Nordic countries | Trade unions

Swedish workers, decarbonisation and the dilemmas of a just transition
As Sweden's trade unions join the green economy, will they be able to manage the tensions between climate policies and party politics?

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[Image: Scharfsinn86/iStock]

Ulf Karlström walks into the staff canteen having finished his morning shift. At one of the tables sit the representatives from Karlström’s union, IF Metall (the biggest union for factory and metal workers in Sweden). At another are the white collar workers and blast furnace managers. “Where are you going to sit?” someone asks, loud enough for everyone to hear. Karlström hesitates, only to be beckoned over by one of the managers, “Ulf, sit with us”.

Despite bearing all the hallmarks of a high school popularity contest, this scene took place at the Luleå plant of SSAB – a Swedish multinational and Northern Europe’s largest steel manufacturer – and is indicative of the conflicted loyalties seen in trade unions throughout Swedish industry today.

In 2021, Karlström was elected as trade union chairperson for the Pig Iron Division at SSAB Luleå. At the time, Karlström was serving as a local politician for the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration, right-wing populist party opposed to the climate politics of the centre-left Social Democrats. It was the latter who founded the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, or LO (Landsorganisationen), and still recruits members from LO’s ranks for political positions.

SSAB Luleå’s union members, who were fully aware of Karlström’s affiliation with the Sweden Democrats, did not consider this an obstacle to him representing their interests as workers. The leadership of IF Metall, which is part of LO, took a rather different view, leading to Karlström’s expulsion from the union. The issue was one of political loyalty, an issue of particular concern to the union’s ‘boomers’ (those born between 1946 and 1964).

A party for workers or a workers’ party?

Trade union members currently find themselves at the centre of a tug-of-war between the Social Democrats and the Sweden Democrats. This struggle between what has traditionally been viewed as the ‘party for workers’ and the new ‘workers’ party’ became national news in spring 2021 when Mats Fredlund, representative of the Transport Workers’ Union, was expelled for serving as an elected politician for the Sweden Democrats. Similar cases were also reported in the Union of Commercial Employees and the Teacher’s Union. The union leadership stated that the expulsions were driven by the fact that the Sweden Democrats’ värdegrund – a Swedish term alluding to a value system or core principles – was incompatible with that of LO’s Social Democrat trade unions.

This argument conveniently sidesteps the reality that over 60% of LO members now support political parties other than the Social Democrats. The Sweden Democrats have particularly large support among IF Metall members, suggesting affinity, rather than antagonism, between the core principles of Sweden Democrat and Social Democrat workers. It is this overlap that terrifies the LO leadership.

While the Sweden Democrats have been siphoning off Social Democrat voters since the early 2000s, it was not until summer 2020, when Susanna Gideonsson took over as LO’s chairperson, that explicit strategies were launched to bring conservative union members back into the union fold. Driving such initiatives is the overarching question: how can LO become better at listening to, and promoting, Swedish workers and the realities they face?

Climate or politics?

One answer to this question involves the trade unions’ role in enabling a ‘just transition’ for members as Swedish industries move away from fossil fuels. The term – originally coined during the 1970s as part of demands for safer and cleaner work environments – gained political currency following the 2015 Paris Agreement, and has now expanded to become a common denominator between the climate and labour movements. In short, the main idea is that industry will phase out fossil fuels, but without sacrificing jobs or workers.

LO, along with other sections of the Swedish labour movement, have promoted a just transition through various articles, reports and courses. The message is this: Sweden’s climate transition is necessary, and the Swedish labour movement is not afraid of new technology. In fact, it is unions’ local democratic influence over emerging technologies such as biofuels, climate-neutral cement and fossil-free steel that will enable workers to keep their jobs.

These plans fit hand-in-glove with the Social Democrat government’s overarching ambition to make Sweden the first fossil-free welfare state in the world. Such aspirations in turn respond to the European Green Deal plans – a European version of the US Green New Deal – to become climate neutral by 2050.

The broader intention of a global just transition is to break previous deadlocks between the perceived winners and losers of climate policies. For Swedish workers, though, the issue is perhaps less to do with an unequal distribution of resources between countries, and more about socio-economic inequalities within countries (that is, Sweden). If transition plans fail to provide alternative jobs, then workers’ loyalties may shift towards political forces regarded as less keen to sacrifice Sweden and its citizens on the altar of transition.

A tale of two transitions

It is in the interests of both LO and the Social Democrat government that plans for a climate transition are developed in ways that clearly demonstrate how trade unions and their members have influence in the process.

Take Hybrit – a collaboration between SSAB, state-owned mining company LKAB and state-owned energy supplier Vattenfall – that is often presented as a perfect example of what a just transition should look like. At the inauguration of the pilot facility in Luleå in August 2020, then Prime Minister Löfvén described Hybrit as synonymous with the corporatist self-image put forward by the Social Democrats: companies with traditions of state intervention collaborate to develop new technology. According to this line of thinking, a common understanding between companies and unions can lead to local employment and solutions for the global climate crisis.

But there are competing models for how to transition. Against the Hybrit model – with its state-supported iron ore, electricity and infrastructure – stands H2GS, a new producer of fossil-free steel. H2GS is financed by venture capital from the tech sector and, like the new battery-producing company Northvolt, has so far displayed little interest in labour unions. Trade unions have denounced Northvolt’s decision not to demand union-negotiated collective agreements from its subcontractors. More recently, Northvolt has agreed to collaborate with the unions, but it remains to be seen whether this will involve anything more than regulating the number of subcontractors.

Despite talk of collaboration between Hybrit and H2GS, this is a tale of two models for how to decarbonise industry. One of Hybrit’s advantages has been the loyalty of SSAB’s workforce, premised on strong and democratic trade unions.

In expelling a locally elected chairperson such as Karlström, however, LO and IF Metall are signalling to union members that the climate transition is being conducted to support Social Democrat policies rather than the interests of workers. As a consequence, members are leaving IF Metall, with some forming their own local unions.

Others will potentially vote with their feet and apply for jobs at H2GS, which is competing with SSAB not only in product markets but also for labour.

In mixing up climate transition policies with the Social Democrats’ desire to retain political power over trade unions, LO risks undermining the credibility of a ‘just transition’. By extension, it risks union-influenced transition models such as Hybrit losing out to company-driven ones such as H2GS. LO now faces a potential threat to its influence from the newly founded Swedish Wage Earner Confederation (Svenska Arbetstagarförbundet), which has ties to the Sweden Democrats. This new union federation seeks to attract LO members on a platform that casts aside climate policies in favour of emphasising the direct, local solidarity of worker groups. In other words, it pits the need for workers’ participation in key decisions affecting their lives against the need for effective policies tackling the climate crisis.

LO finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it needs to pragmatically balance its workers’ competing political allegiances. On the other hand, there is a risk that, in decoupling from the Social Democrats, the labour movement will increasingly opt for political coalitions sceptical of both climate policies and migration. That would also pose a threat to a just transition, undermining efforts towards a sustainable transition away from fossil fuels and the core democratic value of equal treatment of all workers regardless of nationality or migration status.

Given the international role played by Sweden and its labour movement in promoting transition policies, the outcome of these domestic struggles will be closely observed by companies, unions and governments across the world.

Johan Gärdebo is a historian studying the interplay of climate knowledge and decarbonisation policies in local, national, and transnational settings. He holds research positions at Uppsala University and the University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Democracy in Action’s editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.