Docks and Defeat – The 1909 General Strike in Sweden and the Shipping Ports Problem

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Docks and Defeat – The 1909 General Strike in Sweden and the Shipping Ports Problem
Jesper Hamark & Christer Thörnqvist

Swedish trade unions’ most devastating defeat ever was the General Strike in 1909. In response to several lockouts, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) launched a general strike in August that year, covering most industries. The decision was taken by the LO leadership without first consulting its affiliates or individual members. Yet, in the words of Bäckström (1977: 104) a central decision had never been so enthusiastically supported by the rank-and-file. An obvious rationale for industrial action, both strikes and lockouts, is to hit the counterpart financially. The General Strike succeeded in shutting down all core export industries more or less completely. Hence, one might think that the struck employers and their associations should have been most eager to settle the conflict with LO, even at the costs of a peace arrangement mostly on the workers’ terms. Yet instead the General Strike ended in a landslide victory for the organizing employers’ association, the Swedish Employers’ Confederation (SAF). The strike was just not powerful enough. There are several factors behind the lack of efficiency. In this paper, however, we focus on the transportation system, an aspect of utmost importance for the outcome of the strike, but still, we believe, somewhat underestimated. The railway workers did not take part in the strike for legislative reasons – a well-known and often discussed weakness of the strike. Even more crucial, however, was most likely the lack of labour resistance in the docks. Although production was almost completely shut down in the export industries, goods from these industries were still exported through the ports. Consequently, SAF got a huge financial relief in a situation where it otherwise would have been under strong pressure.

It has been argued that the dock workers suffered organizational strength after several conflicts in the preceding years (cf. Schiller 1964). Yet, the impact of the ‘dock worker problem’ has never been thoroughly investigated; how weak was the organization really? In the ports, the dockers had challenged employers’ prerogatives for two decades; they were the backbone of the Transport Workers’ Union (Transport), whose well-organized members at the time were looked upon as the ‘storm troopers’ of the Swedish working class. But during the largest battle ever between labour and capital, the ports arguably became the labour movement’s weakest link. This paper discusses the puzzling fact that export flourished despite that a majority of the dockers actually were on strike. We also discuss the role of LO. How could the confederation proclaim a general strike, but not care more for the labour resistance in the ports – arguably the most important strategic nodes?
The next section gives a brief overview of the strike. Thereafter we outline a few theoretical aspects necessary for the further analysis. The following section gives a background to some particularities of the Swedish harbours at the time, while the section after that discusses the core of this paper.
The Strike

Aiming to carry through national collective agreements on companies’ terms, SAF launched several lookouts in July 1909. It was in response to these lockouts LO called a general strike. Contemporary sources bear witness of the great faith the Swedish labour movement had in the transport workers, and also of the fear felt by the employers. In May 1902 there had been a general strike for universal suffrage. The strike was proclaimed by political parties, the Social Democrats in cooperation with the Liberals, and not by the trade unions, which however were officially affiliated to the social democratic party at the time. The strike was only two days long (it was never attempted to last longer) but through its strength and mass support, it made a great impact on the present right-wing government. Suffrage reforms did not take off immediately after the 1902 strike, but it was no doubt important for the fall of the hegemony that said that only rich people should have the right to vote. REF! Encouraged by the great support in the 1902 strike, there were encompassing discussions within the labour movement about using the general strike again, and for perhaps even more far-reaching purposes. In those discussions, transport workers were seen as a key group (Schiller 1967: 216). Charles Lindley, legendary chairman of Transport, writes in his political memoires that

