BY ANITA ÍSTLING
STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Eleven days into a general strike that paralyzed most industry in Denmark, the Social Democratic-led government stepped in to impose a settlement. About half a million workers - a fifth of the country's workforce - were on strike, and tens of thousands more were locked out by the bosses. The main demand was for a sixth week of annual vacation time. The government-imposed contract, which took effect May 7, includes an additional 2-5 days of time off each year to most private-sector industrial workers. Many unionists think this is not enough. Local contract provisions are still being negotiated, as are public workers' contracts.
The work stoppage began April 27, after members of the LO trade union federation voted down a government-mediated deal that had been reached by the bosses and union officials. It was the first general strike in Denmark in 13 years.
Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen announced at a May 6 press conference that he would propose a law to the Folketinget, the Danish parliament, to terminate the strike. In three separate votes the Folketinget adopted the government proposal and the unionists returned to work. The back-to-work order passed with 95 in favor, 12 opposed and 10 abstentions, with the Social Democrats and all the other major bourgeois parties supporting the measure.
The law is a modified version of the final offer from the government mediator in the negotiations between LO and the Danish Employers Confederation, which was rejected by the union members. That proposal only included one additional holiday -Christmas Eve. Workers considered this an insult, as many already have that day off. The new version includes two more vacation days than the previous contract, plus two extra "care" days off for families with children under 14 the first year and a third day the second year. But to get the two vacation days, a person is required to have worked for the same employer for an uninterrupted nine months. The three "child" days are contingent on having worked for the boss for six months.
The law declares illegal further strikes by the affected workers until March 2000. It cuts the previously proposed increase in pension funds paid by the employers from 0.9 to 0.5 percent of payroll. A tax employers have had to pay to cover sick leave expenses is also abolished. This $63 million expense is supposed to be taken over by the government.
Many unionists were angry at the government's action. Some 2,000 workers protested outside the Folketinget during the vote on the contract legislation. The workers opposed the government intervention itself, as well as the cuts in employer pension payments and the restrictions on the extra days. Officials of the Union of Special Workers, which organizes unskilled workers, said 40 percent of the union's members don't fulfill time off requirements. A number of meetings between workers and shop stewards have taken place to assess the situation, some resulting in protest letters to the government. LO chairman Hans Jensen predicted there will be further labor protests now as local workplace negotiations begin.
The major big-business papers and spokespeople mostly favored the intervention. A May 7 editorial in Berlingske Tidene, a leading daily, called it "a necessary evil," adding, "The government had no alternative but to intervene when the two parties failed."
Others had reservations. An article in Aktuel said, "The intervention is expensive and counters the long-term economic strategy of the government that we should work more." The authors warn, "The extra free days will encourage groups in the public sector to make the same demands."
The strike hit the private sector of the economy, and the law covers only those who were on strike. The 50,000 who were locked out and public workers are not covered. "When contracts in the public sector come up for negotiations later the [same] demands will surely be raised," noted an article in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet.
The papers have been full of calls for austerity measures following the adoption of the law. For instance Borsen, the leading financial daily in Denmark, editorialized May 7, "There is a broad understanding that the intervention increases the demand for fiscal austerity. According to many papers, the government offices are working to present an austerity package for as early as June. The government is also expected to carry through additional austerity measures in its finance plan for next year."
The government is also worried that anger over the
imposed strike settlement will spill over into a vote
against the Amsterdam Treaty, which modifies the basis of
the European Union, in a May 28 referendum.
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