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Swedish labor market consensus is far from the whole story, says researcher

Swedish labor market consensus is far from the whole story
Metal worker during the 1950s. Credit: ALVIN.

Twentieth century Swedish labor market policy was not solely shaped by inter-class cooperation, but also by tough conflicts. Industrial rationalization and investments in new technology were met with protests from workers. A new doctoral thesis reveals parallels between technological changes during 1920–1950 and the transition we face today with, for example, artificial intelligence and automation.

"The image of the twentieth-century Swedish as exceptionally cooperative is false. Even after the Saltsjöbaden Agreement of 1938, there were many conflicts between workers and employers, often fueled by . These disputes influenced the shape of what we now know as the Swedish model," says Arvand Mirsafian, who recently defended his thesis in .

In his thesis, Mirsafian examines how factory workers responded to the rationalization and restructuring of industry and the labor market during the period 1920–1950. More specifically, he describes how critical technological shifts affected members of the metalworkers' union, Metall, and how this in turn led to industrial action that shaped the Swedish labor market model.

Among other sources, the study is based on material in the archives of Metall, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, local trade union branches and the newspapers of the labor movement. By doing so, Mirsafian was able to study how views of rationalization differed within the trade union movement, and how the internal debate influenced the institutional framework of labor market policy.

While there was a strong desire for cooperation between the labor market parties at central level, the reality was very different on the shop floor, where the workers viewed rationalization as a potential threat to their working conditions and autonomy. During this period, the metalworkers' protests became an important factor shaping the trade union movement's policies and industrial relations.

"While the leaders of the trade union movement were aware that technological change might lead to more extensive cooperation with , their members were convinced that employers were exploiting new technology to both keep wages down and increase productivity," says Mirsafian.

One significant event during the period was the metalworkers' strike of 1945, which in part at least was a response to rationalization. Over 120,000 metalworkers took industrial action. The strike resulted in both new collective agreements and new institutions to regulate the use of technology in industry and cooperation between the labor market parties, with the aim of ensuring that technological change would benefit both sides. The strike influenced the emergent economic policy of the movement as a whole.

Mirsafian's research reveals parallels between technological changes during the interwar years and 1940s and the transition we face today with, for example, artificial intelligence and automation.

"Technological change has always meant a renegotiation of the balance of power in the labor market. The developments we are witnessing today are no exception. There is no such thing as politically neutral technology; it is shaped by various societal interests. History can give us a better understanding of how present-day society can manage the challenges posed by technological change," says Mirsafian.

More information: Mirsafian, Arvand. Workers and Technology: Trade Unionism, Rationalization, and Labour Market Policy in Sweden 1920–1950 (2024).

Provided by Uppsala University

Citation: Swedish labor market consensus is far from the whole story, says researcher (2024, July 10) retrieved 18 July 2024 from
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