in that time [the turn of the last century] there was an almost unlimited faith in the general strike as the decisive means to get universal suffrage, and in this battle transport workers were seen as the storm troopers. There were even prominent persons within the social democratic party who thought that it would be enough to take out the transport workers alone in a national strike, to solve the issue of the right to vote (Lindley 1977: 62).
Even though Lindley does not refer to dock workers in particular, we can assume that they were the key group: at the time, dockers constituted the majority of the organized transport workers. The employers were also aware of the importance of the ports. In 1911, that is, after the General Strike, SAF summarized its experience from the preceding years, stating that the economic losses from work stoppages in longshoring were ‘enormous’, and that society ‘by all possible means must try to keep business in the ports going’ (Hallendorff 1927: 188).
In 1909, LO hoped for a short, but ‘devastating’ conflict – a wish that showed to be futile. Beginning on the 4th of August, the general strike continued a full month, until the 4th of September. At its peak, 300,000 workers were on strike. But with no victory in sight, LO then started to retreat. Even though minor strike actions continued, the battle was already lost and in this paper we will focus on the period of full-scale conflict. The agreement eventually settled, was in total accordance with SAF’s original demands (Schiller 1964; 1967).
Such a landslide victory for the employers in such an enormous showdown could not be easily explained away by the LO leadership. Swedish economy was in a recession, a fact that spoke strongly in favour of the employers. But there are a number of other reasons for the workers’ defeat. LO’s strike funds were meager, and its leaders declared that no relief would be given the members during the fight. Even though this decision was not followed to 100 per cent in practice, many workers with families suffered great hardships during the conflict. The pressure even occasionally led workers to commit ‘the greatest sin of all’, namely strike breaking. LO made a non-controversial choice of not including health-care personnel in the conflict, but its decision to not hit at the supply of electricity, water and street sweeping, and even animal care, were met by a storm of protests from its affiliated trade unions and workers all over the country. Or in popular parlor, ‘…since the employers never have taken any consideration of our children, why should we take care of their animals?’. Additionally, when the typographers – who were not affiliated to LO – joined the strike on the 9th of August, ambivalent liberals turned against the workers. As the liberals saw it, the strike now had become an attack on the freedom of speech and thus they joined the right-wing chorus of condemnation. Especially Schiller (1967) has stressed the importance of the liberals’ position vis-à-vis the strike. Further, as mentioned, the railway workers did not take part in the strike for legislative reasons (Schiller 1964; 1967). Their trade union was not affiliated to LO, but their participation in the strike was still subject to endless controversies. The railway workers’ decision not to join the strike definitely facilitated transportations, but on the positive side for striking workers, the railway men could – and in fact did – contribute to the strike funds.
LO’s strike proclamation is worth noting, and we will return to this rather controversial issue in our concluding discussion. SAF had recurrently challenged LO with massive lockouts in the preceding years, and LO had not been able to respond in a powerful way. By that, the employers had secured managerial supremacy. The LO leaders were afraid that SAF would just continue its lockout strategy, if it was never met with strong resistance. By extending the stoppage of work from the realms of SAF to the entire labour market,1 LO aimed for a short, but extremely powerful action that would not drain its meager strike fund. Moreover, there was a massive grass-root pressure from workers all over the country on LO to proclaim a strike (Schiller 1967: 226-35). But apart from the perceived necessity to strike back against SAF, did LO formulate any offensive, positive demands? The answer is a simple ‘no’. In the words of Schiller (1967: 259):
From the beginning the General Strike was not planned to be a prolonged starvation war but a blitzkrieg. The sudden chock that would hit society, would force it to intervene and enforce an acceptable peace arrangement for the workers. Society as such would not be threatened, since the strike should be non-revolutionary in character.
With a government intervention as the ultimate objective for the strike, it is easier to understand LO’s reluctance to extend the conflict to water supply and other societal areas. As the LO leaders saw it, the liberals were needed as a mediating partner between the right-wing government and the labour movement’s political branch, the Social Democratic Party. Hence the liberals should not to be scared away. Schiller (1967: 260) again:
To its form the General Strike became a compromise. The exceptions were simultaneously too few and to many: too few to prevent the liberal opinion to be scared off, or in rage join the right and the employers – foremost due to the typographers’ strike, but also because of other, real or putative, breach of contracts. At the same time there was one exception too many: the railway men. During an economic crisis with huge piled up stocks of finished goods waiting for transport, this had a profound impact.
Schiller’s last remark easily applies to the docks as well.
Workers’ power: a brief theoretical outline

Eric Olin Wright (2000: 962) distinguishes between two different kinds of workers’ bargaining power – associational and structural power. Associational power ‘includes such things as unions and parties, but may also include a variety of other forms, such as works councils or forms of institutional representation of workers on boards of directors in schemes of worker codetermination, or even, in certain circumstances, community organizations’. Structural power, on the other hand, ‘results simply from the location of workers within the economic system’. This is further developed by Beverly Silver (2003: 13), who divides structural power into marketplace bargaining power and workplace bargaining power. In Silver’s words, ‘marketplace bargaining power might be the possession of scarce skills that are in demand by employers, low levels of general unemployment, and the ability of workers to pull out of the labour market entirely and survive on nonwage sources of income’. On the other hand, workplace bargaining power ‘accrues to workers who are enmeshed in tightly integrated production processes, where a localized work stoppage in a key node can cause disruptions on a much wider scale than the stoppage itself’.

