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Susanna Gideonsson: We must defend the Swedish model

Susanna Gideonsson: We must defend the Swedish model

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, foto: Björn Lindahl/Aftonbladet

Swedish LO’s new President, Susanna Gideonsson, has deep roots in the trade union movement. At 16 she started getting engaged in work against unfair conditions at work, and now she represents 1.4 million LO members across 14 unions. Her current main challenge is to protect the Swedish model against political interference in labour law reform.

“I got engaged in trade union activities because I got mad about bad conditions in the workplace. I carried on being active when I realised nothing happens if you just sit there and wait for someone else to do something. If you take part, it is actually possible to change things. After all, society is made up of people and it can be changed with people’s help. Simply put; it is never too late to start and always to early to give up,” says Susanna Gideonsson.

Her union engagement started at a carpentry factory in Västerbotten in the north of the country and continued though work in forestry, home care and more. Little by little her interest in unions and the Social Democrats grew into a full-time job. Before taking the helm at LO, she led the Commercial Employees’ Union, Handels. Now, her life-long belief that she in cooperation with others can take the responsibility for changing things has led her to the top elected office of the Nordics’ most heavyweight trade union. 

Susanna Gideonsson was elected President by a unified congress in June 2020 and became LO’s 15th leader since it was founded in 1898. She is the second woman to hold the post, but does not focus much on that. She also does not think this fact makes her leadership any different.

“I don’t know whether the fact that I am a woman makes a difference to the leadership, and I don’t think that much about it. It is mainly speculation that you find outside of the organisation. One individual is not like another in any case, and I think people lead in different ways regardless of their gender.”

Results are more important than the person

When Susanna Gideonsson is asked which qualities made her right for the job as LO President, she sighs and thinks this over.

“Seriously, I don’t know. I did not consider myself to be the perfect candidate for the job. Others do see me as that. The qualities I bring include being solution-oriented, pragmatic and some of those who know me say I’m completely unpretentious. The person is not that important, i feel. It is what I can achieve that matters. I think it is important that we in the trade unions should think about who pays our wages and that we need to stay relevant to our members. Things are a bit different at a confederation like LO, but we should have a way of working that allows us to support each other to do a good job. If I were to suddenly disappear, others should be able to take over.”  

We talk over the telephone and she is in no rush. Her answers are thought through and concise, and amplified by her regional dialect. Despite spending 15 years commuting to Stockholm, she remains true to Västerbotten. Umeå and its landscape is her home and will remain so. She has been commuting to Stockholm for 15 years due to her trade union work and also has a small flat there, but she will never become a Stockholmer. At home in Umeå, she has her husband, two cats and a dog. There are four classic cars and a garden. And family and friends. 

“It is also a good way for me to switch off. When I get on the plane on a Friday to go home, I shut much of my job away. And I am nearly completely dependent on my garden and find it nearly mediative to do the weeding. I have also had my interest for cars from a very early age,” she says.

Defending the Swedish model

Susanna Gideonsson takes over the Presidency from Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson in a turbulent time. The fact that the congress happened digitally for the first time was perhaps not such a big deal, but it mirrors a world which in a short amount of time has been forced to get used to major changes because of the pandemic. 

Bankruptcies, rising unemployment, postponed collective bargaining and right now negotiations between the social partners to reach agreement on labour law reform by the end of September. 

A central part of the January agreement that was a prerequisite for the Centre Party and the Liberals to support the Social Democrat government was labour law reform and a loosening up of legislation on employment protection. If the parties now cannot agree, a new and considerably more liberal law on employment protection is expected. This means negotiations are being conducted under extreme pressure. The new LO President is not happy that politicians are getting so involved.

“This is an unusual level of political interference into matters that are normally dealt with by the social partners. It can be compared to what happened in the 1970s, when politicians also passed a raft of legislation turning relations between employer and employees incredibly frosty for a while. We are now trying anew – do we want what we call the Swedish model and to stand up and protect it? And how far can we go in its defence? Because we do see this as an attack on the Swedish model,” says Susanna Gideonsson.

Negotiating under time pressure also complicates things, believes Susanna Gideonsson. 

“We dislike negotiating under time pressure because we might then not have time to discuss all matters thoroughly and end up not being able to deliver the best result. Yet the political situation is what it is and it is no use complaining about it. We will do our level best.”

LO members kept society running

Another challenge is EU interference in what is usually trade unions’ responsibilities in the Nordics, for instance minimum wages. Nordic trade unions do not consider this to be an EU matter and want to work together to stop political interference that might set collective agreement solutions aside. And although borders have been closed during the pandemic and countries have taken different approaches, cooperation between Nordic trade unions have carried on without delay – albeit digitally rather than face-to-face. 

“The Nordic cooperation is incredibly important both between trade union confederations and between civil servants and academics. We also completely agree on this issue, which feels really good,” she says.

The different trade unions under LO have been hit in different ways by the pandemic. Certain trades have been hard hit with many redundancies, furloughs and higher unemployment. Other sectors have worked incredibly hard, including healthcare and retail, when people were stockpiling. 

“We know that it is LO members who have kept society running. If we didn’t have people to drive to busses, collect waste, run wards and making it possible to buy food, society would have ground to a halt,” points out Susanna Gideonsson. 

The collective bargaining process was postponed by the pandemic and will begin again in October. Susanna Gideonsson hopes the collective memory of who kept society running, ’face-to-face’ with the infection, will still be there when it comes to the will to pay up.

Increasingly important security

LO’s members are different and there has been some fragmentation ahead of this round of collective bargaining. Susanna Gideonsson is not surprised that different trade unions prioritise different issues. Their makeup is different; in some nearly every member is on fairly well-paid permanent contracts, in others – like the hospitality and restaurant sector, many work short-term contracts and are not well paid at all.

“And you get different priorities, of course. That is why we need to discuss what we want the Swedish labour market to look like, and really address the core issues. We see that over the past 20 years, the Swedish labour market has not developed in a positive direction for certain groups. How should we, as a large trade union organisation, approach this so that the majority of workers actually get better conditions in future?”

In interviews and at her first press conference in her new role Susanna Gideonsson returns to the need for security.

“I am completely convinced that all people want to feel part of something and to do a good job. So I think it is only fair that people should be able to whistle to and from work. In this context, security is an overarching term. To feel secure is to know that I earn enough money to pay for food and rent this month and also the next.

"I should be secure in the knowledge that I can get to work on public transport that works. I should also be able to feel secure at work and know that my children and older relatives have a good life. Security is a society that works so that I don’t have to worry and can do a good job.

"And if I fall ill or become unemployed, I should know that there is a safety net I can trust until I am up and running again. This is what I mean when I talk about security. It is not complicated, it is just basic,” says Susanna Gideonsson.

Filed under:
Susanna Gideonsson

In the news because: Became the new President of the Swedish Trade Union Congress LO on 15 June 2020, representing 14 trade unions with 1.4 million members. Is also on the Social Democratic Party’s executive committee. 

Age: 57.

Family: Married with two adult children. Two cats and a dog.

Lives: Has a work flat in Stockholm, but lives in Umeå, which is “at home”.

Interests: Garden, classic cars, reading and spending time with family and friends. Can fix an engine if needed, even though her husband – a car mechanic – is normally in charge of keeping the family’s four classic cars in shape.


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