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The Polish Plumber

april 15, 2009

The Polish Plumber.
Published in Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, in november 2005.
© Maciej Zaremba

School construction project became key European drama
In December 2004, seven Swedish trade unions imposed a blockade on a school construction project in Vaxholm, Sweden. Swedish fairness standing up to foreign deviousness. So they said. Maciej Zaremba has discovered another reality. Behind a cloak of lies, the union breached the most basic game rules on the labour market.

A year or two ago, we were warned by the government of “social tourism”. Hungarians and Latvians would be arriving here and just 10 days later they would become indisposed and lap up sickness benefits, social allowances and other benefits. And we trembled with fear and expectation, for we all hoped in a way that it would happen – to confirm how sly they were and how good things were in Sweden.

BUT THEY NEVER CAME. Instead, people came who wanted to pay their way. For a salary which (from their point of view) made it worthwhile. That was when panic set in. Union representative Torgny Johansson arrived in Vaxholm in his Volvo S 80 to shout ”Go home!” at men who back home in Riga earned a one-tenth of his salary, but who here had the chance of one-third. And he succeeded. They went home.

Torgny Johansson naturally does not agree with that rendering. He came to Vaxholm to help the Latvians. And to stand up for ”law and order” in Sweden.

Anyway, December 2004 was an eventful month in the history of the workers’ movement. From Christmas and the 100 days that followed, almost half the workers of Sweden walked arm in arm. Seven trade unions at 40,000 workplaces in word and deed stood up to safeguard decent conditions for the 32 Russians and Latvians working on a school construction project in Vaxholm. And they promised each other and not to give up until they had won.

Seldom has a group of foreigners on Swedish soil been met by such a wave of sympathy. But why did they seem so sad?

LEVS NOGINS LIVES in Kurzemes Prospekts, which is a suburb of Riga. He was a cement worker on a building site in Vaxholm. He remembers people in Day-glo jackets crowding around the fence. When they were not shouting ”Go home!”, they were shouting ”Why are you here?” It was news to Levs Nogins that 1.2 million Swedes had been trying to help him. Nobody had told him that before.

Pretensii nyet. ” Write that I don’t hold a grudge against anyone. Life’s just like that.” He was born during the war in the far north, by the White Sea, and has spent almost his whole life in the Soviet Union, he says knowingly. ”To people, man is a wolf. Everyone protects his own.” Then he shows me into a closet filled with souvenirs. A seashell from Aswan, some postcards from Germany, the antlers of a deer that the Red Army felled. ” And I brought this from Vaxholm”, he lifts the dark grey piece of stone debris, ”This you must take to Sweden.” All the way to Vaxholm? No, not necessarily. I can keep it if I want. When I decline the gift because of its weight, he takes down a red pennant from the wall. Pobeditel sotsialistityeskovo sorevnovaniya, it says, under the profile of Lenin. To the victor in socialist competition. I must definitely take it to Sweden, says Levs Nogins and his lips curl in one of his enigmatic grins.

A society of wolves, in the opinion of Levs Nogins. How could the Swedish Building Workers´ Union and the Swedish trade unions’ central organisation LO be so misunderstood? Wasn’t the idea to help Levs Nogins? That was at least what most of the Swedes who took part in the blockade must have believed they were doing.

WHERE DO WE START? Perhaps it’s best to get straight to the point. Some insist that the task of the workers’ movement is to defend the worker. Even if the worker is a foreigner, or perhaps especially then. (”Proletarians of all countries…”) – then we have the likes of Lars-Göran Bromander.

His telephone is often ringing. Someone saw a mop of dark hair in a building hoist or heard some incomprehensible words. That is when Bromander turns out with his men. They find the damned foreigner, walk up and demand to see the passport.

Bromander does not have the right to ask people to identify themselves. However, he is tall, heavy, and authoritarian and wears a helmet. It is understandable if a Bosnian or Colombian, out of pure fear, produces the document. And if it is not in order, Bromander takes measures, and says: ”We take a couple of cars, load them up and drive to the police station. If we then get to hear a little later in the day that, right, they’re now on a plane to South America, then they’ve been deported.”

Lars-Göran Bromander is not a rightwing extremist with too little to do in his spare time. He is a representative for the Swedish Building Workers´ Union. He considers that he is sweeping up. It is not always easy. Nowadays there are Swedes with dark hair who can become fairly bad-tempered when asked for the third time to show a residence permit. But it is their problem if they look like that. If they want to avoid the inconvenience, they should wear visible badges stating who they are, says Bromander.

ALL THIS is what Lars-Göran Bromander told Stina Blomgren in the TV programme ”Faktum”. Bromander’s conviction that Swedish takes precedence over foreign must be deeply felt. Last week he made it known that if lucrative petty crimes are to be committed, they should be committed primarily by Swedish building workers. Yes, this was his gist. It is scandalous that foreigners compete with Swedes for undeclared work, he stated in the radio news programme Dagens Eko on 3 November.

How typical is Lars-Göran Bromander of the Swedish Building Workers´ Union? In summer 2004, the union’s press agent, Monica Swärd declared in the magazine Arbetaren (6/04) then her union feels no solidarity with people ”who have strange names and go home at weekends”. ”We have no we’ and ’us’ ” with suchlike. Swärd was pleased with her statement as long as a small magazine carried it. But when it was published in the national daily Dagens Nyheter she claimed to have been misunderstood. What are we to think?

Perhaps our story will tell us. The story has it that the representative in Vaxholm who was to defend the rights of the Latvians was named Lars-Göran Bromander. However, he did not speak with any workers. He went straight to the company. What did he say? Welcome to Sweden, we are here to defend the rights of the workers, so please sign the collective agreement, then we shall negotiate reasonable salaries the good old Swedish way?

THAT IS WHAT Section One of the Swedish Building Workers´ Union had public opinion believe he said. And that the Latvian company Laval & Partneri Baltic Bygg replied no. It was on that understanding that first the Swedish Building Workers´ Union (on 2 November 2004) then seven other unions blockaded the construction project until the firm went bankrupt. It appeared as though the Latvians had flatly rejected the Swedish regulations. They did not wish to sign an agreement at all, but referred to the fact that EU regulations gave them the right to pay their workers the same as in Latvia. And of course Sweden could not tolerate anything like that.

It is just that Lars-Göran Bromander said something completely different to L&P Baltic Bygg. What he said could be summed up in six words: ”We do not want you here.” He fact, he issued an ultimatum which he knew the Latvian company could not meet without going bankrupt. They were first of all required to undertake to pay their workers ten kronor an hour (just over one euro) more than most building workers earn in Sweden. Only then would they be allowed to sign an agreement with the Building Workers´ Union.  If they refused to agree to 145 kronor an hour, there would be a blockade. The story would be that they refused an agreement and were a threat to the Swedish Model.

HALF A YEAR after the Latvian company hade thus been driven into bankruptcy, I interviewed the chair of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union, Torgny Johansson, who led the action in Vaxholm. Is it true, I ask, that Section One of the union issued a wage ultimatum as a condition for an agreement? At this, Torgny Johansson leaned back, puffed out his chest and said: ”We’ve never been up that road. We have never set an amount as a condition for signing a collective agreement.”

I suspected I misheard him and so I asked again: ”So that’s not what happened?

From the negotiation minutes between Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union and Laval un Partneri on 15 September 2004, signed by Lars-Göran Bromander, then submitted to the Labour Court as an Annex to Case A268/04:

”In order to sign a collective agreement the union calls on the company to pay 145 kronor an hour to the qualified workers carrying out work in areas covered by Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. If no such collective agreement is signed, the union is prepared to take immediate industrial action.”

Torgny Johansson is chair of Sweden’s biggest section of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. He commands trust as a parliamentary candidate for the Social Democrats. He sees that the tape recorder is on ”Record”, and he surely understands that the journalist can find these minutes – so he is caught with his trousers down. And yet – he chooses a downright lie. Why does he take such a senseless risk?