Silver’s description of workplace bargaining power is close to what Luca Perrone (1984) called positional power or disruptive potential, defined as the output lost if a strike would occur. We argue – and we are not the first to do so – that dock workers are among the groups of workers possessing the highest disruptive potential or workplace bargaining power, a fact as true today as it was a hundred years ago. In the Swedish context this is particularly clear. Sweden is geographically located at the Scandinavian Peninsula; the overwhelming bulk of foreign trade had, and still has, to go through the ports. Hence, if work stops in the ports, import and export break down immediately; the ports are certainly what might be called key nodes. In addition, the dockers were highly unionized compared to other Swedish workers; that is, their associational power was considerable as well.
Perrone used the concept disruptive potential – congenially operationalized as interdependence between different industrial sectors – mainly to explain relative wages. His most important result – a positive link between disruptive potential and wages in Italy in the 1970s – has been furthered by Wallace and colleagues (1989), drawing on data from the USA. Our focus here is not the day-to-day class conflicts fostered by capitalism. But we think that workers with high workplace bargaining power, and thus in the position of forcing relatively high wages, also are key actors in most social conflicts between labour and capital, with the 1909 General Strike as a crucial example. In one sense it could be argued that the full disruptive potential is unleashed in such conflicts, because they are ‘all-in’ situations where laws and regulations often matter less than the present strength between the classes. This could for instance be contrasted to the situation in the US ports on the West Coast today, where the dockers’ union, ILWU, is so powerful that it is subject to the constant threat of being put under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which would severely curb the possibility to strike (Talley 2004: 216).
This raises the question of the distinctions between conflicts of interests and conflicts of rights, which was important in the Swedish General Strike too. LO hoped to get a legal interference from the government in order to stop the conflict. Normally, though, it is the opposite: trade unions’ bargaining power is stronger without the meddling of legislative rules. The more items on the labour market agenda that could be concerned matters of interests, the easier it would be for trade unions to benefit from their bargaining power.
The strike(s) and the workers’ power
Some important statistical facts about the General Strike

Regarding the General Strike’s disruptive power, we limit ourselves to SAF’s three core export industries: iron and steel, timber, and paper and pulp. There is no monthly statistics of industrial production for the time of interest. Yet according to Schiller (1964: 186), the men still working during the strike were too few to maintain the production, which thus was shut down almost completely. However, there is a twist: export from these same industries did not vanish.

Table 1: Export in August 1909. Physical volumes

As percentage of export in

Iron and steel


Paper and pulp

August 1908




July 1909




Source: Schiller 1964, p.188.
Depending on which benchmark one uses, 50 to 60 per cent of the regular export volumes were still exported in August 1909. If we split up the statistics on the most important ports, export figures looked like this:
Table 2: Export in August 1909 as a percentage of export in July 1909. Iron and steel, timber and paper pulp in the most important ports. Physical volumes

Iron and steel


Paper and pulp





























In total




Source: Schiller 1964, p.190-191.
So, what kind of goods was exported if production was shut down? As mentioned, the strike occurred in the midst of a recession and great stocks had been piled up – stocks that the capitalists now could sell out, which spoke strongly in favour of the employers.
As an explanation to the flourishing export – apart from piled up stocks – earlier research has hinted that there must have been lots of strike breakers in the ports, and that the dockers and their union were demoralized at the time LO proclaimed the strike (Olsson 1975: 21; Schiller 1964: 190-91)2, due to a heavy loss in a long and violent nationwide conflict in the ports the preceding years.

In brief, this is what had passed: in the so-called 1906 December Compromise, LO recognized the employers’ exclusive right to hire and fire, and to manage and distribute work, or in the capitalist jargon, the ‘freedom of work’, while in return SAF formally recognized workers’ right to join unions and to let unions negotiate over wages and working conditions on behalf of its individual members. Transport – affiliated to LO and constituted largely by dockers – nevertheless refused the December Compromise. In the ports, overcrowded by people looking for a few hours of work, it was always possible for employers to set aside union members, not by firing them but more subtly by not hiring. Therefore Transport could not accept the ‘freedom of work’ (Lindley 1977: 173).

At the time, Transport had an influence over daily work arrangements in the ports that was unique in the Swedish labour market (Arbetstatistik A:5 1910: 374-81; Hagberg 1931: 30-31; Hallendorff 1927: 188-89). Aside from their objective position in the production/distribution chain, this strength was an important part in what made dockers ‘the storm troopers’. In 1907, SAF and the Swedish Shipowners’ Association joined forces to take full managerial control: ‘freedom of work’ should from now on rule the ports too. Overt conflict outbursts in the spring of 1907 gradually spread, and a year and a half later, in the summer of 1908, almost all major ports of Sweden were involved. The conflicts encompassed strikes, blockades, massive use of strike breakers – more than 1,000 of whom were Englishmen, in addition to some 2000 Swedes – and armed government troops (Arbetsstatistik E:2 1909: 118; Tidman 1998: 219-20). Then, ‘the battle of the ports’ suddenly ended, and it ended in a crushing defeat for the dockers.3 In 1900, a majority of the ports had rules of preference for union members regarding employment (Johansson 1982: 195). But in 1913, the situation was completely the opposite: in one port only had union precedence survived, and the great majority of the ports had closed collective agreements fully in line with the December Compromise (SOU 1916: 63, 69). Taking into account the development in the ports the years preceding 1909, there is little doubt that Transport and the dock workers were weakened at the time of the General Strike.
The General Strike in the ports

An extensive official investigation of the General Strike, written only a year after the conflict, gives rather detailed and disaggregated numbers of strike participation. The inquiry draws on a sample that includes 41 ports, covering some 5,000 dockers, corresponding to roughly half the industry’s work force.

