Will Bernie’s Proposals Build Worker Power? Interview With a Swedish Labor Activist

Bernie Sanders at a recent campaign rally.

Presidential candidate and open socialist Bernie Sanders announced this week that his campaign is preparing a proposal to encourage employee ownership in large companies. While details are yet to be released, what has been reported so far is the plan would have employers “contribute a portion of their stocks to a fund controlled by employees” that would pay dividends to workers. A second aspect of the proposal would potentially allow workers to become “a powerful voting shareholder” leading to the election of worker representatives on corporate boards. As well, version of this idea has been taken up by Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the UK Labour Party.

Naturally many are comparing this to the ambitious Meidner plan introduced by the Social Democrats in 1970s Sweden which used payroll taxes to gradually create employee ownership in major corporations and which has received positive coverage in Jacobin magazine. To shed more light on this we conducted a brief interview with Marcin Anglart, a labor activist with the radical Swedish union, SAC – Syndikalisterna.

BRRN: First, could you give us a summary of the Meidner plan, what it did and what came of it politically?

Marcin Anglart (MA): The Meidner plan was a continuation of a policy line from the Swedish social democratic establishment in the 1970s with the key word being “co-determination.” The idea, coming from an economist called Rudolf Meidner from the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), was to establish “wage earner funds”, controlled by LO. These funds would manage stock in large companies (over 50 employees) through a forced-emission system that would gradually turn these companies to “worker-owned.” It was argued that this would swing the power over production in favor of labor, and at the same time redistribute capital profits to workers. It was one of the most ambitious social democratic projects in Sweden, and probably world-wide.

The ideal version of the plan was never really implemented though, as the right-wing establishment cracked down on the idea with all its power and did everything to stop it through propaganda as well as political pressure in parliament. What was implemented was a watered down version that could never establish what it set out to do in its original theoretical form. The plan slowly fizzled out and was eventually scrapped in the early 1990s.

BRRN: Media headlines proclaim that Sanders’ proposal would would “dramatically shift corporate power to U.S. workers” but we understand that the SAC union opposed the very similar Meidner plan when it was introduced. Can you explain to us why and how the proposal effected power relations between workers and larger employers – was there a shift towards workers having more power?

MA: The Swedish syndicalist union federation, the SAC, did indeed oppose the plan at the time it was conceived, even in its ideal version. Or, to be more precise, the SAC argued that the plan could not be a substitute for workers self-organizing in workplaces and learning self-management by doing it themselves, by organizing at the base. The plan, although ambitious for social democrats, mediated the ownership relationship through the state and the centralized, reformist and bureaucratic LO.

Just like a set of very powerful co-ops don’t necessarily break out of the logic of capital, so would the Meidner plan not lead to real workers’ control as SAC saw it, but simply a union bureaucracy managing capital on behalf of workers. It was a redistribution of wealth through a restructuring of capital flows, and not a profound break with the logic of capital itself. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with redistribution in the here and now, but the Meidner plan or similar contemporary measures should not be overstated in terms of what they actually do for facilitating workers’ direct control over production.

BRRN: Another aspect of employee ownership in the proposal would allow for workers to have a say in companies by using the ownership of corporate stocks to potentially elect representatives to a corporation’s board of directors. Germany current has a policy called “co-determination” which allows one-third of board members to be elected by workers in companies larger than 500 workers and equal numbers of worker and owner representatives on the board of companies with greater than 1,000 workers. From your experience how are these arrangements seen by German unionists and do they promote greater power or class struggle for workers?

MA: As I have not been active in Germany myself, and only briefly spoken to German union organizers about this, I can’t really go into any details. But from my limited experience, radical union organizers, like for instance those within the FAU [Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union, a anarcho-syndicalist union in Germany], see these works councils as a double-edged sword. A tool that can be used to facilitate organizing and the building of real workers’ power on the shop floor, but potentially also a way to recuperate and institutionalize struggles, much like elections and parliamentarism do with social movements. Of course, from a U.S. perspective such works councils can almost seem utopian, since many workers there in practice don’t even have basic rights or any say at all, and risk getting fired at first sign of voicing their opinion. But exciting as that contrast might make the councils, we have to keep a cool head and don’t mistake this for the real thing – the hard and long work of building power at the base, be it in our places of work, in social movements, or in our neighborhoods.

Editorial note: It is worthwhile to point out the the syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist movement in Europe has traditionally been divided around the various schemes of “works councils” introduced in many countries during the post-WWII period. Generally all large companies are required to have state-sponsored elections to workplace councils that have a consultative role in company policies and often receive state funding. While mainstream unions traditionally participate by running candidates for the workplace councils, more militant unionists see the arrangement as bypassing the traditional functions of the unions.

Unions such as the SAC in Sweden and FAU in Germany are critical but participate reluctantly inside the works councils to some degree. In Spain for instance, following the fall of Franco dictatorship and legalization of the CNT, the union underwent a dramatic split in the early 1980s over this very question. Those opposed to participation in the workplace councils, which also involved government funding to unions, retained the CNT name and the resulting split of unions which participate in the workplace councils became the CGT, which is now the 4th largest union in Spain.