Shop Floor in Standoff as Swedish Workers Embrace Nationalists

(Bloomberg) -- The shop floor is no longer a safe haven for Social Democrats.

Workers across Sweden are reconsidering their allegiances ahead of the country’s general election on Sept. 9, potentially handing Sweden’s long-dominant Social Democrats its worst result in a century.

The leader of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), the largest union umbrella group and biggest financial backer of the Social Democrats, says the mood on shop floors across the Nordic nation is tense as more and more workers back the nationalist Sweden Democrats.

"In the work places it’s a tough fight between the two sides,” Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, the LO boss said on Thursday. “You really step into hot water. All the visits we do aren’t that friendly, but we keep doing them every day."

Shop Floor in Standoff as Swedish Workers Embrace Nationalists

But Thorwaldsson, whose union represents 1,4 million workers, said members who are planning to vote for the Sweden Democrats (SD) are being misled and will cast their lot with a party that will work against them. SD’s policies favor the rich with big tax cuts and reductions in welfare, he said.

"A protest vote against immigration policies is a protest vote out in thin air,” he said. “It will only lead to right-wing policies."

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SD, which has its roots in Sweden’s white supremacy movement, first entered parliament eight years ago and has gained backers amid a record inflow of refugees and migrants over the past few years. The party has vowed to halt immigration, but also wants to cut taxes, eliminate job market programs and reduce union influence over unemployment benefits. It has called for increased spending on pensions and for higher salaries for nurses and other municipal workers.

Shop Floor in Standoff as Swedish Workers Embrace Nationalists

Polls are showing SD running second among voters, with backing of about 19 percent. The Social Democrats are at about 25 percent and current biggest opposition party, the Moderates, are at 18.7 percent, according to an average of recent polls.

The Social Democrats, headed by Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, himself a former union leader, is trying to woo back voters with increasingly generous promises. The party this week pledged to give all parents an extra week off, for example, while calling for higher taxes on the wealthiest Swedes. Its allies, the former communist, the Left Party, has promised to shorten the working day to six hours.

Shop Floor in Standoff as Swedish Workers Embrace Nationalists

LO is working all out now to try to turn the tide over the next week. The union targets calling half a million members before election day and is speaking at work places across the country.

SD has a “Trump-like strategy” of attracting working class voters, according to Thorwaldsson.

“They pretend to be a party for the common folk,” he said. “To our members they say that they are a party in the center and that they have the intention to push the conservatives more to the left. But in practice their proposals are very revealing."

SD has over the past four years largely supported the budget of the conservative Moderates. It’s most likely to back a center-right government, but hasn’t promised to support any of the established blocs during the campaign.

"The biggest issue for us is how we are going to safeguard labor market rights, how we are going to safeguard Swedish employees from outside competition,” Thorwaldsson said. “Now we are seeing really dramatic proposals from the Sweden Democrats."

The party has expressed support for a joint proposal from the center-right parties to give youngsters without a high school education and newly arrived immigrants significantly lower starting salaries than stipulated in the union controlled collective bargaining agreements.

"We know from other countries that the effect becomes dramatic,” Thorwaldsson said. “If you lower the starting salary by 30 percent -- then the other wages fall toward the level of the new minimum wages."

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