As public sector workers win gains, Denmark's Red-Green Alliance sets election path

RGA parliamentary leader Pernille Skipper addresses the RGA conference.

The annual conference of Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance (RGA) — commonly known as the Unity List — took place in Copenhagen on April 27-29 during a moment of class struggle unusual in these times of weakened trade unions.

The conference of the radical left force wouldn’t even have happened on those days if Denmark’s public sector unions had been forced to strike in support of their demands over wages and conditions.

By April 28, however, as the result of a six-week-long wave of union mobilisations that won strong public support, negotiation by itself was enough for the 750,000 workers in the country’s three tiers of government to win an average 8.1% pay rise over three years.

Variations on this average figure will help fund a cut in the gender wage gap and greater rises for the low-paid. Also guaranteed is that lunch breaks will continue to be paid and any future private sector wage gains matched in the public sector.

The biggest shortcoming of the deal, which has still to be endorsed by the members of the unions involved, was the failure of council-employed teachers to get the law on their working hours replaced by an agreement.

This law was imposed by the 2011-2015 Social Democrat government to end a 2013 lockout that the government had deliberately provoked. A special commission will now be set up to tackle the issue.

‘Neutrality’

RGA members mobilised strongly in support of public sector workers. By contrast, the formerly governing Social Democrats, the largest party on the “red” side of a Danish political spectrum conventionally divided into red and blue halves, maintained a stance of seeming neutrality.

On March 15, party leader Mette Frederiksen said: “The Social Democrat party does not interfere in conflicts relating to the Danish labour market. That’s how the Danish model works.”

This implied that the Social Democrats would accept an employer lock-out resulting from any breakdown in negotiations. This attitude has deepened the divide between the trade unions and the party that was once their political voice.

Evidence was the decision of the Aalborg branch of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions to withdraw its traditional invite for the Social Democrats leader to address May Day, an important event in Denmark’s political life.

By contrast, the RGA’s support for the public sector workers has been reflected in a recent rise in support in opinion polls. It is now at more than 10%, up from the 7.8% won in the 2015 general election.

A Social Democrat government?

In this context, one crucial job for the 300 delegates to the RGA conference was clarifying the conditions in which the RGA would allow a Social Democrat-led government to form.

Urgency was added to this discussion by recent opinion polls showing the “red” parties (the Social Democrats, RGA, Socialist People’s Party [SF], Alternative and Radical Left) have a majority over their ruling “blue” opponents, led by the Liberals and the xenophobic Danish People’s Party (DPP).

The discussion started from a general acceptance that the previous stance of the RGA towards the Social Democrats was now unworkable.

This involved unconditional support for the formation of a Social Democrat administration, but a refusal to join it. Instead, the RGA would decide on individual bills on their merit, but not move a censure motion that might see the government fall.

A change was called for due to the experience of the previous Social Democratic government of prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Once invested with RGA support, the Social Democrats exploited the RGA’s stance to implement, with the support of the parties of the right, measures hurting workers and welfare recipients.

The RGA did not suffer as much as the SF, which took part in the Thorning-Schmidt administration. But its commitment to not moving a censure motion was seen by many voters and sympathisers as guaranteeing the survival of an anti-worker government.

But what conditions to now place on the Social Democrats? Here, conference discussion circled around the idea of drawing lines in the sand (“red lines”) that the largest “red” party would have to agree not to cross.

This approach replicates the anti-austerity conditions imposed on the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS) by the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party before and after the October 2015 Portuguese election.

Those conditions have led to the now-governing PS move to raise wage and welfare payments, recover and strengthen workers’ rights, stop privatisations, and shift the tax burden away from the poor.

Some delegates looked to specify Danish counterparts to such measures, but the conference overwhelmingly supported the proposal presented by the outgoing RGA leadership. This was to introduce the concept of “red lines”, but not to specify these lines in advance of the next election.

The position gives the incoming RGA National Board room to develop maximum pressure on the Social Democrats in the coming months.

In the meantime, the party’s message can play to the recent memories of Social Democrat anti-worker behaviour to show the sort of issues that would constitute break points in future negotiations.

One of these will surely be the Social Democrats proposal in February to have African refugee applicants for Danish citizenship processed in a special “offshore” holding centre somewhere in Africa. This is the Social Democrats’ attempt to win back xenophobic voters who have deserted to the DPP.

100 Days pamphlet

The discussion over “red lines” does not, however, imply that the RGA accepts it is destined to always be subordinate to the Social Democrats.

On April 25, just before conference opening, the RGA released its 100 Days with the Unity List pamhplet. This includes a set costed measures that a Danish government committed to social justice and environmental sustainability could implement in its first 100 days in office.

Asked by DR what the point of the document was when an RGA-led government seemed impossible, spokeperson Pernille Skipper said: “Danes must know that it is possible to have different policies and that there is no need to choose between two different shades of blue.”

The document’s 100 “non-blue” policies aim to: create secure jobs by ending the race to the bottom in wages and conditions; end the harassment of welfare recipients; foster sustainability in energy, agriculture and fishing; create a new, non-competitive educational model; strengthen community-based welfare for the elderly and pre-school children; end discrimination and special punishment regimes against migrant communities; increase international solidarity, aid and cooperation; and lay the foundations of “an economy for the many, not the few”.

The policies would cost $10.69 billion over their first year and be funded by $12.51 billion in taxation on profits, wealth and financial speculation and cuts to military expenditure.

A sustainable society

The conference also produced a second powerful document, An Organic and Sustainable Society. This is a concise but comprehensive text analysing the roots of the ecogological crisis in production for profit, its impact on inequality within and between nations, and the inadequacy of the mainstream solutions such as “green growth”.

The text develops a holistic red-and-green strategy for achieving “a collective framework for sustainable living”. It says: “The issue is not just the development and change of technologies, but increased democratic control over the economy and natural resources, as well as social redistribution in individual countries, as well as between North and South.

“These initiatives will be determining factors in terms of averting ecological breakdown.”

Discussion on the document, with 56 delegates speaking and 98 amendments moved in the two-hour discussion, featured knowledgeable and throughtful contributions on the problems of green taxation (seen as a useful tool but no panacea); how to combine sustainable urbanisation with the revival of a Danish countryside destroyed by pesticide use; the role of individual responsibility for consumerism; the potentially postive role of genetically modified organisms (for example, in cancer research and treatment); combining food production with restoring “wild nature”; and a host of other important themes.

When the text as amended was put to the conference, it was carried unanimously. This confirmed a point repeatedly made by delegates: the process of developing the document had been extremely positive and the final result establishes the RGA as Denmark’s leading green political force.

Europe

At this conference, the RGA also follwed up a decision made in 2017: to stand in its own name (and not in support of the People’s Movment Against the European Union) in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament.

Motivated by the disastrous defeat of the Greek government at the hands of the European Commission in 2015, the RGA has already made moves to develop a multi-country ticket based on proposals arising from the anti-austerity Plan B movement for a people’s Europe.

To date, the parties committed to this new electoral alliance are the RGA, the Swedish Left Party, France Unbowed, Spain’s Podemos and the Portuguese Left Bloc.

These parties, along with Ireland’s Sinn Fein, sent video greetings to the conference, with France Unbowed MP Younous Omarjee delivering a special address.

All in all, this RGA annual meeting gave a serious boost to  the struggle against neoliberalism and racist populism, in Denmark and Europe.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the RGA conference on behalf of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A more complete account of the conference will appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]