Table 3. Workers at work in relation to the workforce before the conflict. Percentages.

4 Aug.

11 Aug.

16 Aug.

23 Aug.

30 Aug.

4 Sep.

6 Sep.









All workers








Source: Huss 1912, p.174-175
A few interesting observations can be made. First and foremost, the dockers’ strike participation rate was higher than that of workers in general. This suggests that the strike moral amongst dockers was at least not lower than in the working class at large. Moreover, strike participation was strongest in the beginning of the conflict. Most crucial for our purpose, however, is that an average of approximately 10 per cent of the dockers worked in August. This means that only 10 per cent of the work force managed to handle 50 to 60 per cent of the regular export volumes. This is obviously a paradox.4
How to solve this puzzle? Could it be that dockers to a larger extent continued work in the most important ports? To answer the latter question we have studied the primary sources of the official investigation. The strike was fully supported in Stockholm and Gävle from the beginning of the strike at the 4th of August until the 6th of September, when most dock workers returned to work. This is counter-intuitive, especially in the case of Stockholm; as we saw in table 2, the iron and steel export from the capital was well over 50 per cent in August (compared to the month before). Records from the ports of Sundsvall and Örnsköldsvik also indicate an almost total strike support.
Regrettably the primary sources from Sweden’s most important port now and then, Gothenburg, is missing – probably lost forever.5 Instead we have relied on minutes from union and employer meetings. According to a report to a union meeting the day after the outburst of the strike, 1,280 dockers had joined it already on the 4th of August. The strike was ‘to all intents and purposes effective /…/ only stevedores and foremen along a few workers continued work’ (Göteborgs Hamnarbetarfackförening. Protokoll 1909-1910). On the third day of the strike, one of the local strike leaders reported back to the union members that only 14 strikebreakers had been engaged, of whom ten were friends of the specially employed seeker. On the 17th strike day, the employers did better according to union sources: 44 strike breakers were recruited. Nevertheless, when the strike had been going on for three weeks, it was reported that the employers had searched high and low for willing labour, but they still had not obtained any significant quantities.6 The last days of August, the workers’ front seemed to have crumbled, although, the vast majority continued the strike (Göteborgs Hamnarbetarfackförening. Protokoll 1909-1910).
To sum up: according to official statistics some 10 per cent of the dockers still worked in August 1909. Our reading of the primary sources suggests that the percentage working in the most important ports were even less than that; actually the numbers were close to zero in several ports. Hence, the massive export took place in spite of the fact that the dockers were on strike.
As we recall, Schiller concluded that production was shut down almost completely. He arrived at this conclusion despite the fact that some 20 per cent of the industrial workers were still working during the strike, because the production process was too complex to be maintained with so many workers absent.7 In the ports the situation was entirely different. Here the neoclassical assumption of ‘divisibility’ – often at odds with reality – could reasonably be applied. Since technical progress was limited and work still was performed manually, ten dockers would do no more and no less than one tenth of the work of 100 dockers. The lagging technological development – at least if one makes the admittedly unfair comparison to industrial production – also made it relatively easy to replace striking dockers by people from outside, even though not as easy as has been suggested.8

Did seamen make exports possible?

This far we have discussed the ports more or less as if they were the last link in the export chain. But obviously they are not: shipping is. All Swedish enrolled seamen were bound by the Law of Sea. In practice the law meant a ban against strikes. This is reflected in the official investigation of the General Strike referred to above. The number of seamen at work in relation to the workforce before the conflict was on average about 70 per cent in August (Huss 1912: 174-175), that is, much higher than the corresponding figures for dockers or workers in general.