PERHAPS BECAUSE he no longer has a choice. If he admits that Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union subjected the Latvians to downright blackmail, it will overturn the symbolism of Vaxholm.

The stakes are now very high. Swedish fairness standing up against foreign deviousness, justice against salary dumping and order against lawlessness. The blockade in Vaxholm has will form a precedent in the European Court of Justice. According to the Swedish trade unions’ central organisation, LO, if Sweden loses, we should consider leaving the EU. The Vaxholm case has led to open discord between the government and the EU Commission.

It is said that the Swedish Model is in jeopardy: a model whose keystone is that our trade unions are so upright and law-abiding that without intervention from authorities they can administer justice and law in working life. If necessary, with a little force. (The ultimate issue in the European Court of Justice is whether The Swedish Building Workers’ Union had the right to blockade the Latvian company.)

When, in September 2004, Lars-Göran Bromander gave his ultimatum to Laval un Partneri, he knew, naturally, that he was breaking the Swedish game rules (first agreement, then wage negotiations). Perhaps it was not the first time. Perhaps he counted on the foreigners leaving the country without anyone noticing anything. (I phoned to different buildings contractors. Nobody knew of a Swedish company that had been faced with such demands under threat of a blockade. It would contravene Swedish negotiation rules, I was told.)

SECTION ONE of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union naturally could not have foreseen that Vaxholm would grow into such a crucial drama, where Lars-Göran Bromander would come to represent Swedish probity in a struggle against foreign iniquity. If they had suspected it, his ultimatum would never have appeared in print. Now it is too late to erase the minutes. The next-worst alternative remains: to deny the self-evident. One may find it foolhardy beyond measure, but the alternative is worse: that would be to confess that Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union lured LO and the government into believing that they were defending ”Swedish game rules” when in fact they were breaking them for the purpose of shutting out the foreigners. (”The Swedish Building Workers’ Union is perfectly entitled under Swedish collective agreements to take industrial action ”, declared Prime Minister Göran Persson.)

I wrote ”lured”, but I cannot know how many were in fact colluding. The man who formally initiated the blockade, the negotiations secretary of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union, Gunnar Ericson, indicated that he too was hoodwinked. ”If that’s the way it was, then something went wrong. Collective agreements are not supposed to be applied like that ”, he said when confronted (by Fredrik Karlsson of the construction industry magazine Byggindustrin) with Bromander’s ultimatum. Gunnar Ericson hoped there would be other minutes that showed something else. ”Because I did not decide on the blockade on those grounds.” But there are no other minutes.

Here, the reader wonders why the Latvian company did not try to reveal that it had been the victim of blackmail. It did. But when the LO representative Ingemar Göransson, in a press conference on 3 December, categorically denied that the Swedish Building Workers’ Union had made any wage demands as a condition for an agreement, everyone believed the LO.

I WANT TO MAKE one thing very clear. It is not a question of whether Laval un Partneri was a respectable employer. The company certainly tried to get the most out of its workers, and probably said untruths and induced its people to keep quiet. But that is not the point.

The point is that this foreign small enterprise was not given a chance to accept Swedish game rules. It was cast as a villain in a play in which it had no say. The most unpleasant part of the performance was where it so skilfully played on the prejudices of the public. It was not difficult to believe that the smooth foreigners scorned collective agreements. And who will believe a Latvian when the LO denies the facts?

On TV images from Vaxholm, it is a certain Jan-Olof Gustavsson, in a Day-glo builder’s jacket, who represents the anger of the Swedish worker. ”Blackfoot!” He snorts, referring to the Latvians, and looks nasty. It turns out he is a union representative for Section One of the Painters’ Union. (There were only one or two workers in the demonstration that shouted ”Go home!” at the Latvians. The majority were full-time officials and office workers from the Swedish Building Workers’ Union, the Electricians’ Union and Section One of the Painters’ Union.)

WHEN I VISIT Gustavsson nine months later at his office in Midsommarkransen, Stockholm, he is ill at ease and somewhat repentant. It was wrong to shout ”Go home!” to people who had no choice, he says. ”It was in fact the Latvian workers who were the underdogs ”. ”But when there are so many of you, it turns out… different, a strange atmosphere”.

Jan-Olof Gustavsson says he did not know that Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union had demanded 145 kronor an hour as a condition for an agreement. There were rumours to that effect, but when Section One denied them, he believed them. ”The condition was that they would sign the agreement and discuss wages later. That is what they told me.”

”If you had known that 145 kronor was written as a condition for an agreement, would you have picketed during the blockade in Vaxholm?”

”No, I would not.”

Gustavsson then explains that if anything under 145 kronor is called salary dumping then his own trade union takes part in salary dumping, since every fifth Swedish painter earns less than that. He does not consider that the union has the right to blockade companies that agree to the minimum demand, which in his area is around 112 kronor an hour. It is then up to the union, under industrial peace, to raise the salary as far as possible.

WHO REPRESENTS the Swedish Model? Bromander or Gustavsson? This is in fact a crucial question for the union movement. As long as it remains unanswered, nobody can know what is meant by the slogans ”Demand a Swedish collective agreement ” or ”Equal pay for equal work ”. If Vaxholm is the example to follow, it actually means ”Scram!”

According to LO, the trade unions’ central organisation, 60 million workers are behind the action in Vaxholm. This is because in August, the European Trade Union Federation, ETUC, declared its solidarity with the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. ”That then is the size of the ’mob’, as Dagens Nyheter in its leader recently described the Swedish Building Workers’ Union”, the LO writes.

How big is it? Union representative Jan-Olof Gustavsson has evidently already opted out of it. And when I called the ETUC in Brussels, Jozef Niemiec, who took part in the decision-making for the 60 million, replied that the statement expressed ”general support for collective agreements ”. The ETUC was not informed that the Swedish Building Workers’ Union had delivered a wage ultimatum for signing an agreement. ” If they set such terms without support for it in the agreement – then it was in effect an infringement.”

Throughout Europe, trade unions are grappling with the same dilemma: how are they to defend workers’ standards in Stockholm and Dublin without rejecting the poorer workers from Riga?

ANDRZEJ ADAMCZYK in Gdansk is the international secretary of Polish Solidarity. ”On the one hand it is not good that newcomers undermine collective agreements. On the other hand, one cannot assert exploitation in the case of someone who in Sweden earns three times more than at home in Latvia. It is necessary to find a compromise… So what does he say about the solution to the solidarity issue of Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Unions? I translate the minutes of the meeting in Vaxholm and he gasps: ”But that’s indecent!”

”We are all in favour”, says Adamczyk, ”of trying to raise the salary of migratory workers to the level of the host country. But we’re completely against manoeuvring that aims to shut them out. The only way forward is through cooperation between trade unions.”

So I asked the chair of Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Unions what were the wishes of the Latvian workers in Vaxholm. They were the people for whom he was negotiating. ”I don’t know, we haven’t spoken to them”, replied Torgny Johansson. Not one of them, in six months? No, Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union wasn’t allowed into the workplace. Surely the Latvians weren’t behind barbed wire? No, but there was a language barrier, and difficulties in finding a Latvian interpreter. Their union then? The chair of the Latvian building workers’ union actually came to Stockholm because of the conflict. ”I haven’t met her, whatever her name was…” Does he remember the name of the union? ” I can’t recall it right now.”

THEN I ASK HIM about his objections to the agreement which Laval un Partneri eventually signed with the Latvian building workers’ union LCA (whose chair is named Mara Tomsone). ”It’s hard to know because we don’t understand what it says… It’s in Latvian.” But Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union must be able to afford a translator? ”Yes, but we’re in Sweden now.”

Seven months after the blockade by Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union, 24 Polish workers arrived in Jönköping, southern Sweden, to build something more conspicuous than a school. The 120-metre chimney beside the E4, like the construction in Vaxholm, was a municipal project. Polish workers from Szczepanow built it in concrete for a salary with which they were fairly pleased, but which was 15 kronor below the demands that led to the nationwide blockade of Vaxholm. I was there, but saw no pickets or protests, not even a flyer.

