Karl-Johan Spuur Mortenson,
the deputy chairperson of the Freudeneberg Co. European Works Council,
recently described working conditions at his plant for the UE NEWS.
Brother Mortenson works for Freudenberg Household Products; purchased by
Freudenberg nine years ago, his plant produces hygenic sponge cloth. It’s
located in Norrköping, a traditionally industrial city of 120,000 in
The plant has a total of 190
employees and three unions. Mortenson belongs to the largest union,
Industrifacket (Industrial workers’ union). This is a closed shop; 90
out of the 102 production workers are members of the union. The other 12
are newly hired and still have membership in their former local unions.
They will become members the union here within six months.
SIF, the Swedish industrial office
workers’ union, represents some 30 employees in administration,
laboratory and sales. The national supervisors’ union has two members,
one each in the production and packaging departments. Only about 55
employees do not belong to one of the unions.
would you describe workplace conditions? Relations with the employer?
Workplace conditions have always
been poor in our plant, by Swedish standards. Much has improved during the
1990s, and we are now in the final process of becoming up-to-date with
investments in new machinery and a complete overhaul of the interior of
Relations to the employer have also
been poor, maybe in many ways linked to the conditions in the plant. We
have fought a constant battle, as conditions were in some areas comparable
with standards of the 1930s in Sweden. This was still so in 1988 when I
got my job here. Then, we were 270 employees on the shop floor, so we have
lost a large number of jobs since then. This, of course, after fierce
negotiations. Since 1995 the situation has been fairly stable and we also
have new people in management to negotiate with, so for the time being we
have no major arguments or disputes. This, however, can change quickly
when the modernization is completed. More automation usually leads to
fewer jobs. Discussions have already started on this future threat and
hopefully we can solve the situation without having to send anyone out in
What is the average rate of pay? What are the typical hours of work?
Salaries are normally paid monthly
in Sweden. On the shop floor we have an average salary (among our union
members) of 16,600 Swedish krona (SEK) a month. (This is approximately
US$2,075.) The range is from newly employed, 13,000 SEK (about
$1,625) to 18,900 SEK for the most skilled (about $2,263).
There is also extra pay for "uncomfortable working time," as it
is called in the collective agreement, which for the continuous shift is
3,000 SEK monthly on average (about $375).
Typical working hours are 40 hour
week, Monday to Friday 6:45a.m. to 3.30 p.m., with an unpaid lunch break.
However, the majority of our members work continuous shift in a system of
two days, 12 hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or vice versa), followed by three
days off, with five shift teams. This gives an average of 33.6 hours per
In the packaging department most
members work 40-hour weeks as mentioned, but there is evening work and
night work there as well. The evening personnel are 75 percent part-time,
and the night is part-time but receives full-time pay. They work Monday to
Thursday, which makes 32 hours per week.
How much holiday and vacation time do you have?
All our members are entitled to stay
at home at holidays, which adds up to 11 days of the year, except the
continuous shift workers. These receive extra pay if they have to work
holidays. This is regulated in our collective agreement, and I would say
it is a common practice nation-wide. In our local agreement we specify
certain days before holidays when the workers leave after lunch. These
half days add 2 more days annually.
Vacation is 25 working days per
year, i.e. 5 weeks. Of these the worker has the right to at least 3 weeks
in a row during summer (May to August). The continuous shift workers,
again, have different rules.
Law regulates all this.
In the event of a plant closing or mass layoff in the United States, the
law requires employers only to give employees some warning of the
impending tragedy. What is the situation in Sweden?
Here the employers need to give
notice well in advance also. Then negotiations must take place in which
the union has the right to have a consultant firm go through the financial
or other reasons for the closing of the plant. Together with the union,
these consultants then have the right to present alternative measures to
deal with whatever problem causes the closure. This must all take place
before the final decision is made. If the company still wants to close the
plant and ignore the suggested alternatives, the union then has a better
position in the following social plan negotiations for the members.
It has happened that the company
uses the suggestions made by the consultants and some jobs are saved. But
it is not possible to stop the closure if the company persists. It is only
a matter of how much it will cost them.
My city, Norrköping had this happen
recently, when an Ericsson plant closed and the jobs were
"outsourced." This effected 1,700 people. Ericsson is a world
wide telecommunication company of Swedish origin. The negotiations took
eight months. The government also put some pressure on the company to
improve the social plan settlements. After all was said and done the
number of people to end up unemployed was less than 50. And they had the
first choice of jobs available in the area.
This was an example of what can be
achieved when media, local politicians and the unions put pressure on a
As a Freudenberg worker, what value do you see in developing better
relations with UE and other unions that represent Freudenberg workers in
It is obvious that the future of
efficient union work must be conducted in the same playground as the
multinational companies play in. They play, and have played, the global
league for a long time, and we are only starting to. They have the network
to relocate orders if there is trouble somewhere.
Our international organizations,
like ICEM, do great work, but they do not sit opposite to the company in
direct negotiations on local issues. If we are going to be able to respond
efficiently to the moves of the company, we must build a network that
spans the same horizon as theirs.
I think Mr. Kingsley described the
problems in the U.S. of having companies relocate to Mexico. And as he
described it, your weapon against that was to help the Mexican brothers
and sisters to organize. The fight is hard and uphill, and unfortunately
chances are that the companies, when Mexico is on your level, will find
another "Mexico" somewhere else. That is why we must seek to
negotiate on a global level, and have the network built to respond when
It is our only hope of ever having
any kind of leverage against a company such as Freudenberg.
It will take a long time, and it
will probably not be completed during our lifetime, if ever, but I feel
that we are today taking the first steps on this journey and it is
exciting to be a part of it.
Unfortunately, this means that we
can only offer very little support to the brothers and sisters negotiating
today in Necedah. What we can do is to help out with information and links
to other locations in the same branch of Freudenberg, in Europe. The
company is known among us to claim "facts" about conditions in
other locations that have been shown to be less than correct. This is not
much, but it is a start and that is what is important.
I would like to extend the wishes of
successful negotiations to the colleagues in Necedah from all of the EWC-delegates
and our workforces here in Europe.
I would like to express my deepest
respect for those who work and fight for unions all over America, for I
have realized they do so not without risk of personal loss. They are in a
very similar situation to the union pioneers in Sweden, from the late 19th
century up to the 1940s. To all active union people in the United States
we send our acknowledgment on hard work well done.