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The Right Embraces Sweden– and Misses the Point

There have been a number of stories this week around the online rightwing about how Sweden and the Nordic countries have moved right, probably inspired by this Economist story.  The story describes nations that seem hardcore Thatcherite:

  • * Taxes have been cut: the corporate rate is 22%, far lower than America’s.
  • * [Sweden’s]  budget deficit is 0.3% of GDP; America’s is 7%.
  • * Denmark and Norway allow private firms to run public hospitals.
  • * Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers, with private for-profit schools competing with public schools.
The problem for the rightwing is that the Nordic countries economies are still roaring along with public sectors that are roughly half the economy– with 30 percent of workers in the public sector.
But the more interesting factor is the private sector itself, where the vast, vast majority of workers are in labor unions.   See this chart showing labor density in various countries where you can see that 55% of Norway’s workers are in unions and nearly 70% of Sweden’s workers are in unions.
So unlike in the United States, outsourcing to private firms doesn’t mean handing off work to low-wage employers where workers have no rights. But the difference is even deeper– the “private sector” in Nordic countries means workers being involved in governing whole sectors at the national, regional and firm level with far more democratic management of the economy. Here is how an official description of collective bargaining in Sweden describes the process:
“All rights and obligations are stipulated in the semi-dispositive Employment Codetermination in the Workplace Act (MBL 1976:580). The purpose of the statute is to give employees and their representatives the right to participate in and negotiate with their employers. The law also ensures freedom of association, the right for employees to receive information from employers as well as the rights and obligations of collective bargaining, strikes, mediation etc. Although the act ensures all these basic rights and obligations, the Swedish system relies on partners to self-regulate via collective bargaining. The self-regulation is made possible because collective agreements have the status of civil law agreements. This means that issues such as equality between the genders, wages, work environment policies and other issues that are specific to the sectors are regulated in the sectoral collective agreements without intervention from the state.”
Many “government” functions and individual rights are therefore enforced directly through workplace power of unions so having a larger “private” sector does not necessarily imply fewer rights for employees, as it inevitably seems to imply in the U.S. as so much of the private sector has been deunionized.
There has no doubt been somewhat of a rightward shift of policy in Nordic countries over the last decade or so, but one that still makes attempts by the rightwing to claim those countries as models for neoliberal policy a bit laughable.

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