This can be because in Jönköping it was a major Swedish company that was contracted, and not a Latvian small enterprise. Or perhaps because there is something special about the little country to the east. Something vulnerable and different, which invites an assault?
Maciej Zaremba, maciej.zaremba@dn.se

The European Trade Union Federation, ETUC in Swedish is abbreviated as EFS, and in French as CES. The Latvian building workers’ union is called ¬Latvijas Celtnieku Arodbiedriba.
The demand from Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union of 145 kronor an hour for signing an agreement was made on 15 September 2004 and was still in force when the blockade began on 2 November. The average pay of Swedish Building Workers’ Union¬ workers that year was 133 kronor an hour.
The minutes of the negotiations in ¬Vaxholm are a public document available from the Labour Court, Case A 268/04.
Lars-Göran Bromander was interviewed by Stina Blomgren in ”Faktum”, TV 2, 3/3 -05.
L & P Baltic Bygg AB was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Laval un Partneri, which has its headquarters in Riga.

In Nenozimigs land, it doesn’t matter so much
You can run them down without being punished. You can buy their bodies, call it art and receive praise. You can put them on sale at a special price – or shout “Go home!” Why aren’t the Latvians grateful for the trouble the Swedes have gone to? Read part three of Maciej Zaremba’s series of articles.

What does a reporter do, who has promised himself to avoid clichés, when the first thing he encounters on a job is a walking cliché?

He just has to tell it.

”GET A MOVE ON AT THE FRONT!” The tall man with the big voice is having trouble with his balance. He seems to be about 60, the worse for wear, smells of long-term intoxication and has no luggage. Now he switches to English so that everyone can understand what he thinks of the natives in this country. And when he gets to the window he breathes all over the young passport officer and shouts to the entire terminal: “I’m back to Riga, you see! I come for more Laaatvian pussy!”

The Swedish sex tourist staggers on. And if I read the reactions right, we are wishing that the police would drag our compatriot into a room where he can resist arrest so that they can use their batons. But they stare ahead of them without expression. And the passport queue too looks the other way and pretends that nothing has happened.

I have come to Riga to understand why the LO blockade in Vaxholm, which was said to be in the interests of underpaid Latvians, has not been appreciated as intended. Instead of gratitude, there were protests: from the Latvian government, from the press – but also from trade unions.

WHILE CROSSING THE BALTIC SEA I noticed the first signs that the job might be problematic. It is as if the M/S “Baltic Kristina” were a Titanic on a voyage in time. In which bar do I belong? Among the excited pensioners on the foredeck about to order the next round? Or the one amidships, where the atmosphere is thick with smoke, the waiters are ignoring the sandwich boxes and pale 30-year-olds are trying to make a cup of tea last until Sandhamn?

She’s a working-class vessel, “Baltic Kristina”. Council leaders do not travel on her; they catch a plane. This ship is for Swedish pensioners travelling east for a touch of luxury or a new set of false teeth, and at the same time for travelling workers on their way home to Rezekne and Balvi.

Anna in the bar amidships tells me that she is the migratory type, but set in her ways. For four years, she and her husband Andrejs have been commuting to the same Norwegian farm, to Fritiof, who lives alone outside Bergen. “He only cared about his foxes and minks, so his wife finally left him.” Now, Anna and her husband look after the fur farm and the strawberries, which they tend in April and harvest in June. Without them, Fritiof would have had to wind up the farm. Because nowadays, Norway is a country where few can stand the smell of fox.

THINGS ARE GOOD at Fritiof’s farm, says Anna. Everything except the mountains. They smother her. Now she is longing for the big sky in Balvi. She is a trained secretary, but a 50-year-old woman doesn’t get a job like that in Latvia. We speak Russian, the lingua franca of the colonised peoples. She is actually from Lithuania, she says. So I ask what her name is. It’s difficult to spell, says Anna: “Zed, a, r, e, m, b, a… shall I repeat that?”

I gulp. Then I hold out my business card. Before she has time to take it, I start to feel ashamed. Who in Balvi has a business card? We have the same unusual last name, we are probably from the same clan in Lithuania that history began to disperse 600 years ago. Fate has decided that she should end up in the poor world, and I in the rich. And the first thing I do is display evidence of this difference.

As the crow flies it takes a couple of hours, and by coach and ferry it takes three days, from the EU’s richest to its poorest corners. They are looking tired, and I do not dare ask whether they are sleeping in a cabin or on the floor in the TV room below the car deck. The then it occurs to me that Anna and And¬rejs have arranged things well. No one shouts “Go home!” at them in faraway Bergen. On the contrary, Fritiof’s sister has written a song in their honour. They consider that they are doing Fritiof and Norway a favour. 70 Norwegian kroner after tax with free food and lodging, that is more than a Swedish nurse takes home. Respect… But they’ve been doing this for many years, and know what they’re doing.

INEXPERIENCED WORKERS, who have only just begun the vicissitudes of migrant working, can end up in the hands of companies which in Riga charge 5,000 kronor (500€) for arranging a job in Dublin which perhaps does not exist. And the least experienced ones are the most desperate, without a residence permit. Perhaps the Swede who has asked them to change the roofing has disappeared by payday. Instead, a union representative arrives from Byggnads and has them deported the same day.

Between these extremes, there is the option of a legal cut-price auction. “While stocks last! October only, personnel at only 95 kronor an hour!” exclaims the web site http://www.hyrlett.nu. Order now, because “Latvian workers – they’re no shirkers!”

“I refuse to believe it was a Latvian who made up that slogan. It must have been a Swede”, says a friend in Riga. How can she be so sure? “Because it’s so belittling. To you, we are nenozimigs”, she says, “nenozimigs in Vaxholm, nenozimigs to that scumbag Hollender, nenozimigs to Per Andersson.”

NENOZIMIGS MEANS “lightweight”, or “insignificant”. Sooner or later, the word crops up whenever I ask people in Riga about Vaxholm. Nobody here can believe that any Swedish trade union has tried to help the Latvians. In Riga, Vaxholm is part of a completely different tale, which seems to begin with a certain Per Andersson.

Who is Per Andersson? I searched the archives, but his deeds have not led to a single news item in Sweden. A prosecutor in Stockholm who handled the case is at first unsure whether it took place in Latvia – perhaps it was Poland?

All important stories have a long version and a short one. The long version is full of shades of meaning and unanswered questions. But it is the short version that people remember, that makes the story.

Here are the short versions, in chronological order:

ON 3 JULY 1997 the Swedish businessman was speeding in a 50 km/h zone outside Riga. He hit two women, who died on the spot. The next day he fled to Sweden. He was not extradited from there. Neither was he questioned. According to the Swedish authorities, his crime was to be regarded as “trivial”. Which in Latvian is expressed as “nenozimigs”.

The second short version: three years later, another Swede came to Riga. Pål Hollender was his name. He bought prostitutes at the Swedish taxpayers’ expense, humiliated them in front of the camera and made it known that every second young woman in Riga was a whore. Then he showed the film at festivals and on Swedish television. For this, he was praised by a number of cultural radicals in Sweden has an artistic genius.

And then Vaxholm: in summer 2004, low-paid Latvian workers came to build a school. Seven Swedish trade unions then declared their solidarity with them. They did not find it necessary to talk to any of the workers, since they already knew what was just and fair. Namely, that they should go home. And they did.

THAT IS HOW THINGS SEEM to pan out from the Riga horizon. The blockade in Vaxholm is not part of the debate on the Posting of Workers Directive or collective agreements. It belongs in the story about a Swedish sex tourist who puts on a show of social commitment, and about justice that sees two Latvian lives as something trivial.

One might wonder whether it is just. There are not many who have seen Pål Hollender’s “Buy Bye Beauty”, and hardly anyone in Sweden has heard of the hit-and-run driver. One might suspect that the Latvian feeling of outrage might be due to excesses in the media.

