The Danish Nurses Strike Highlights a Flaw in Social Democracy

Negotiations are meaningless when your boss has absolute authority over you.

Since mid-June, a nurses strike has been on-going in Denmark. In short, the reason for the strike is dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions.

OK, that sounds like a fairly normal reason for a strike, so why am I even writing about it? Well, for any international readers, let me remind you that we have a socialized healthcare system in Denmark. This means that, fundamentally, the overwhelming majority of nurses work for the state. Let me drive that point home: Yes, that state. The one that's run by elected politicians, has a monopoly on violence, and does not have a profit motive. I'm spelling this out because I think most people won't immediately see what I'm getting at.

In the private sector, when a trade union and an employer have a major unresolved dispute – whether that's about working conditions, salary, benefits, or something else entirely – the result is usually a strike or a lockout. This is a state of affairs in which both sides are bleeding money - the employer can't produce goods or provide services at all, and the union spends vast amounts of money so that the workers can still put food on their table for the duration. The amount of money that goes into strikes and lockouts can be truly staggering; it's estimated that the last nurses strike in 2008 cost the healthcare sector around 1 billion DKK and the largest healthcare union around 686 million DKK. Obviously, then, the profit motive ensures that both sides eventually have to come to the negotiation table and figure out a resolution. Sometimes this results in one side capitulating completely, but far more often than not, a compromise is made where neither side is completely happy but the result is good enough that everyone can sleep at night. And life goes on.

This system is what we Danes often call "the Danish [labor] model". Broadly speaking, it works well; it's the reason we've never needed a legally-mandated minimum wage in Denmark.

OK, great. But here's the thing I was alluding to earlier: All of this breaks down when the profit motive disappears and your boss has, for all intents and purposes, absolute authority over you. Your boss, in this case, being the state.

As I'm writing this, the Danish government has just made clear that it intends to pass legislation to put an end to the nurses strike. We don't yet know the exact text of the bill, but we do know that it includes a measly ~5% pay increase and the promise of a commission which will examine whether the claims made about nurses's working conditions and pay inequality are accurate and to what extent any further changes can be made. Few people seem happy with this result; historically, pay increases through strikes tend to lead to much larger pay increases (upwards of 12%), and commissions rarely achieve change as legislators are not obligated to act on the recommendations they make. Adding to that, legislators who've been asked about their thoughts on this commission by the media have all given non-committal, wishy-washy responses.

So at this point you probably see what I mean. To put it bluntly, the government has essentially decreed "fuck you, you don't get to strike for better working conditions, you can take this table scrap". Under no circumstances would we accept such a message from an employer in the private sector. Yet, Danish nurses are faced with this reality because they work for the state.

At this point, with how much criticism I've leveled at the state, I'd forgive you if you thought I'm about to go on a rant about how economic libertarianism will save us all. So let me clarify that, excepting a few minor differences, I consider myself to be a social democrat (the ideology, not the party). It's exactly because I consider myself a social democrat that I feel obligated to talk about the broader issue at play here.

I think what I've described here is pretty obviously a flaw in the ideology; social democracy simultaneously advocates for a mixed economy and strong worker rights, yet these two tenets can clearly be at odds. I'm not claiming to be the first to have noticed that but I haven't seen anyone else point out the worrying historical trend here: As part of my research for this article, I found out that the Danish government has used legislation to put an end to strikes and lockouts at least 17 times (that I'm aware of) from 1933 up until today, with the most recent instance being 2013. (The imminent bill would make it 18.)

Obviously, nobody is forcing the government's hand. The politicians in charge actively made the decision to intervene. Politicians, like most people, would prefer not to lose their job. If you're the politician that let an entire sector of industry become dysfunctional for a prolonged period of time due to a major strike, your chances of re-election are probably not very good since the effects of such a strike are likely to be felt by many voters. Or, more relevant to the issue of today: You probably don't want to be the politician that let unnecessary suffering happen because you allowed nurses to strike. So you might choose to compromise your ideological principles for the sake of your job. Humans are imperfect in that way.

So, in other, shorter words: A perfect social democracy that upholds worker rights while maintaining public sector industry (such as healthcare) seems to only really be possible if the people in charge are infallible paragons of virtue. Or a benevolent dictator, I suppose.

I don't really know if there's a good solution to this. Maybe an amendment to the Danish constitution might be the way forward. Something to the effect of "parliament shall never interfere in labor disputes, whether in the public or private sector". I'm not a lawyer; hell if I know.

A side note: As far as I can tell, only one instance of these legislative interventions happened under a conservative government, in 1985, with all the others happening under social-democratic governments. I've thought about this a lot and I still don't know what to make of it. I feel like it's intellectually lazy to chalk it up to bad luck on the part of the Social Democrats (the party) and I also don't put much stock in the right-wing meme that, akshually, all left-wingers are secret authoritarian state socialists. I think I'll have to dig deeper on this subject to reach a meaningful conclusion, but that's going to take a lot of effort due to the crazy amount of strikes that have happened in Danish history...

Here's a list of the major (Danish) sources I used while researching this subject: