Labour movement in the Nordic countries

The 'labour movement' refers to the network of political, industrial, voluntary, educational and recreational organisations with a socialist or labour ethos. From the late nineteenth century, its aim was to improve living and working conditions for blue-collar workers and their families, and was organised around national trade union confederations. With a broad base of supporters, the labour movement played a crucial role in the success of Social Democratic parties throughout the twentieth century. This allowed for an epochal shift from around 1945 onwards where class differences were reduced as workers gained access to state benefits, higher education and better housing. Since the 1970s, the labour movement has declined. This has been attributed to the challenges of populism and by the left’s focus on other issues, such as feminism and discrimination. Nevertheless, wages and trade unionism (including country-wide negotiations and agreements) still play an important role in the Nordic model.

red and white coloured logo of a labour movement
National trade union confederations have played an important role in Nordic society and politics throughout the twentieth century. Today, their role is increasingly challenged.

The Trade Union Confederations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were at the very heart of the labour movement in their respective countries. In 1897, a Scandinavian Conference of Workers in Stockholm resolved to form a national organisation of trade unions in each of those three countries. Commonly known by the acronym LO, the Danish and Swedish confederations were duly founded in 1898, the Norwegian a year later. Until then, the Social Democratic parties had been responsible for co-ordinating trade unions. In Finland, the Social Democrats retained this responsibility until the Workers’ Central Union was established in 1907. Iceland’s Federation of Labour was founded in 1915 as both a socialist party and trade union federation. The Nordic countries therefore followed France and Germany with the establishment of a socialist party predating the trade union confederation, whereas in Britain the order of their founding was the reverse.

The main purpose of social democracy and organised labour was to improve living and working conditions for blue-collar workers and their families. The political wing of the movement sought this through changes which would facilitate the unionisation of the workforce as well as greater equality in society. The industrial wing tried to increase wages and achieve enhanced rights for employees. The struggle for universal manhood suffrage was among the most important issues. This was implemented in Norway in 1898, Finland in 1906 (also for women), Sweden in 1909 and Denmark, and its dependency at that time Iceland, in 1915 (also for women).

What is not included in the Labour Movement?
  • Despite its role in providing an alternative to capitalism, the co-operative movement is usually considered to be extraneous to the labour movement due to its function as an employer.
  • Organisations specifically for left-wing professionals (the most famous probably being socialist medical associations) are, on the other hand, generally taken to belong to the labour movement.
  • Yellow trade unions, designed to be accommodating to the employer and sometimes run by them, are an alternative labour movement as are separate trade unions based on the communist or syndicalist ideology.
  • In Finland the communists were strong enough to have notable influence on mainstream organisations, while elsewhere in the Nordic region they made only unsuccessful attempts to create a united front.

Radicalisation and intense class-conflict, 1917-1939

The Russian Revolution in 1917 acted as a bugle call for the radicalisation of the Nordic labour movement. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden the left wing of the Social Democrats broke off to form parties of greater radicalism, a tendency which resulted in the founding of separate communist parties in respectively 1920, 1918 and 1921. In Finland and Iceland communists were also organised within left-socialist or the main Social Democratic party. In Norway the entire Labour Party was taken over by internal opposition in 1918 and joined the Comintern in 1919. Only when it departed in 1923 was a separate Communist Party established. The radicalisation had much less of an effect within the trade union confederations, although the 'Trade Union Opposition of 1911' led by Martin Tranmæl secured control of the Norwegian LO in 1920. Tranmæl was at that stage a syndicalist.

The years 1918-1939 were characterised by intense class conflict in the Nordic region. Sweden and Norway were among the European countries proportionately most affected by strikes and lockouts, while Finland experienced civil war between the 'reds' and the 'whites' in 1918 followed by civil disorder from 1930-1932 initiated by the right-wing Lappo-movement. In a period characterised by high unemployment, a vital task for the labour movement was to shield its members from the effects of joblessness and industrial conflict. However, the aims of the labour movement went beyond meeting such basic needs. It saw itself as the bearer of a new social order, already existing within it, which in time would remould society. In the language of the Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci, the groundwork was being laid for a social democratic takeover through the movement itself becoming hegemonic (Gramsci 1992-2007). It prepared for leading each nation by leading the most numerous class in society, the workers, while refashioning and reinterpreting the world through its collective ideology and will. Although much of what it offered was designed to put workers on a parity with the privileged classes, including night schools, newspapers, sporting associations and temperance clubs, it was nevertheless a challenge to traditional culture. Workers celebrated May Day in preference to national red-letter days, often in their own meeting places such as People's Houses  and People's Parks. It was possible to live one's entire life within the labour movement. Women, children and youth were catered for in separate leagues, and many hobbies, such as chess, hiking or bicycling, were accommodated. In Sweden the Brotherhood was an organisation for Christian labour supporters. Workers associated with other workers partly because they felt more comfortable among their own kind and partly to support the ideology. In some cases separation from the main national bodies occurred for a special reason. The Norwegian Workers' Sports Association was founded in 1924 as a direct result of many non-socialist athletes allowing themselves to be recruited for strike-breaking.

black and white picture of people demonstrating

Workers' Day protest march in Turku, Finland in 1917. Photo: Åbo akademis bibliotek, via Wikimedia Commons.

The success of the labour movement—an epochal shift

A greater engagement with national concerns occurred after the Social Democratic parties began holding power for longer periods.  They laid the basis for an epochal shift in their respective societies by solidifying support through each making a crisis deal with agrarian parties. The Danish Social Democrats were elected in 1929. Four years later, in the face of mounting unemployment and a debt crisis, their legendary leader Thorvald Stauning made the Kanslergade agreement with the Liberals and Social Liberals. The Social Democrats then continued in power until the German occupation of 1940, when a government of national unity was established. Another such agreement took place in 1933 in Sweden, with the Norwegian party following in their counterparts' footsteps in 1935. Both of these allowed minority social democratic governments to rule stably. Except for a period of four months, the Swedish Social Democrats continued uninterrupted in government until 1976. The Norwegian Labour Party held on to power until 1965. The Finnish Social Democrats never became equally strong, but participated in a coalition government with the Agrarians from 1937, which brought in a measure of social reforms, including pensions and child benefit.

The success of the labour movements in implementing many of their policies helped to integrate workers into the nation. Class differences were reduced, as workers gained access to state benefits, higher education and better housing. Unionisation remained high, particularly because unemployment benefit was channelled through the unions in Sweden and Denmark. Sickness benefit and pensions, on the other hand, now became a state responsibility. The labour movement initially expanded as middle-class people joined up. Some were careerists, while others wished to pull their weight under tripartism (government, employers and trade unions making political decision together). To some extent, the labour movement was a victim of its own success. It still provided a full range of leisure activities, but interest contracted as workers became active elsewhere. Rising living standards between 1945 and 1975 also bred apathy, as described by the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith's term the 'affluent society'. 

Gradual decline of the labour movement from the 1970s

The Scandinavian Model has held up well since 1975, but it cannot be said that the labour movement has dominated society since then. Although the Swedish idea of economic democracy, trade unions gaining control of firms through purchasing stock paid for by their members' earnings, was finally implemented in 1983, the policy had been watered-down considerably from the plan proposed by the economist Rudolf Meidner in the 1970s. The trend has instead been towards increased use of market forces, privatisation and the New Public Management model, which implies that government will use techniques learnt from private industry. Denmark entered the European Community in 1973, which had become the European Union by the time Finland and Sweden joined in 1994. Iceland and Norway are members of the Single Market, which means that all Nordic countries are bound by EU decisions on tendering public contracts to private firms across the European Economic Area.

Nordic wage levels remain higher than in most continental European countries, bolstered by industry-wide collective negotiations between employers' associations and trade unions. Yet increased use of outsourcing and temporary workers exercise downward pressure on wages, while de-industrialisation has greatly added to unemployment rates. The industrial north of Sweden has been especially badly hit. Automation through technology is destroying many clerical and manual jobs. Online shopping puts retail jobs at risk. Politically too the labour movement is floundering. The Social Democrats in the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden), where they were strongest, have received between 25 and 30% of the vote in the most recent elections. This compares to shares of the vote exceeding 40% in the period 1935-1985. The Finnish and Icelandic parties have never been as strong, and only gather respectively a half or a fifth as many votes as their Scandinavian counterparts.

With little new to offer, members of the labour movement have essentially become defenders of vested interests and the status quo. Across the region, workers with little experience of labour culture have in many cases turned to right-wing populist parties. The Danish People's Party, the Progress Party in Norway and the formerly neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats each account for a large share of blue-collar votes. Hostility to immigration from the low- and middle-income countries fuels their appeal, as do the high taxes the Scandinavian Model necessitates. These parties are able to portray the Social Democrats as out of touch with working-class communities. Few social democratic leaders now have direct experience of manual work and younger workers, in turn, have seldom experienced the cultural offerings of the labour movement. In a society driven by the commercial market place and tabloid newspapers, they are alienated from the class solidarity which was instinctive to their parents and grandparents.

To current leftist opinion, the labour movement also seems all but obsolete. Although women's groups were part of classical labour culture, they catered primarily for housewives. Young women today are interested in pursuing careers and attend university to a greater extent than men. While they often vote for Social Democratic parties, even if they come from white-collar families, they do not necessarily identify with the labour movement. (The same is even more true for ethnic minorities.) Feminism, green issues and civic rights for minorities are concerns which only to a limited extent were part of traditional leftism. Such issues are raised just as much, or more, by other left-wing parties which are not anchored in the trade unions.

The labour movement in the twenty-first century

While greatly challenged, the labour movement continues to justify its existence. Trade unions still recruit members with reference to their glory days, as well as highlighting the practical advantages of belonging. They now often fund allies of the Social Democrats, while maintaining the symbiotic relationship with the latter. May Day continues to be celebrated by thousands across the region. Participants argue that it has never been more important to do so than now, given the stranglehold neo-liberalism has over public policy. The labour movement is no longer able to rule alone, but viable red-green alliances have been formed in all of Scandinavia. The Norwegian Labour Party was in power between 2005 and 2013 as the head of such a coalition and did remarkably well in combating the Great Recession through Keynesian policies. The industrial wing of the labour movement remains a part of the corporate state and the political wing exists as a vehicle to defend the welfare state and protect public sector jobs. The founders would surely have been satisfied with a situation in which they have so much to defend.


  • A. Gramsci, The prison notebooks, Vol. 1. Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
  • A. Gramsci, The prison notebooks, Vol. 2. Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
  • A. Gramsci, The prison notebooks, Vol. 3. Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
  • E. Einhorn and J. Logue, Modern welfare states. Scandinavian politics and policy in the global age (Westport: Praeger, 2003).
  • F. Castles, The Social Democratic image of society. A study of the achievements and origins of Scandinavian Social Democracy in comparative perspective (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978)
  • F. Sejersted, The age of Social Democracy. Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
  • J. K. Galbraith, The affluent society (Fortieth anniversary edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).