It is not certain that this reporter is the right person to answer that question. He is no longer impartial. This journey has re-awoken an old discomfort, which has remorselessly grown along the way. On the other hand, it is said that post-colonial peoples have a right to a measure of unreasoning anger.

Is it conceivable that a speeding driver who had killed two Swedish police constables (Vita Darzniece and Iveta Bagane were plainclothes policewomen) would have been left alone for 18 months? That is how long it took for the Swedish police to question Andersson for the first time. Prosecutor Barbro Herrmann thinks they had a lot of other things to do.

FURTHERMORE, IS IT credible that a prosecutor, without questioning any witnesses besides the passenger in the car, should find that the place where the women died could have been better illuminated, that it was very dark (on 3 July), that the women might have been careless and in addition had been drinking, which may have affected their judgement, so that although the driver had been speeding and probably caused their deaths, no trial was needed, since there were so many mitigating circumstances that the crime was to be considered trivial and lapsed under the statute of limitations during that time it took Barbro Herrmann to ponder over how trivial it was. Nenozimigs.

When two Latvian lives are not considered worth an investigation in Sweden (not even when the matter has led to diplomatic cooling down) then one must understand the Latvians who do not believe that it was equality between people that was the issue in Vaxholm. It was of course something else, inequality between people.

“Do you think that every second Latvian woman is a whore? Why do you think that?”

WHY SHOULD I ANSWER THAT ? If Pål Hollender has got any balls he can answer himself. But like the hit-and-run driver, he hasn’t set foot in Latvia since the film. He does not feel welcome, he says. Surely that shouldn’t stop a true radical? Go to Doma Laukums and tell the whole of Riga that you humiliated their women for the sake of socialism, if you really believe it yourself. Stand and fight…

Those who want to understand the deeper cultural background to Vaxholm should see “Buy Bye Beauty”, in particular the discussion that followed in “Folkhemmet”, from TV 3. Initially, it is incomprehensible that someone travelling to Riga to copulate in front of the camera, and then tacking on some footage that is a sorry excuse for reporting, might stir up a cultural debate in Sweden. Or that the cultural radicals who defended the film (Carl Johan De Geer, Nina Lekander) swallowed hook, line and sinker the statement that every second girl in Riga is a prostitute, and that “every bar, hotel and restaurant … has a list of at least 15 prostitutes at your disposal”. Which is pure nonsense, one realises after three hours in Riga. But they chose to believe it. Just as they accepted Hollender’s explanation that when he humiliated the Latvian and Russian women in front of the camera, showing their faces, genitals, names and boyfriends, it was to show how dirty capitalism is. “Genius!” exclaimed Carl Johan De Geer.

One is tempted to be crude: would it have been genius in the same why if close-ups of the cultural radicals’ daughters having paid sex had been used to illustrate the seamy side of globalisation?

THE INTERESTING QUESTION is why such a thought was so alien to the humanist De Geer. Neither he nor Lekander managed to see it as from the perspective of the others. As if these women were merely extras in a stage play that was really about themselves.

I do not understand many words of Latvian. But your Hollenders and de Geers made me feel like a Latvian, one of these niggers that Swedish radicalism seems to need – lest its view of the world should come tumbling down. It seems to be for their sake that some would present women in Riga as human debris, Estonia’s workers as victims without will, and conditions in post-Soviet countries as exceedingly contemptible. And all this with a dash of – well, covert malice, Schadenfreude dressed up as indignation. Can it be because these Baltic States rejected real socialism with so little regard to Carl Johan de Geer’s feelings? It was not the workers’ paradise, we have realised, but at least it was an alternative…

The Occupation Museum in Riga is a reminder of the terror that reigned in Latvia for over 50 years. Documentation of deportations, mass executions and starvation. Among the exhibits, artefacts from the prison camps: wooden ladles and shoes made of rags. On a yellowing police photograph, a haggard face which I recognise. Knuts Skujenieks, the poet, one of the first dissidents in Latvia, for which in 1962 he was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp. What might he have to say about the events in Vaxholm?

HE IS OVER 70 NOW, implausibly huge. He has translated Lorca from Spanish, Fröding and Bellman from Swedish, Inger Christensen from Danish, Janis Ritsos from Greek and most recently the aphorisms of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec from Polish. (I still remember some of them: “His conscience was clean. He never used it.”)

“The more people own”, says Skujenieks, “the less they want to share it. It sounds paradoxical, but it is objectively true”. A home truth from the Gulag? “Yes. For solidarity to exist, the living conditions must be more equal. “So he understands that Swedish trade unions guard their own patch. “Just as long as they don’t talk about solidarity: you cannot expect the poor to show solidarity with the rich.”

Knuts Skujenieks is an optimist, he says. He believes that solidarity will return, but first the rich must become slightly worse off, and the Latvians a little better off. It should be in the interests of the Swedes to help the Latvian unions. “But I don’t think there is realisation of that yet.” In his country, communism has devastated the very idea of trade unions: they were the extended arm of the Party. People keep a low profile, because they have learned that there is no point in opposing the powers that be, says Skujenieks. He puts his hope in a European system for labour laws, but that will probably take time, because the richest countries (among them Sweden) are against it.

“The Latvians have become used to injustice”, says Skujenieks, “but have not yet learned that one can demand justice.”

THAT MAKES ME THINK OF Levs Nogins, the man toiling in Vaxholm, and who did not manage to register surprise when people shouted “Go home!” In the evening I take the tram to Kurzemes Prospekts. As soon as one crosses the bridge over the Daugava, the renovated part of Riga gives way to Soviet greyness.

A bottle on the table, sweets, dampened mood. Nogins thinks I want to pump him for information about how little he learned in Vaxholm. But everything was fine there. And neither is there much to tell about life under the Soviet Union. His father was a politruk, perhaps it is a military secret.

Levs and his wife Czesława are both engineers. They used to travel the entire empire working with cement factories. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, their workplaces ended up in 15 different countries. By then, they were already over 50 and had teenage children. The two dollars’ support which free Latvia can afford did not go far. So Czesława packed some bags and got on a bus. Taking vodka, linen, crystal vases and cigarettes the 3,000 kilometres to Norway (“one October in Murmansk, some Russians smashed all the car windows when they saw the Latvian plates, and for a week we travelled in a ‘convertible’”); then with coffee grinders, cycles and clothes hangers to Prague and Warsaw, returning with video recorders.

Clothes hangers? “Yes those hat shelves that you screw on the wall. We could squeeze in five of them. You couldn’t get them in Poland.”

YOU COULD EARN almost 700 kronor on a two-week journey, and that went a long way. The frontiers were worst. Once Czesława had 200 kilos of pears that went bad. The customs officers were in a bad mood and the minibus had to stay at the frontier for a week. So it was better to travel with gold to Turkey, bringing back jeans and chewing gum. When cross-border trading became less profitable, they started selling vegetables at the markets in Riga. But then came the supermarkets and that ended too. That was when Levs, in his 63rd year, travelled to Vaxholm to cast concrete. It was the first time he had been on a building site.

I do not really know why I am telling you all this.
Maciej Zaremba

PS You could say that Pål Hollender did one thing right. Apparently it says in the contract with the women he exploited in Riga that “Buy Bye Beauty” may not be shown in Latvia. All reporters can learn a lesson from that. If you have produced news pictures that cannot be shown where they were shot, then you are probably a pig. And if you have that clause in the contract, then you are a pig with adequate self-perception.

Per Andersson and Fritiof near Bergen are not their real names.

The film “Buy Bye Beauty”, part-funded by the Swedish Film Institute, was broadcast on Swedish TV 3 in February 2001.

How the spectre looks depends on who is looking
Cheap, mute, nameless, without tools. That is how the guest worker is presented in the advertising campaign by Byggnads – the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. There is more than a little wishful thinking in that image. However, the problem facing the union has both a name and set of tools. His name is Stanislaw Smulski and he is building a chimney in Jönköping, Sweden for 36,000 kronor a month. Maciej Zaremba has met him.
Bild 1 (obs – bilderna bör stå brevid varandra)

Advertising poster by the Building Workers’ Union, seen in metro stations.
Same thing, different pictures. A poster from the Polish National Tourist Office with the message “ I’m staying in Poland. Come in crowds”.

