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Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson: I believe the future is Nordic

Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson: I believe the future is Nordic

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: LO

As the EU focuses intensively on the Euro and other economic problems, it has never been more important to intensify Nordic cooperation says the new President of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson.

Soon he and the LO leadership set off on a Nordic tour to see LO colleagues, starting off in Norway. “We are among the world’s most competitive countries, and if we could share our strengths we could become a cutting edge region,” he says. 

As the applause started to fade after the newly elected LO President Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson had stepped onto the rostrum at LO’s annual congress in May, he outlined his programme - a fight against mass unemployment. 

Now, five months on and in the middle of the US presidential election campaign, when asked to imagine what he would have based his campaign on, he answers without hesitation.

“That’s simple. My generation’s great challenge is to rediscover a policy securing full employment. Until 1990 our unemployment stood at around 1.5 percent and I remember the fantastic situation of being able to have a job and still think about wanting to change it,” says Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson.

A crazy investment

He laughs as he remembers something from the time of his first permanent job. He worked in the industry near his home village of Kosta, part of the so-called Kingdom of Crystal (Glasriket) in Sweden’s Småland region. The presidency of the local union chapel offered him a 10,000 kronor (€1,165) LO loan. Super, thought the then 19 year old Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, accepted the loan and spent it all on a new stereo.

“And there’s me who’s not even interested in music. It was a crazy investment. But I remember the feeling of freedom, I was permanently employed, drew a salary and could decide for myself. I enjoyed the self-determination that you get when you’re in demand in the labour market. I look at my own grown-up children and see that they don’t take work for granted, and that this creates uncertainty also in other areas of life,” he says. 

This is why the new LO President wants to put all his time and effort into getting back to full employment. Work, he thinks, is in the end a question of self-determination, a term associated with him for the past 20 years. 20 years ago he became known throughout Sweden as ‘Kålle’ and debated self-determination as the newly elected chairman of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League (SSU).

Self-determination means that by being employed, people get the chance to control their own lives and feel safe enough to make their own choices - even though they sometimes can be impulsive and lead to costly experiences.

A child of the class society

Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson’s interest was woken early. Growing up in the industrial village of Kosta, part of the legendary Kingdom of Crystals glass manufacturing region which is now being shaken to its core by bankruptcies and redundancies, he was born straight into the class society of 20th century Sweden. There were the workers’ houses where he grew up, the son of a glass blower. The town’s only shop was the co-operative Konsum and the ‘People’s House’ was right in the village centre.

And like in every other village of this kind the factory managers’ villas were situated at a dignified distance. His grandfather was his great inspiration, even though he died before  Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson was born. He has the gold watch which his grandfather got for 25 years of service at the city council, an inheritance he values highly. Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson joined the SSU and remembers how they played their campaign music loudly night and day as they gave their full support to glass workers suffering a lockout during the major labour market conflict of 1980.

“I firmly believe politics and social issues can change the lives of people. As soon as I began my union work in the early 1980s and got a taste for what it meant to be active, I felt you could improved people’s conditions considerably by getting involved,” he says. 

An unexpected turn

Being chosen SSU chairman was a total surprise, especially to Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson himself. He was going to Stockholm to attend the SSU congress and had been aiming for a place on the executive committee, but the chairmanship would with all probability go to his friend Kent. So on the Thursday before midsummer’s night in 1990, he worked as usual, tidied up and went home for the weekend. He never returned to the workshop.  

That same evening his friend Kent called and said he had become seriously ill and was withdrawing his candidacy. Later Anna Lindh called, the woman who would go on to become Sweden’s Foreign Minister. At the time she was a member of the election committee, which had agreed to nominate Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson to become SSU’s new chairman.

“It is absolutely true that I went from my industrial work one week to be interviewed on the national evening news the next. I was petrified. Sure, I’d been interviewed by Smålandsposten [the regional newspaper] before, but to be interviewed by one of the TV journalist heavyweights scared me to death,” he says.

The rest is history, as they say. After SSU Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson began work as ombudsman at the trade union IF Metall, and after a while he also took on the job as chairman of the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF). IF Metall nominated him as LO President and this is where he is now, at the distinguished LO headquarters in central Stockholm, as the 14th LO President. All of his predecessors worked during times of political events which coloured their fight and their work. What is his time? 

Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson again mentions the high unemployment. 400,000 people are unemployed in Sweden today, and 50,000 have been given their notice since September alone. Many are still unemployed as a result of the 2008 economic crisis. He is critical to the centre-right government who he says follows a one-sided dogma claiming unemployment will disappear through reduced statutory employer contributions and earned income tax credit.  