But what kind of jobs did they perform? Did they also deal with the loading/unloading of ships? In the era of sailing ships, the crew did all the loading and unloading, whereas the work on the waterfront was taken care of by non-crew people. This arrangement served a purpose: the stuffing required certain skills, skills which the crew – who knew their ship – had, but not the land-based labour. This division of labour functioned until steamships appeared, when the number of crew was severely reduced in relation to the cargo handled. After that, shore-based dockers had to do the loading and unloading (Erixon 1988: 28).
In the 1860s, ship officers in Northern Sweden, operating on larger, foreign ships started to subcontract the loading and unloading. Language barriers made it reasonable to hand over the hiring of men, as well as the direct management of work to a middleman, often a man with long experience of dock work and with the confidence of the ship’s officer (Hagberg 1931: 7). In Gothenburg, stevedoring companies started to hire workers on a more regular basis in the 1870s (Björklund 1984: 15). By the end of the 1880s, the steamship fleet was larger than the fleet of sailing ships in Gothenburg, measured in real tons. Taking into account the greater capacity of steamships,9 we have to multiply steamships by factor three to get a clue of goods transported, an operation which additionally underlines the shift from sail to steam and wood to steal. At the time for the General Strike, sailing ships constituted only a tiny fraction of the total Gothenburg fleet, measured in real tons (Kuuse and Olsson 1997: 63-65). If measured in goods transported, then the importance of sailing ships in Gothenburg was almost negligible at the time.
This implies that the dockers – not the ship crews – did most of the stuffing and stripping in 1909. Obviously, this was true also in the foreign traffic. Having established that dock workers did the loading/unloading, it is reasonable to believe that seamen did the work of the dockers during the General Strike. That is, they became ‘strikebreakers’, no matter if they liked it or not.
Working conditions for seamen at the turn of the last century were often very poor and hazardous. This was especially the case on Swedish ships, even in comparison with other countries; working hours were longer and monthly wages lower. On average, a Swedish crewman earned less than 60 per cent relative to his British colleagues (Gyllin 1964: 92). Only few Swedish seamen were unionized. The union’s magazine often discussed this issue, once under the heading: The Swedish seamen’s laziness attracts attention abroad. The leadership of the Seafarers’ Union claimed that Swedish seamen, ‘just like the capitalists’, profited from other peoples work. ‘They do nothing to improve their conditions in their own country, but instead travel abroad to receive benefits seamen in other countries have had the reason, the courage and the spirit of self-sacrifice to secure for themselves’ (Gyllin 1964: 99-100). Shortly before the outburst of the General Strike, the union’s magazine dejectedly wrote: ‘for more than ten years [we have] sacrificed time and resources on the apparently fruitless task of organizing Swedish seamen’ (Gyllin 1964: 96). From a trade union perspective seafaring was indeed a sad story; at the time, it was probably the least organized male (blue-collar) occupation of all. Needless to say, this is not a proof that seamen did dockers’ work during the strike. But a low union participation rate and virtually non-existent trade union self-esteem are nevertheless eminent prerequisites for employers looking for strikebreakers. Bearing this in mind, let us look at the direct evidences for strike breaking.
We have already touched upon the Law of Sea. Critics of the law never missed the opportunity to rhetorically claim that the law in essence had been the same since King Carolus XI’s days in the 17th century. Among other things, the law had a clause on mutiny; the seamen had to obey orders from their captain or could else be convicted. In a conflict in the port of Norrköping in 1908, seamen had been forced to do dock work.10 This also happened during the General Strike. The most publicized case occurred in Gävle: the crew on the steamer Gertrud refused to transport iron ore from the dock to the ship, that is, they refused to do dockers’ work. The crew was arrested and later convicted for ‘disobedience’, and each of them were imposed a fine. The case was considered to be of precedential importance and therefore moved all the way to the Supreme Court, where the initial verdict in essence was confirmed (Gyllin 1964: 98-99).
The most important evidence for a wide-spread use of seamen as strike breakers is the 1909 annual report for the Swedish Shipowners’ Association, SSA, in Western Sweden. In the report, shipping is claimed to have been ‘satisfactory maintained’ during the strike.11 In the port of Gothenburg this was made possible by a land-based workforce of 400 men – that is, ‘ordinary’ strike breakers – together with, and this is the crucial point, the ship’s crews (Swedish Shipowners’ Association in Western Sweden 1910).12 Additionally, we have found newspapers reporting of the same thing: seamen stuffing and stripping in the port of Gothenburg (Ny Tid 4/9-1909; Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning 4/9-1909).

The role of LO

There is yet another puzzling fact about the ports and the General Strike. Why did not LO, at the time one of the strongest trade union confederations in Europe, do more to encourage resistance in the ports? The labour movement was fully aware of the strategic importance of the ports and the transportation workers, but during the General Strike, this awareness did not show, either in contemporary analyses or in follow-ups done with hindsight. A few history writers belonging to different branches of the labour movement themselves have in retrospect looked at the causes of labour’s defeat. Social democrat Ragnar Casparsson (1951: 298-307; 1966: 125-28) has stressed the lack of financial means as the decisive factor, but also the fact that the railway men did not strike. Casparsson does not mention the ports, though. Revolutionary Knut Bäckström (1977: 107-08) instead questioned the LO leadership for not having a clear aim with the strike, but paid no more interest than Casparsson to the ports. It appears as if the ignorance by these two renowned writers is a reflection of the attention the port question was given by LO leadership at the time of the General Strike; that is, very little or none.