Look at these pictures. They are said to represent the same spectre: the wandering plumber (or carpenter perhaps): the most ominous thing about the new Europe, to judge from the debate. On one picture we see how Byggnads regards him, on the other how he himself wants to be seen. Two pictures dripping with symbolism, which lead us to the very core of the problem.

The poster to the left alludes to the famous adverts from the 1990s, in which Anna Nicole Smith sold women’s underwear with fairly sluttish overtones.

One gets the point: the foreigner is prostituting himself through his labour – and too cheaply at that. But the picture says more. Whatever one thought of Ms Smith, she was well equipped for her trade. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same of this skinny body. It is putting itself on offer, but seems to lack any prospects of bargaining. The lack of tools on the picture confirms the suspicion.

THE THIRD AND most interesting signal is not perceived until comparing with the other poster. The Byggnads worker-whore appears in a white limbo. He lacks background and personal characteristics. No garments reveal his history or character. He has not even been able to keep his watch… (a more vehement analyst would say it is a question of dehumanisation.)

The other picture, on the other hand, is cultural overkill. That plumber is posing against a background of dead masters’ artefacts: the work of locksmiths and watchmakers, and Renaissance arches. And he has forgotten to fasten the right strap of his overalls even though he is left-handed. Perhaps he is absent-minded.

The hairy body on the Byggnads poster is, as expected, mute. The tradesmen with the pipe wrench can speak French. Je reste en Pologne. Venez nombreux. “I’m staying in Poland. Come in crowds.” The message appeared in June on the website of the Polish National Tourist Office, as a comforting commentary on the French referendum in which le plombier polonais became a symbol of the dangers of the free movement of labour. (It was unexpectedly successful: the website increased its visitors tenfold, the picture is said to have been published in 250 newspapers from Sydney to Bogotá, and French tourism in Poland increased by 20 per cent.)

THE CAMPAIGN BY BYGGNADS damaged Sweden. They still remember it in Riga and at the European Trade Union Confederation in Brussels. Unlike the chair of Byggnads, Hans Tilly, who thought the poster was fun, there they saw it as protectionism, playing on racial and sexist prejudices. (I myself was not surprised that Byggnads associated Eastern Europe with cheap women. It certainly had something to do with the character of trade union leaders’ outings to Tallinn.)

Sexual symbolism is perhaps the most frequent way to typify hierarchy. The feminised body with its legs stretched upwards harbours a promise of subordination (and leaves little doubt as to how Byggnads imagines relations with that workforce). What reaction the Polish plumber wants to arouse can be discussed. But it is not pity.

With few exceptions however, migrant workforce is presented in our media as pitiable, exploited and somewhat dim-witted. Preferably an old man with shifty eyes, hiding behind a shovel. They do exist, just as there are Lithuanian women who push a broom for 40 kronor an hour and Thais who have been lured to Lysekil to weld pipes for next to nothing.

BUT IF SUCH PEOPLE had been the main problem we would not have had a blockade in Vaxholm and poster campaigns in our cities. The problem for the Swedish unions is not primarily casual labourers who for 60 kronor an hour do a job they themselves do not want to do – but professionals who for 120 kronor take on a task that the Swedes would very much like to do – but for 140. But that dilemma does not make a good poster. When Byggnads presents the work migrant as a clumsy wretch, it is more of a pipedream.

Not long after the blockade in Vaxholm, a vast concrete chimney was to be built near Jönköping. As is customary, the building contractor (NCC) negotiated with a Swedish team of builders that was already in place. Difficult negotiations, because it was complicated, they said, (sliding-form casting) and high (height allowance) and three shifts (shift allowance) and unsocial working hours. With construction almost due to begin, NCC wondered if 58,000 (c. 6,100 €) for a month’s work was okay. No, unfortunately, the building workers had just realised that they would not be able to take breaks at set times, and so asked for a special allowance for that. Their asking rate was now 62,000.

NCC THEN SAID NO THANK YOU, declared negotiations abandoned, and brought in 24 workers through its subsidiary in Poland – who completed the 122-metre chimney somewhat earlier than expected, with slightly fewer hands, and for 36,000 per person plus food and lodging. “Wage dumping!” exclaimed letters to the union magazine Byggnadsarbetaren. Perhaps one could say that it was. Was it exploitation too? That is the opinion of the chair of Byggettan, Torgny Johansson. In his opinion, it is always scandalous exploitation when a foreigner gets a job for a few kronor less than Bygg¬ettan would have got for its members.

When I arrive in Jönköping, the chimney is almost complete. I hear that relations with the Swedes who failed to get the job, and who are now working down there, are not cordial, but correct. Although sometimes… “I have got four cranes here”, says a Swedish fitter, “Two are operated by Poles, two by Swedes. But it is the Swedish-driven ones which are breaking down all the time.” What is he trying to say? “Just that it’s strange, purely statistically, don’t you think?” (You drive at full effect and slam on the brakes at the same time. Then the fuses go. Ring for a repairman… I know: I did it once as part of a pay negotiation.)

THE MOULD – where 12 men are trying to get on together in an area as big as a living room – is now at a height of 120 metres. You can see half of Lake Vättern as far as the island of Visingsö. But to do that, I must climb up a forbidden ladder. Everything is wrapped in black sacking to stop wind gusts and to prevent vertigo. The only unpleasant thing is that the entire construction jerks once every half-hour – when it is jacked up as the chimney grows.

“It’s been said you’re not allowed to talk to the press”, I say. “Perhaps. But I have passed puberty and I speak to whoever I want.” As soon as I hear the dialect, I realise how out of place the question was. Górale! Practically the whole entire chimney building team is from two neighbouring villages in the Carpathian Mountains. They are the only ethnic group in Poland whose national dress includes a weapon (a long narrow battleaxe). For centuries they have lived on raising sheep (and attacking travellers in the mountain passes). Neither feudalism nor communism really got anywhere with them, and now capitalism too is running into unexpected problems. When several hundred górale, who had illegally entered the USA found themselves underpaid by Wal-Mart Stores in Chicago, they sued the company – even though they did not even have the right to stay in the country. And it looks like they might win the lawsuit. (See http://www.walmartjanitors.com).

How does Mr Wendelin Duliban like Småland? I wonder while the lift cage trundles down the chimney. “Is it called Småland? Pretty nice, but the food was better in Cannes.” He has come straight from the French Riviera, and before that, was building in Germany and England. He has hardly seen his children in months. “Such times. You have to travel to survive.”

THE SAME LIFT CAGE carries the nightshift up. Not only are they from the same village, they are four brothers. I ask the eldest if the work is difficult. “Neither difficult nor heavy. Mostly routine.” Is it well-paid? “I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t, because nowadays I am sick of reinforcing concrete.” Stanislaw Smulski prefers cabinet-making, but has done more advanced concrete work in Düsseldorf. It is now 20 years since he began roaming between building sites in Europe. The technical terms that I hardly know in two languages he can manage in four. The exchanges between builders on the chimney are in a mixture of English and German, but they have snapped up one Swedish word which they find comical, and it functions as a battle cry. “Ankarskena! (anchor rail)” is the cry when the concrete is coming or something important is happening.

I begin to find the matter in hand unpleasant. But finally, I ask engineer Wojciech Leskow how it feels to earn just over half what the Swedes around him receive for the same work. And as I expected, he does not like the question.

“You’re not going to believe me, but a month ago the thought had not crossed my mind. I’ve enjoyed the equality. Poland is still feudal, you understand; going to see the boss is like entering a temple, with secretaries like priestesses… but here everyone says hi to everyone as if they were equals. You don’t think about money then. But since you ask: my Swedish colleague drives an 18-year-old Saab. He earns more, but we probably live at the same standard. As long as I do not need to spend my salary in Sweden, we are equal. This is a short-term job. But if it had been long-term, I would have demanded the same pay as him.”