Criticism and dialogue

“But this is about creating new jobs and in that respect they have not presented a single proposal. Of course you can give tax credits for household services [services, like cleaning and babysitting, performed in private homes] and home improvements, but that cannot be the solution. Instead we say you should get on with building new homes, but then they retort with their dogma that state intervention is not needed when it comes to home construction, and that is nonsense,” he says determinedly. 

He wants an active labour market policy which Sweden traditionally has been very good at, but which he now thinks is more or less dormant. Such a policy would match supply and demand. These days there is for instance a major lack of machine operators, a job he knows many unemployed industry workers would love to take on if they were allowed to retrain. But the matching does not work, resulting in tens of thousands of lost job opportunities every year. 

Another priority, albeit a more long-term one, is education. Today the children of LO members are the ones struggling the most, because of major cuts to education during the 1990s which led to the loss of many extra resources like counsellors and psychologist. 

“There are those who say you can go into a nursery and point out who is going to loose out. And I mean - if you have that knowledge who must do something about it. We need a massive drive with new resources for education and this is something we must fight for. It is better than giving tax reductions to businesses in the way the centre-right government has just done,” he says.

At the same time, despite disagreeing on a range of topics, as LO President he is in dialogue with the government. The issue for debate right now is a short time job scheme built on a German model. To avoid firing workers in severe economic downturns, the state, employers and employees carry an equal share of the costs. Workers keep their jobs, companies keep their skills and the state avoid carrying to cost of even more unemployed people.

 “That way the state and companies would take joint responsibility for reducing the labour cost rather than resorting to mass lay-offs. We’re pushing this issue hard and the government has said that they are interested, but we want to introduce this sooner than what they seem prepared to do,” says Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson.

The so-called job pact is another hot topic. It would see the government, trade unions and employers’ organisations agreeing on how to help under 25s entering the labour market. Once the agreement is reached, each trade would be free to decide just how to carry it out. 

“It is easy for LO to just sit there and criticise a centre-right government. It is something altogether different to approach them and try to improve things, and so far I think it is working very well,” he says.

No to welfare competition

One hotly debated issue in Sweden right now is whether competition should be introduced into the welfare sector. The Social Democrats support the idea, while the LO wants clear caps on profits within the education, health and care sectors. 

This has led to debate and headlines. Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson is not against free schools, but thinks the Social Democrats could have argued harder against introducing profits in schools. 

“In LO we can raise our voices even more than we already have. We feel tax payers’ money must be looked after by society. We can’t have badly performing schools taking out a 15 percent profit when they can’t manage to deliver what they should,” he says.  

Always a Nordic fan

During the interview Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson often refers to his Nordic neighbours. Why not, for instance, take the ferry across to Finland to see how they have created the world’s best schools? Or learn from Norway’s focus on education and infrastructure? And how can we benefit from each other’s labour markets which after all play different roles in the market, meaning one country could help push the other forward - as seen in the integrated labour market in the Öresund region and with all the Swedes working in Norway.

Changes in tax regulations and improvements to infrastructure has for instance given  Malmö and Copenhagen great opportunities for development and renewal. Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson would like to see a linking of higher education systems between the Nordic capitals, industry project development cooperation and great investments in infrastructure which links the Nordic countries and their labour markets. 

“Now that the EU to all intents and purposes is stagnant, we should put a lot of effort into developing the Nordic region. We could help each other when one country is doing well. Because we are so alike there is also a lot to learn, and you shouldn’t need to keep reinventing the wheel,” he says.

As a consequence of these ideas the new LO leadership will be visiting their LO neighbours, starting with a two-day meeting in Norway. But there are many other issues awaiting the new LO President. A few days after our meeting he travels to Säffle where Volvo Buses has just told staff it is moving all production to Poland. Wage negotiations are also just around the corner, and the 14 LO member unions have for the first time agreed to join forces to push for pay increases for low earners. 

“I am so happy with the cooperation ahead of the 2013 wage negotiations. We have worked very well with this,” says Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson and hurries along to his next meeting.

LO’s 14th President
  • Swedish LO was founded in 1898 and today comprises 14 member unions representing 1.5 million workers.
  • Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson is LO’s 14th President and was elected by the LO congress at the end of May 2012.
  • He is 47 and comes from the village of Kosta in the traditional glass blowing region in Småland known as the Kingdom of Crystal.
  • He has been politically active since his youth. Between 1990 and 1995 he was chairman of the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League (SSU), then political advisor at the Prime Minister's Office and head of information at the Social Democrat Party before becoming ombudsman at the trade union IF-Metall.
  • Since 2000 he has combined that position with being chairman of the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF).

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