We hypothesize that the growing antagonism between LO and Transport ever since the December Compromise in 1906 might partly explain the lack of interest in the ports shown by LO during the General Strike. Transport refused to accept the December Compromise, and the organization continued to openly defy capital – which led to the violent conflict in the ports. From the LO viewpoint, Transport became a threat to stable labour market relations.
It is apparent that in the summer of 1908, when the conflict in the ports had become truly nation-wide, the LO leadership was most annoyed with Transport. In May 1908, LO unenthusiastically decided to financially support the transport workers. But when SAF in June declared that striking dockers was a threat to shipping and industry of the entire country, and that it would answer any continued defiance with a general lockout affecting astonishing 220,000 workers, LO changed its mind (Schiller 1967: 73-81). At a meeting with LO’s representative assembly, the chairman of the Shoe Workers’ Union bluntly explained that the transport workers had to ‘go their own ways’ if they did not bow to the rest of LO. Also the labour movement’s political leadership increased the pressure: at an executive meeting within the Social Democratic Party, the chairman Hjalmar Branting declared that the transport workers had to accept ‘a partial degradation’ rather than throwing the entire working class in to a conflict (Schiller 1967: 85, 94). ‘Unwilling to spend funds on a cause it had explicitly rejected [in the December Compromise], LO joined forces with the government in pressuring Transport to submit to [‘freedom of work’]’ (Swenson 2002: 82). Standing all alone, Transport finally threw in the towel.
One parameter for assessing labour resistance in the early 20th century is collective violence (Nyzell 2009). This mode of resistance – which largely has been neglected in Swedish working-class history – was mostly small-scale in character, often expressed as harassment of strike breakers (Nyzell 2009: 10). After reading both primary and secondary sources from the General Strike and the ports, we can conclude that the absence of ‘histories of violence’ is striking. For instance, the minutes from the dockers’ union in Gothenburg do not contain any discussion of plans for physically hindering strike-breakers, let alone its actual carrying through. This might be looked upon as a sign of weakness on the dockers’ part. On the other hand, put in its historical context, the absence of physical resistance is probably not very surprising: the final act of the ‘battle of ports’ referred to above, was the bursting in the port of Malmö in July 1908. Provoked by the use of English strike-breakers, three young (unemployed) workers, planned and detonated a bomb on the ship Amalthea, which lodged the Englishmen. The explosion killed one strike-breaker and injured more than twenty others. The worker who had applied the bomb to the ship and one of the others were sentenced to death, while the third member of the plot was sentenced to penal servitude for life. The two death sentences were however never executed (Tidman 1998). It is reasonable to believe that the verdicts had a deep impact on workers’ – especially dockers’ – willingness to use violence during the General Strike. Furthermore, since 1893 it was illegal to force someone to strike or to in any way prevent someone from working. This law was sharpened in 1899 with the notorious Åkarpslagen, which stated that it was a crime to even try to take such measures (Göransson 1988: 162).13
This leads back to the role of LO, and what could have been done to stop exports from the ports. Obviously this had to be about stopping work in the ports; concretely to hinder strike-breakers, with physical means if necessary. We cannot know exactly what might have happened, but with the moral/political support from LO, the dockers and other workers may have felt strong enough to stop the strike-breakers and thereby openly defy the state apparatus. The fact that no moral support was given from the LO headquarter is quite logical, however, considering the overall strike strategy, that is, to make the government intervene. To encourage the breaking of existing laws would have endangered this general strategy.
Further, it seems that LO misjudged the situation in the transport sector. In the daily delivered strike-paper ‘The Answer’ (Svaret), produced by LO14, it was stated that the fact that railway workers and seamen were not on strike was not a real problem since there were hardly any goods to transport anyway (Svaret 15/8 and 18/8 1909).15
But, as shown in tables 1 and 2, this was at odds with reality. In retrospect, it is hard to understand LO’s judgment as anything but a result of ignorance. Maybe it was just propaganda on LO’s part: the leaders were keeping up appearances. On the other hand, if one assumes that the leadership did not think the General Strike was a lost cause from the very beginning, then surely a more efficient stream of propaganda had been to encourage workers in the transport sector to do their utmost to stop the shipments.
One possible, but definitely highly provoking, explanation to LO’s passivity in the ports and the transport sector at large is that the leadership did not care much for winning the conflict. This hypothesis has mostly, but not exclusively, been stressed by left-wing and communists critics. Paradoxically we find the argument both wrong and very reasonable at the same time.
This paradox derives from the fact that it is never clearly spelled out what is meant by ‘winning’. The General Strike had been a subject of discussion already the year before, in the summer of 1908 (as it had even times before that). LO’s Chairman Herman Lindqvist was skeptical to say the least. In his view of the matter, ‘the very idea of a general strike’ was tantamount to suicide for the trade union movement’ (Westerståhl 1945: 146-47). Already in the autumn of 1908, the most prominent representatives looked upon the issue differently, though. The bookbinders were involved in a conflict and LO’s treasurer Ernst Söderberg claimed that LO now had to choose between
…a lingering disease or a rapid-acting inflammation. If we make martyrs of the bookbinders, then syndicalism will be riding on the crest of the wave, because it will awaken the feeling that we [the LO leadership] are oppressors, only interested in stopping the workers from gaining their goals through battle. Therefore the members may themselves, by us letting them have their way, get the opportunity to see how unwise the battle was. In this way we could probably remove existing discontent (Westerståhl 1945: 147).
Lindqvist was of the same opinion: if the workers were so eager to fight, then they should have their battle – a battle which most likely would calm down syndicalist (and the like) opinions (Westerståhl 1945: 147).
Jörgen Westerståhl has argued claimed that neither Lindqvist nor Söderberg changed their minds between the autumn of 1908 and the summer of 1909; that is, they did not believe in the general strike as a means for success. In Westerståhl’s (1945: 148-49) words: ‘they recommended this way out [in July 1909] solely because they were convinced that, in the long run, it was impossible to get the rank-and-file to accept the passive trade union policy’, and further: ’concerning the outcome of the strike, the representative assembly expected no victory; in the best case scenario society [the government] would help the trade union movement to reach an acceptable compromise, in the worst case scenario a downright catastrophe was threatening.’
For the LO leadership, as we have seen, ‘winning’ was to force the government to intervene and thereby get an ‘acceptable’ agreement. Considering the disastrous results of the conflict, with people leaving the trade unions en masse – partly because of massive pressure from individual employers, partly because of political resignation amongst the members – it is very unlikely to believe that LO wanted a loss just to set an example and curb syndicalism; obviously LO wanted to win.
On the other hand, it is equally hard to believe that 300,000 workers enthusiastically participated in the strike just to get a ‘compromise’; they wanted to reclaim the standard of living they felt they had lost. There is ample evidence of workers and local union branches all over the country demanding LO to extend the strike. Several affiliated unions also protested sharply against the centralization of the strike leadership within LO. For the rank-and-file, ‘winning’ was a lot more than a government intervention to reach a ‘compromise’, and from their perspective the LO leadership did far too little. The dockworkers definitely belonged at the most critical end of the spectrum.