I HAVE ANOTHER, more difficult question to ask. But just then a light appears over Huskvarna and everyone stops what they are doing. We alone are bathed in brilliant light, perched above a landscape in darkness, as if we were the lantern of a lighthouse.

I do not intend to spoil anybody else’s day. My question can wait. Instead, I ask Stanislaw if I may visit him when the building project is over. “Come to Szczepanów in August, then you can meet all ten of us.”

Szczepanów, just under 50 kilometres from Krakow, is one of the few villages where one can still see traditional half-timbered houses. Stanislaw Smulski, a mason, and his Irena have brought eleven children into the world. The first was born in 1964, and the youngest in 1985. For a long time, they lived in an old house in the country comprising two rooms and a kitchen, with one hectare of land and with neither a toilet nor running water, since masons who own land are a dubious breed. “It wasn’t as if we were starving or dressed in rags: we made ends meet”, says Stanislaw junior. He now lives in a brick two-storey house, solid furniture, crystal vases and a big garden with mountain pines and apple trees. The children have their own rooms and spend most of their time on the Internet.

STANISLAW IS EXCITED, and cannot remember when the siblings were last all together. They nearly all have their own houses in the village, but are seldom there. Bernadetta has been a cleaner in Norway, Mirek, Stanislaw, Pawel and Leszek have just arrived from Jönköping, Rafal from Stavanger where he is building a hospital, Marta is dead, Agnieszka is harvesting lettuces near Mainz (43 kronor an hour, all expenses paid), Beata is studying to become an accountant in Italy, Edyta got married in Switzerland, and the youngest, Basia, is planning to enrol at the University of Lausanne. They all have vocational training, but no one is working in their vocation. No one has been unemployed, as far as Stani¬slaw remembers.

There is work in Poland of course, says Stanislaw, but I will not work for that pay if I can help it. He is well known among builders and much in demand. He can make 9,000 kronor (four times the minimum salary) on a Polish site, “If I’m going to cruise around abroad I ask at least twice that”. The women are laughing in the kitchen, and the men sit with a weary Sunday expression at the huge dining table. I ask Rafal what he answers the trade unions in Stavanger, Norway when they grumble about him dumping their salaries. He is on hire from the firm Adecco, and earns 126 Norwegian kroner (16€) an hour, 30 kroner under a Norwegian builder’s pay. “The union looks after its own labour market, not mine”, replies Rafal. “Their only care is that I shouldn’t work longer than 7½ hours, though what else can you do in Stavanger but work?”

(Now he’s a little unfair. Unlike Swedish LO, Fellesførbundet saw to it that a minimum wage was set in the building industry, which protects the migrant workers without removing their competitiveness. Even those working illegally can take refuge with the Norwegian unions. In Sweden, they instead need protection from union representatives, who have become indistinguishable from immigration police.)

RAFAL SMULSKI DOESN’T give much for the Norwegian workforce. They need a user’s manual for everything. Not to mention the Germans… “They can’t even walk up to a woman without instructions.” Rafal Smulski may sound prejudiced, but he is enraged. At being looked down upon by people who do a worse job than him for a better salary, and who, even when they are young, carry on like pensioners: “Isn’t it coffee time soon?”

But you can’t get away from the fact, I say, that you are pressing down their salaries. Then Rafal gets up so fast he tips the chair over. “Take it easy”, says his older brother. But Rafal is standing in the middle of the mat, hands in his pockets, lowering his head and pushing out his stomach.” You see what this is? A statue of a Norwegian resistance man. Hands in his pockets, Norwegian resistance to Hitler!”

Now he’s unfair again. But he is furious. He says that if Norway and the others had not given in to Hitler, he wouldn’t need to stand on a building site in Stavanger putting up with grumpy looks. Instead, the Norwegians would be building his veranda in Szczepanow and he could be as nice and condescending as he pleased towards them. “It was Europe that got us where we are now!”

Citizens of Sweden, bite the bullet and try to understand. Papa Smulski was a mason whose hands could mould a beautiful arch, but history decreed that he should pile the stones of the last monument to Josef Stalin. 50,000 men built the steelworks in Katowice, which was completed in 1979 and bankrupt 10 years later. (An Indian businessman is now trying to get it back on its feet.)

RAFAL SMULSKI’S outburst may be just as abusive as the Byggnads campaign, but it is not as unreasonable. Above all, it contains an important piece of information. The rich cannot count on sympathy from the poor. Poles and Latvians are mostly normal people who do not carry on dwelling on old injustices. But if they are accused of a lack of solidarity with people who have historically drawn the longest straw (perhaps by opting out when democracy stood up against dictatorship), then there is a risk that the past will be mentioned.

Perhaps it is extra difficult in Sweden to realise that by joining the EU we retroactively became participants in history. Or that someone may have claims on us. Germany has never had the opportunity to escape from the era, which explains the equanimity with which they have accommodated millions of work migrants. “Not long ago, we were driven here to carry out forced labour, now we’re coming voluntarily”, is something Germans can have thrown in their faces. A blatant thing to say. But what do you reply?

In Sweden, it is Byggnads that most aggressively guards its labour market. It is understandable: there is a good deal to defend. The pompous tone is less comprehensible. Byggnads gives us to understand that in addition to lower pay, the foreigner also brings inferior morals into the country. These people are only thinking of themselves, they scorn the principle of “equal pay for equal work” and at times are uninterested in taxes. All of this is behaviour which is quite alien to Swedish building workers and their organisation, which has always and everywhere defended union principles, gladly paid taxes and has never exploited anyone or anything.

FORGIVE the rhetoric, but that is in fact the tone used by Byggnads and a number of other organisations which are currently asking to be trusted to guarantee “law and order” in working life. In the next article I shall examine their claims.

In Warsaw, they have recently torn down the brownish façade of Hotel Forum, commonly known as “Sweden’s revenge” ever since it was built in 1974. In the 1970s, thousands of Swedish builders were working in East Berlin, Prague, Vilnius and Moscow. They were not guest workers. They were “stationed” there by Swedish companies like Skanska or BPA, just like the Latvians in Vaxholm – but on another footing. They earned 20 times more than the native population, paid no tax, ate at the most expensive restaurants and brought good times to the entertainment industry wherever they went. One or two of them are now union representatives, who perhaps remember that the very precondition for such arrangements was that the workers in these countries could take a bullet to the brain if they started to demonstrate for union rights.

They remember that only too well in Riga and Warsaw, but without bitterness. The Swedes only did what anyone would have done in their place.
Maciej Zaremba

The Polish Plumber 5

The Swedish Model cannot handle temptation
Tax-paying Polish workers are ejected from their workplaces – by the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. The Labour Court has no objections. At the same time, a union chairmen claims that he has never seen a Swede do undeclared work. How is the Swedish Model faring in a new age? This is the last article in Maciej Zaremba’s series.

Mr N tells me that at first he couldn’t help laughing. “Gentlemen,” I said, “you’ve got the wrong end of the stick over the class struggle. The working class, that’s you. I’m the exploiter. So don’t ask me to organise a trade union for you. Then they turned quite sour, and then came the blockade.”

MR N is a Polish building contractor in Västergötland, southern Sweden. People like him are the target of a nationwide advertising campaign by Byggnads (The Swedish Building Workers’ Union): “Demand a collective agreement!” Mr N did not sign it. He is against bribery on principle, he says.

another contactor, in Skåne, is even angrier: “What kind of system is that?” he yells, “I’d never pay to Bush, and I won’t pay (Prime Minister) Persson!”

Bribes? Pay Persson? The small entrepreneurs sound like they’ve been concussed. Perhaps a culture shock can do that to you. They have run into the Swedish Model – from the outside.
Mr N sends the paper to me. Of the 159-page agreement, Byggnads section in Borås had written 5, of which 4 were about what the company was to pay Byggnads. Union dues for non-existent members – in fact, 3.5 per cent of the payroll costs. “My workers are insured, but it says here I have to insure them again. In something called Fora AB. What is Fora?”

