svolgaard contributed to research for this story.

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