Arbetsstatistik E:2 (1909), Arbetsinställelser i Sverige under år 1908. (Stockholm: Kungliga Kommerskollegii afdelning för arbetsmarknadsstatistik).

Arbetstatistik A:5 (1910), Kollektivaftal angående arbets- och löneförhållanden i Sverige. Del 1. Redogörelse för kollektivavtalens utbredning och hufvudsakliga innehåll (Stockholm: Kungliga Kommerskollegii avdelning för arbetsstatistik).

Bäckström, Knut (1977), Arbetarrörelsen i Sverige. Bok 2. Den politiska arbetarrörelsens sprängning och ett nytt revolutionärt arbetarpartis uppkomst (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren).

Björklund, Anders (1984), Hamnens arbetare: en etnologisk undersökning av stuveriarbetet i Göteborg = [Workers in the port of Gothenburg] : [an ethnological study] (Nordiska museets handlingar, 101; Stockholm: Nordiska mus.) 210, [1] s.

Casparsson, Ragnar (1951), LO under fem årtionden. Första delen. 1898-1923 (Stockholm: Tidens Förlag).

--- (1966), LO: bakgrund, utveckling, verksamhet (Stockholm: Bokförlaget Prisma).

Flink, Ingvar (1978), Strejkbryteriet och arbetets frihet. En studie av svensk arbetsmarknad fram till 1938 (Uppsala: Studia Historica Upsaliensia 99).

Göransson, Håkan (1988), Kollektivavtalet som fredspliktsinstrument. De grundläggande förbuden mot stridsåtgärder i historisk och internationell belysning (Stockholm: Juristförlaget).

Gyllin, Yngve (1964), Förbund på sju hav. Händelser och gestalter i sjöfolkets historia (Malmö: Allhems förlag).

Hagberg, G. (1931), Norrlands stufvareförbund 1906-1931. Minnesskrift (Stockholm: A-B. Hasse W. Tullbergs boktryckeri).

Hallendorff, Carl (1927), Svenska arbetsgifvareföreningen 1902-1927 (Stockholm: P.A. Norstedt & Söner).

Johansson, Ingemar (1982), Strejken som vapen: fackföreningar och strejker i Norrköping 1870-1910 = [Unions and strikes in Norrköping 1870-1910] (Stockholm: Tiden) 451 s.

Kuuse, Jan and Olsson, Kent (1997), Sjöfartsförsäkring under 125 år (Göteborg: Sveriges Ångfartygs Assurans Förening).

Lindley, Charles (1977), Svenska transportarbetareförbundet : historik. D. 1, 1897-1922 ([Stockholm]: [Förb.]) 424 s.

Olsson, S.E (1975), 'Hamnarbetarna och Transportarbetareförbundet 1897-1972', Arkiv för studier i arbetarrörelsens historia, (7-8).

Perrone, L. (1984), 'Positional Power, Strikes and Wages', American Sociological Review, 49 (3), 412-26.

