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Wanja Lundby-Wedin - favours security in change

Wanja Lundby-Wedin - favours security in change

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: LO

She is the president of LO - Sweden, the Council of Nordic Trade Unions and of the European Trade Union Confederation. Wanja Lundby-Wedin represents the employees of all of Europe. “As their representative of course I have power. That is just how it should be”, she says.

No single person before her has held these three positions simultaneously. She is also the first woman to be president-elect of the ETUC, and she is the first president from a Nordic country. It may be timely though, as the Nordic model, flexicurity and gender equality are all hot topics.

Many people want to know the secret behind the Nordic success, not least how it affects  competiveness and productivity. The number of member unions and union members she represents? She gazes into the air, then says, laughing:

“I know ETUC has 82 member organisations, from 36 countries, but how many individual members they represent? I am not really sure. I think it's about 60 million.”

This sweet smiling person belies all the myths about the tough union leader with a big mouth. She may be more in tune with the capacities needed for the future working life:

ingenuity, competence and creativity, building trust and entering into dialogue.

“Europe cannot take the lead because we do things cheaper, but because we develop better solutions”, she argues. 

Security in change

Flexicurity is hot, but not her favourite concept.

 “I prefer to say security in change. Many, including employers and governments in Europe, tend to put too much weight on flexibility, and forget the security. But flexibility is possible only when you have security in change.”

Or to put it this way:

”It is rational to be positive towards change, but that is not possible if the wage earners' security is put at risk. Therefore we need strong collective agreements, linked with an acceptable insurance system for the unemployed, active labour market policies and an adult education system.

People ask why the Nordic model is so successful. It is because we have strong and independent social partners who take responsibility for wages and working conditions, and security in change.”

The discussion on whether the Nordic model is one or several different models; the Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic model, is not relevant in a European context, according to Wanja Lundby-Wedin.

“The differences are so small. All the Nordic countries are characterised by a strong and united labour movement. We have generous and general benefits. Strong social partners give strong welfare”, she argues, and she adds: “There are few countries where the social democrats have held such a strong position as in the Nordic countries.”

Even though she herself discarded the possibility, she was mentioned as a candidate to being party leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party when former Prime Minister Göran Persson resigned.

It is not only the voice and her appearance which express femininity, but also other things like how she has decorated her office. Except, perhaps, for the dry cactuses in the window. The question is inevitable:

“Was this how it looked when you took office in LO Sweden in 2000? Who decorated your office?”

“I did it myself, all of it. The paintings are also selected by me. I especially like the one over there.” She points to a sweet and soft coloured painting showing a mother and a child in a calm Swedish summery landscape. 

Facing challenges 

The unions are facing challenges which demand new strategies. Her advisors are knocking impatiently at her door. She is wanted for a meeting. She excuses herself:

“Do you mind, just fifteen minutes?”

At a national level there is an ongoing discussion on a new basic labour market agreement.

The present agreement was signed in Saltsjöbaden in 1938. Now the unions are on speaking terms with the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. They want to find out whether it is possible to start negotiating a new basic agreement with rules and regulations concerning the dealings and the communication between the parties. It is still early in the process, but she is optimistic. 

Pressure from below 

Perhaps more urgent is the pressure that comes from below. Strong unions with strong support and legitimacy form the basis for security in change. But unions are loosing ground. Swedish unions too are loosing members fast.

“Look at the graph on the tiled heater. I will show you”, she says and walks across the room.

She blames the present government for ruining the Swedish labour market model. In record time they weakened the insurance system for the unemployed and reduced the active labour market policy.

“Today there is a job and development guarantee for the long-term unemployed, but there is hardly anything left of the adult education system”, she says.

Her finger follows the development on the graph. In the mid 1990's 86 per cent of the Swedish workforce were organised, but from the year 2000 they lost one per cent of the members every year. In 2007 when the government changed the unemployment insurance system, the number of organised workers dropped from 79 per cent to 73 per cent.

“Six per cent loss in one year”, she emphasises, “but it is only us who can reverse the trend.”

The yearly one per cent loss she claims is due to structural changes in the labour market. Many new and small businesses have come into existence, and they don't have collective agreements.

“And we have not paid attention to this tendency.”

The Nordic model is based on a high organisation rate both among employees and employers.

But this is not only a national or a Nordic issue; it is also top of the European Trade Union

Confederation's agenda, because it is so closely linked to support and legitimacy.

“Recruiting new members have been an issue for the union official at the work place. We now see recruitment as a strategic question”, says Wanja Lundby-Wedin.

Threats from above

Recent developments show that the unions also meet challenges from elsewhere. When the European Court of Justice (ECJ) pronounced case laws based on the posted workers directive, the unions stated that the Court had made a political decision and that it was not in favour of the wage earners in Europe. In her mind this confirms the importance of working across borders.

“European law does not ensure equal treatment of wage earners. So we have to work hard both at a national level, at a Nordic level and at a European level, to make it clear that we don't accept wage discrimination.”

“We will fight to keep the Nordic labour market model with just conditions, real wages and security in change”, she states with the case laws in mind. There must be some sort of minimum wage agreement, but it is also necessary to make sure that the new treaty doesn't discriminate against the system of collective bargaining. Right now a strategy is being worked out to make sure labour law will be put on an equal footing with the four freedoms. This issue will hopefully be decided on at the top meeting between heads of states and governments next year. 

Big difference

Is there anything she wants to achieve at a European level? Well, she is there to put into action what the members want. The differences between countries are big. Nordic countries are leading the way.

“But we cannot push our system on other countries.”

Gender is on the agenda in Europe, though, and this is an issue were she would really like to see a change for the better:

“The ESF has a “women committee”.

She sounds amazed:

“That really shows how far they have to go. If not this would have been a committee on gender equality.”


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