|ONLINE VERSION||VOLUME 106 - NUMBER 12 - DECEMBER 1997|
|BMWE Member Studies Labor in Sweden|
|Bruce Tatum joined the BMWE in 1972 and is a member of
Subordinate Lodge 1362, Nickel Plate-Wheeling & Lake Erie Federation. In July 1993,
while working as a tamper operator on a Norfolk Southern DPG (Designated Programmed
Production Gang), Tatum was injured. He is currently receiving a disability annuity.
Tatum began studying at Indiana University in Kokomo in 1996; his major is labor studies. Early this year, in his class "Theories of the Labor Movement," Tatum's professor, Bruce Nissen, invited students to go to Sweden with him to learn about the labor movement there.
Previously, Bengst Pesson, a Swedish steelworker who has taught at Darlarna University (one of the three "labor" universities in Sweden), contacted Nissen for research on the U.S. steel industry. Nissen invited Pesson to the U.S. to see the steel mills in Gary, Indiana and in turn, Pesson invited Nissen and some of his students to visit Sweden.
On May 13, 1997, Tatum, his wife Lynda and eight other students left Chicago O'Hare Airport for the eight-hour direct flight to Stockholm. From there it was a two-hour train ride to Borlange, where Pesson and other steelworkers had host families waiting to provide lodging, food and transportation.
Hosts to the Tatums were Mats Blomquist, a pediatrician, and his wife Birgitta, a social worker. Mats was very happy to wear one of the BMWE NPW&LE T-shirts Tatum had brought with him as gifts.
The largest of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden has a total area of 173,732 square miles. The population is about 8.6 million and about 88 percent live in urban areas.
Sweden is a neutral country with a well-developed economy and a high standard of living. Its social welfare system protects citizens against financial problems of unemployment, sickness and old age.
Although it can be called a right-to-work country, meaning a worker does not have to belong to a union, 85 percent of the workforce is unionized. From the people he talked with, Tatum says, "the people in Sweden recognize the importance of belonging to unions; they know there's strength in numbers."
Because the Social Democratic Party has dominated politics in Sweden for most of the 20th century, the government (a constitutional monarchy with sole political power resting with parliament whose chief executive is the prime minister) is labor oriented.
For example, Tatum was impressed by the fact that one of the operations he toured, the SSAB steel mill had not had a strike in over 30 years. He was told that the great majority of bargaining, claims and grievances, are handled locally. The few cases that are not resolved at that level are not sent to an arbitrator but are decided in a labor court by a politically-appointed judge.
The SSAB steel mill plant used to have 5,000 employees but is now down to 3,500. The 1,500 laid off employees are paid 100 percent of their wages until they find another job.
"There is a limit on the amount of profits a company can make," Tatum says. "Any excess is returned to the unions to fund labor education and government job retraining programs for laid off workers like those at SSAB."
Tatum visited a number of other operations, including a copper mine and an iron ore mine. He wasn't able to meet with any railroad (which is government run) union members but was excited to learn that they are all members of one large transportation union.
The strongest impression Tatum returned with was "the feeling or knowledge that we (working people) could have the same benefits in this country if we stood up and stood together. We're supposed to run the government, the government's not supposed to run us. Maybe the answer is with the Labor Party here?"