“A company owned by the trade unions’ central organisation and the employers”, I say.

Mr N says this cannot be legal. Therefore he refuses with a clean conscience. “One must not give in to blackmail.” He makes it through the blockade by bringing in all the materials from Poland. He believes he has been discriminated against. Surely no Swedish company pays union dues? For members that do not exist?

YES, THEY DO. How shall I explain the Swedish Model to Mr N? Perhaps with an image. Occasionally in France the police drag away strike pickets. But that doesn’t happen in Sweden. To our policemen, the pickets are as colleagues. That is what is special about the model: that the state has made an exception to its monopoly on violence and put a coercive tool in the hands of the trade unions. A political scientist would add that whereas in France they make laws, in Sweden they make agreements. It is not parliament, but “labour market parties” that – sideways, so to speak – determine pay and employment conditions (and even issue driving licences for construction cranes).

The system has long been a matter of pride. It was good for industrial peace and for business, it was considered to be a sign of a mature and disciplined society. And its spirit – the “Saltsjöbaden Spirit” – is put forward as an explanation of the Swedish success story.

In most stories – fairy stories that is – there is a promise which the hero may not break without risking disgrace. It is the same in this story. You could say that the Collective Agreements Act ennobled the trade unions. When in 1928 they were elevated from special-interest organisations to guardians of the public good, it became their destiny not only to safeguard their own interests, but those of all workers (for the simple reason that no court of law would do it otherwise). They were to be as impartial as the authorities, without distinguishing between friend and foe. May one say that the Swedish Model pre-supposes a noble mind? That is exactly what makes it so appealing, and at the same time vulnerable. If a French union is corrupted, it is just an association in decay. If a Swedish union begins to decay, justice itself degenerates.

if you forget this distinction then the “Swedish Model versus EU” debate is just confusing. It is about something far greater than the risk of wage dumping. The unions are requesting renewed trust, under new conditions (free movement) to take care – impartially and without intervention – of the interests of the Polish plumbers too – as if they were their own. “Don’t trust the EU, trust us”, Byggnads shouts to Slovaks and Latvians.

We have seen how this trust was handled in Vaxholm. One reader pointed out that what we saw there was not the Swedish Model, but its misuse. Most certainly. The question is how wide-open to misuse the model has become. Perhaps it demands too much of sinful mortals?

The chair of Byggettan, Torgny Johansson, does not accept workers under foreign agreements, he says. Not even if the workers should happen to get better pay? Not even then. It has to be a Byggnads agreement, and that’s flat.
You have to understand him. The difference between Byggnads agreement and other agreements adds up to millions. Not necessarily to the workers, but certainly to the builder’s unions.

The Polish building contractor who said he was against bribes to Byggnads used a four-letter word, but he had not read it wrong. The union in Borås was demanding that he pay tens of thousands of kronor in union fees for members that did not exist. The same demands were made in Vaxholm too.

sometimes you need to botanise among legal texts to understand what the banners say. The following passages may seem dense. But they are worth the trouble, because the next big collision between the Swedish Model and Europe will probably be about Section 3, Article 5 of the Building Agreement. It is a singular regulation. Not at all typical for the Model, but completely unthinkable without it.

The normal thing is for members to pay their fees to the union. Something special about the Swedish Building Agreement is that in addition they demand a separate “inspection fee” (1.5 per cent of the payroll) to enable the union to check that the worker gets the right pay. “Fee” indicates a requested service. It is just that it is an offer one cannot refuse – since that would lead to a blockade.

If members of Byggnads want to pay, it is their own business. However, the agreement also requires non-members to pay. And if you happen to be building a bridge or garage, (the “Construction Agreement”) the company has to pay instead. The same applies to more than 8,000 companies that are not members of an employers’ association, and therefore have “local collective agreements”. The system has no logic but that of force: in certain areas, but not others, Byggnads has persuaded the companies to finance the union.

most building contractors (and a good number of workers) consider that these fees are fake invoices. It is improbable that Byggnads (even though it serves many workplaces, a lot of them mobile) should spend 300 million kronor more than comparable unions on checking pay slips. Which means that the money must be used in ways other than what the invoice says. Lobbying, for example, or party activities. “It is impossible to find a union representative at election time”, a scaffolder in Karlstad complained. (That was what the choleric Pole in Skåne meant by being forced in effect to pay Persson.)

I asked Rolf Andersson, treasurer of Section One of Byggnads, how this money is used. The letter sent to Dagens Nyheter in reply consisted of three words. “Not public information.” Other representatives inform us that they do not discuss “business secrets” with newspapers.
Business secrets… The most fantastic thing about these “inspection fees” is that they have made Byggnads the only trade union in Sweden (and perhaps the world?) that is financially independent from its members. At a theoretical point in time when the last worker has left Byggnads (without applying for membership in another organisation), the 350 representatives will be entitled to 300 million kronor (just over 30 m€) in annual revenue from workers and companies, quite regardless of whether or not anyone has asked them to inspect anything. It is in the collective agreements.

I do not know whether it is wise of the government to let these particular agreements – in the wake of Byggnads and the Vaxholm case – represent Sweden’s stance before the European Court.

HERE THE READER MUST wonder how the building industry could sign something like that. The answer to the question exposes the democratic deficit of the Swedish Model. The small enterprises and workers most affected by these “fees” were not asked. They are not on the map of the Swedish Model, which only considers two parties: big (mostly Swedish) capital and those in permanent employment and paying dues to a (Swedish) trade union. All the others – stand-ins, unemployed young people, foreigners, small entrepreneurs, pensioners, freelancers of every description, communists, troublesome people and other syndicalists, and non-members – in principle have no say. Part of the charm of the Swedish Model is that the “parties” can enter pacts which affect third parties, even in breach of the constitution.

Through the EU’s free movement, this mixed, marginalised bunch has been joined by hundreds of millions of workers as well as companies in twenty-four states. A new situation, to say the least. Neither have Slovakian welders nor French bankers had a chance to form Swedish collective agreements. But they must comply with them, according to the model. In Sweden, the rules shall be Swedish.

”All work carried out pertaining to the floor-laying industry shall be carried out by members of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union (Byggnads).” Through the years, thousands of builders have been forced to agree to similar clauses under threat of blockade. No Swedish court has been able or willing to object. So you could say it is part of the model. Work by all means, but first a generous fee to the doorman…

It is claimed that these clauses have now been removed. Not because Byggnads has found them unlawful, but solely, as chief negotiator Gunnar Ericson writes to his representatives, “so that the Council of Europe will not be able to direct criticism against Sweden”.
What happens to a trade union that has combined its guardian role function with a business approach? Marxists assert that economy determines morals, and sometimes they are right.

”I don’t see how they can oppose their own members”, said Ingemar Dahlkvist in the building sector magazine Byggnadsarbetaren. He is referring to how Byggnads in Kristianstad excluded members who refused piecework.

(Here a deep bow is called for. The journalists on Byggnadsarbetaren, to whom I am deeply indebted, do not have an easy time of it. They are occasionally told off for interviewing workers rather than union representatives. They did not take part in the witch-hunt against the Latvians in Vaxholm, but on the contrary succeeded in speaking to them. Professional pride has driven the magazine so far in the pursuit of truth that the union has introduced its own pages where the correct version is given space. A stroke of genius, which automatically increases the credibility of the rest of the magazine.)

”I don’t get it “, said Dahlkvist. But Jerry Malmström says he gets it. He lost his job when in December 2004 Section Two of Byggnads blockaded his workplace in Malmö. He and all the others wanted monthly pay, the building contractor wanted to pay monthly, the statistics favoured it (fewer accidents, higher quality), but Byggnads demanded that they have be paid a piece rate. “It was the money they were after”, says Malmström. Because piecework means a further fee payable to the union, “measuring fee” it is called, up to 2 per cent of the payroll. (At least an additional 70 million kronor.)

