In the last year, two major industrial actions have played out in Sweden, a country that traditionally has seen very few conflicts on the labour market. Although the contract negotiations regarding the most recent central collective bargaining agreements were essentially peaceful, strikes have been initiated by parties outside the contracting central organizations.

This summer, a major industrial action was initiated in Stockholm by employees of a waste disposal company. No trade union backed the employees, who were dissatisfied with their salary and working hours. Also, the employer has requested that the employees should mark the various keys to waste disposal areas that the employees controlled. The employees refused this order, claiming that this would undermine their unique professional know-how. To manage the loss of manpower, the employer engaged agency workers and employees of the company placed in other cities. In mid-July, the Swedish Labour Court ruled that the strike was unlawful and ordered the employees to return to work. As a result of the conflict, a number of employees handed in their resignations and refused to go back to work.

In 2016, industrial action was initiated by a trade union for dockworkers, Hamnarbetarförbundet, against an employer in the port of Gothenburg. The employer was already bound by a collective bargaining agreement with another trade union, Transportarbetareförbundet, but the dockworkers' organization claimed that they too should enjoy the same consultation and information rights as the contracting trade union. Other issues which the union demanded the employer to address included improved employment benefits and work environment. The conflict carried on for over a year, until the employer's subsequent lockout was lifted in June this year. As a consequence of the drawn-out conflict, the employer suffered a loss of revenue that forced the company to give 160 employees notice of termination. It has also been reported that third parties suffered losses due to the conflict.

These recent conflicts have stirred a discussion regarding the landscape of industrial action on the Swedish labour market. According to Swedish employment law, a trade union that has entered into a collective bargaining agreement with a company may not initiate industrial action against the company regarding issues covered by the collective bargaining agreement. Nevertheless, other trade unions may initiate industrial action against the company. A strike which has not been officially ordered by the employees' trade union is however not considered lawful.

The Swedish government has engaged the Swedish National Mediation Office, Medlingsinstitutet, to author a report regarding the prevalence of industrial action directed at companies that are already bound by collective bargaining agreements. The Government has also called for an overview of the current legislation, which does not currently prohibit such strikes. The results of the overview are due to be presented in spring 2018. It remains to be seen whether or not the legislation will be changed so that strikes aimed at employers that have entered into collective bargaining agreements will be prohibited. Another possible way forward may be to implement a principle of proportionality in the Swedish legislation on industrial action, prohibiting actions that result in unproportioned adverse effects for the employer. Such a condition for a lawful industrial action does not exist in Sweden, but such principles apply in other European countries.

Practical tips: do's and don’ts in the event of a strike

  • Do conduct an initial investigation regarding the conflict

If a trade union or group of employees call for a strike, it should first of all be determined whether the strike is lawful. It is not lawful if (i) the strike is not officially ordered by the employees' trade union or (ii) if the trade union is bound by a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

  • Do protect your rights

If the strike is not lawful, the company may request that the strike is declared unlawful by a court. During such proceedings, the court may declare, as an interim measure, that the employees shall return to work. The employer may also claim damages from the participating employees or trade union. In addition, it should be considered whether it may be appropriate for the employer to take action as well, e.g. in the form of a lockout.

  • Don't sanction striking employees

If the strike is lawful, the employees' right to strike is protected by mandatory law. Thus, the employees cannot be terminated or subjected to other sanctions because of their participation in the strike.

  • Don't hire external workers without considering the potential consequences

It is not prohibited by law for a company to engage external personnel, such as agency workers or independent contractors, during a strike. However, the employers' organization for agencies in Sweden, Bemanningsföretagen, has adopted a general neutrality principle in their collective bargaining agreements, according to which agencies shall remain neutral in the event of a lawful strike and not accept orders from targeted companies. Also, hiring external workers may increase the risk of e.g. sympathy actions.

If you are a third party affected by a conflict, make sure to check the protection against strikes in the applicable commercial agreement. Industrial action may be covered by a force majeure clause.