Schiller, Bernt (1964), 'Storstrejkens effektivitet', Historisk Tidskrift, (2), 185-92.

--- (1967), Storstrejken 1909 : förhistoria och orsaker (Studia historica Gothoburgensia, 9; Göteborg: Elander) 301 s.

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Swenson, Peter. A. (2002), Capitalists against Markets. The Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden (Oxford University Press).

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Westerståhl, Jörgen (1945), Svensk fackföreningsrörelse: organisationsproblem, verksamhets­former, förhållande till staten (Den svenska arbetarklassens historia; Stockholm: Tidens förlag).

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Riksarkivet, Stockholm

Kommerskollegium, Avdelning för arbetsstatistik 1903-1912, H II g

Lands- och regionarkivet, Göteborg

Svenska Transportarbetareförbundet Avdelning 2. Göteborgs Hamnarbetarfackförening. Protokoll 1909-1910, A I: 9.

1 At the time, some highly important employers’ associations had not yet affiliated to SAF, most notably in the engineering industry.

2 It has been argued that the battle in the ports was a conscious strategy on behalf of the employers to crush one of their most dangerous opponents – the dockers’ union – before overt conflict outburst on the entire labour market (Olsson 1975: 21). As intriguing this may be, we have not seen any evidences supporting this view.

3 There are several reasons for the dockers’ defeat: a limited strike fund, downturn in the business cycle at the end of the conflict, and, probably most important, the combination of a half-hearted support from LO, and of well organized and motivated employers.

4 From the figures presented by the inquiry it is not possible to distinguish between workers that kept on working and workers who took new jobs during the conflict; that is, strike breakers from the inside and the outside are lumped together. Considering strike breakers from the outside, the paradox gets even bigger since it is well known that outside strike breakers mostly performed worse than the ordinary work force.

5 The same goes for the ports of Härnösand and Umeå.

6 As we will show below, the employers’ summing-up gives another picture of the situation in the port of Gothenburg.

7 This may or may not be a correct assessment. For instance, as Schiller himself notes, the figures are not disaggregated which means there could have been companies affiliated to SAF with a lot more than 20 per cent of its work force at work during the strike. But even if production continued to a non-negligible extent, our main question remains: how could export occur?

8 Flink (1978: 113-14) shows that the common assumption that strike breaking foremost was targeting ‘unqualified’ occupations is not correct. Instead, at least in Sweden, strike breakers were used to a larger extent in sectors (i) especially important for industry and society as a whole, and (ii) where conditions made it impossible for employers to prepare for a conflict by piling up stocks. Both these situations easily apply to dock work.

9 An important factor explaining the differences in capacity is that the steamships did not get stuck for weeks in the ports due to bad weather.

10 Norrköping was the epicenter of the great battle of the ports in 1907/1908 referred to above.

11 This assessment does however not easily go together with the minutes from the local dockers’ union referred to above. The different statements could partly be explained by the fact the SSA report covers August and September, since even though the General Strike ended the 4th of September, stoppages of work continued within the realms of SAF. Since we know that the union had problems holding the ranks together at the end of August and that the problems even worsened in September, it is obvious that an assessment of both months would be more positive from the employers’ perspective, than one dealing only with August. Still the differences in the parties’ stories are puzzling. We also find it peculiar that there is no trace of evidence in minutes of the dockers ever discussing strike breaking seamen. According to the logbooks from the port of Gothenburg, traffic was indeed affected by the strike, but it would be uncalled for to call it a breakdown. Arriving ships in August 1909 made up 70 per cent of the arithmetic mean value for arrivals in August the two years before and the two years after the strike (Göteborgs hamnstyrelse. Hamnbevakningens dagböcker över ankommande fartyg. Göteborgs stadsarkiv. D1a: 10-14). Since we are primarily interested in exports, arriving ships is obviously not the most relevant measure, but we have not been successful in finding data on outgoing ships. Anyway, basically the logbooks seem to confirm the SSA report.

12 The report further states that the Swedish shipping business suffered as a result of the strike, but that shipping in Western Sweden did fairly well, ‘since new labour was obtained relatively quickly, and that these workers together with the crews, praiseworthy served the ships without too much delay’. As an explanation to the relative success of Gothenburg and the rest of the West Coast, the report points out that a barrack for free labourers was ready even before the conflict started

13 It was not until 1938, in conjunction with the historical settlement between LO and SAF in Saltsjöbaden, that the law was abolished.

14 As mentioned, a few days after the outburst, the typographers went on strike too. To spread information and propaganda to its members, LO therefore produced its own paper.

15 ‘The domestic distribution [by train] has practically ceased. /…/ The maritime traffic is equally affected by the strike. A number of ships are taken out of traffic, and the ships still operating are doing even bigger losses, on every single trip.’ (Svaret 15/8). A few days later, it was once again declared that railway traffic ‘practically has ceased’ (Svaret 18/8).

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