“It is supposed to be incentive pay”, said Gunnar Ericson, referring to this blockade, “The agreement says so”, while Torgny Johansson of Section One of Byggnads explained to me that there is no connection between piecework and workplace accidents.
The Byggnads agreement gives rise to several kinds of temptation. Here for example, a team of Polish carpenters is building a home. “You cannot help noticing it”, says the owner, “so one of the neighbours had a fit of righteousness and set Byggnads on me.” Byggnads arrived, and negotiations began. An agreement was swiftly reached, along with a special assurance that the “inspection fee” be paid in to Byggnads without delay. A five-figure sum up front… The Polish capitalist put up some resistance on that particular point – after all, he had a Master’s degree in political science.

Why should he pay the union? “Shhh… let me take care of that”, the home owner replied. And that was that, and the workers’ movement disappeared through the spruce forest, never to return.
Which was a pity, because there was not a single safety rail on the site. And the workers were paid 70 kronor an hour, not 110 kronor as in the agreement. Byggnads do not know that, since they did not speak with them. And if they had tried, the workers would have lied, as they saw the representative as a potential chucker-out. They came from Siemiatycze, on the border with Belarus. Apparently, the shadow of Vaxholm stretches that far.

THIS HAPPENED ON THE shore of Lake Vänern in the month of July. Had I by chance stumbled across an unfortunate exception? “I do not think so”, said a source within Byggnads.

Citizens of Sweden, close your eyes and try to visualize our model from an outsider’s perspective. Imagine that the two Stockholm teams AIK and Hammarby deal with terrace violence in their own court, with a majority of their own fans on the bench. Now Degerfors come to Stockholm for a match and their supporters are beaten up. Would it be shameless of them to doubt the existence of fair play in that court? Would we be surprised if the court found that they had sustained their injuries by running into brick walls, unaccustomed as they were to the urban environment?
I have just described the Labour Court to you – as it can appear to a foreign company, a Slovakian welder or to Jerry Malmström. Neither is he among the parties that dominate the court, which are LO and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

On 13 February 2004, a man arrived at a building site in Gothenburg and shouted: “Where are those Polish moonlighters?” Jan Nowak from Gdansk was lying on his back, poking in insulating material under the roof. He has glass wool in his hair and mouth. Some say this is not healthy. Therefore it is hard to get people to do this chore. Now the man walks up to Nowak and says: “You mustn’t be here.” His name is Lars Ek and he is a representative from Section 12, Byggnads.

why may Nowak not be there? He works for a company which has an agreement with Byggnads, he is registered with the tax office as self-employed and reporting VAT, he is insured and not even wage dumping. “I had given a quote for the job, and it worked out at 120 to 170 kronor an hour.”

The representative visits the companies that hire the Polish firm, saying that Byggnads will make things difficult if they continue to employ “foreign labour holding a self-employment tax paper”.

It is no crime to be foreign, and having the self-employment tax paper is proof of approval. The Polish entrepreneur writes to the union and requests negotiations on this. He receives no reply. In the meantime however, his customers give in. They cannot afford a conflict with Byggnads. They terminate their cooperation with him. And in summer 2005 his firm goes bankrupt.

The matter ends up in the Labour Court. Which finds that Byggnads was bound to industrial peace and was not allowed to take industrial action. It was a legal dispute, there should have been negotiations; failure to reply to the invitation was in breach of the agreement. And without doubt, the threatening letters to the companies were “objectively” a case of illicit pressuring by Byggnads. They contained a threat, and were perceived as a threat, since they were obeyed.

So, we think, that decides the matter? No. Now the court writes that the letters certainly seemed like a threat, but perhaps they were intended merely as information? Did you mean to make a threat? The court asks the four representatives. Absolutely not! We only meant to inform…. Well, that’s cleared that up. And on those grounds, the Labour Court (AD Findings no. 88/2005) determines that the Polish entrepreneur’s appeal is to be rejected. He has certainly been frozen out, but it cannot be verified that that was the ultimate intention of the action. He must therefore pay 154,256 kronor to Byggnads for its legal costs.

HOW DID THE COURT get round the fact that Byggnads cited “foreign labour” as a reason for its threats? It was at least a breach of EU law, or even perhaps a touch of incitement? Not at all, according to the court. For if one asks the representative what he meant, he replies that he did not mean anything in particular. An unfortunate choice of words… “In the opinion of the court, Jan-Erik Berg’s explanation of the intention of the formulation of the letter is accepted.”

In my opinion, one cannot expect the Polish entrepreneur to genuflect before the Swedish Model, if it is crowned by the Labour Court. He, like many others, has drawn his conclusions. If the system is corrupt, one must avoid the system. But he does not intend to allow himself to be forced into the black economy.

According to the National Tax Board, 56,000 million kronor a year in tax revenue are lost due to undeclared work. That is more than the entire budget for the care sector. No matter how I calculate, I cannot see migrant labour representing more than a fraction of that sum.

Peter Holm climbed down from the house roof near Karlstad to give his view of the matter. He knows a few people who work off the books, others who collect unemployment benefit while working in Norway, and no-one who does not moonlight at all. “They’re probably really useless, I don’t know any people like that.” He himself does undeclared jobs when he needs to: “A new sofa or television, it’s hard work saving up for that.” Holm is a union representative for Section 29 of Byggnads in Karlstad.

so i ask the head representative there, Jan-Olov Johansson, how the struggle against undeclared work is going. “We have been fairly powerless since May 2004”, he says. “Before, when we saw Polish workers on a roof, we phoned the border police, and they were put on a ferry the same day.” And Swedish black workers?

”Swedish? We… report them.”, says Johansson. However, he cannot remember the last time it happened. Not this year, not last year either… you do not see them so often, perhaps because they – if they exist – work evenings and weekends, when Johansson is free.

To make certain, I ask the chair of Section One of Byggnads, Torgny Johansson, the man who led the blockade in Vaxholm and who promises “law and order” on the labour market, what he does when he happens to see a member of Byggnads doing undeclared work. He worked in the wood industry for twenty-five years and has been a union representative for nineteen. He supposes he takes measures, he says. What measures? He has no answer to that. “But then, I haven’t seen anyone doing that anyway.”

However, there are some unlucky people. Kalle Svärd, for example, who without permission borrowed his employer’s tools and car to build a wooden veranda. In doing so, he cut his arm so badly that he was on sick-leave for several weeks. And fired. The little building firm thought it was too much to require that they take on a stand-in and fork out full sick pay for someone who has been so disloyal to the firm.

But then Jan-Olov Johansson’s Section 29 of Byggnads turned out to help Svärd. The termination was invalid, declared the union, because “the employer has nothing to do with what the employee does in his spare time”.

One might wonder why so much in this article is about Byggnads. It is because they are the ones most affected by the wandering plumber. It is not easy for them. Entire industries could disappear from Sweden (textiles to China, the shipyards to Korea) without solidarity needing to be put to the test at human level. The building workers are almost alone in facing the competition on their home turf. Perhaps it is not so strange that there is panic and moral bewilderment.

I have not met any workers who were proud of Vaxholm after the event. The only ones who seemed content were certain union representatives. And the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the finer the words and the cleaner the consciences.

So if Vaxholm now has a historic destiny as the start of something unpleasant, I want it recorded that it was not a spontaneous demonstration. It was part of a power struggle.
Maciej Zaremba

Names: Jan Nowak, Peter Holm and Kalle Svärd in reality have other names.

“Inspection fees”: Since Byggnads keeps the details secret, the amounts in the article are estimates. The estimate is based on the payroll in the building industry (1.5 per cent of the annual salary of at least 100,000 employees), and partly on generally available figures on Byggnads VAT payments to the state. VAT is imposed on the “fees”.

Byggnads: Has 90,000 working members and approximately 700 employed representatives and administrators.

Maciej Zaremba, maciej.zaremba@dn.se

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