Albeit not solely determinant, national labour regulations do have a crucial impact on the labour process at the workplace and of course on industrial relations. Swedish labour rights are often described as among the strongest in the world in the sense of giving workers extensive protection (Ferner & Hyman 1998). While there is some merit to this notion, Swedish labour rights are no doubt also contested and continuously debated. This particularly concerns the Employment Protection Act (Lagen om anställningsskydd, LAS), which has been under constant attack from employers and their representatives for a multitude of reasons since its introduction in 1974 (and reformed in 1982).
LAS has developed into a symbolic dividing line between labour and capital in Sweden, with the former presenting it as the key foundation of all labour rights and the latter blaming it for all perceived shortcomings in Sweden (unemployment – especially among young people and those with an immigrant background, health problems, sickness absenteeism as well as the lack of innovation, competition, women managers, labour market mobility, etc.)
The purpose of this paper is, first, to analyse debates surrounding LAS the last 10 years (2002-2012), mainly based on more than 2,000 articles and opinion pieces from Swedish media. This makes it possible to identify overall patterns, fluctuations in the level of debates, major arenas, key players, arguments, etc. The results show that negative attitudes against LAS has increased over time, and especially in connection to previous elections and the latest financial crisis. The negative views of LAS are further decreasingly limited to employers and their representatives, becoming more common among e.g. employed and unemployed Swedish workers.
Despite a decline in union influence in Sweden (in terms of e.g. resources and affecting the public debate) coupled with a shift from a left to a less worker and union friendly centre-right government (in 2006), organized and well-funded opposition to LAS, international influences from the EU and the Danish flexicurity model, and an ongoing financial crisis, no changes to LAS have however been made or announced by the governing parties.
It is argued in the paper that this continuous existence of LAS in Sweden not only in practice contributes to the partial difference of Swedish working life as compared to many other countries, but also represents a theoretical anomaly for influential social constructivist theories such as new institutionalism and postmodern/discourse analysis, as well as resource dependency theory (Korpi 1985), labour economics and theories on political action and social movements (Rydgren 2002, Lounsbury et al 2003). Put simply, these theories would predict that LAS is abolished or seriously weakened because it distorts the labour market, due to changes in resources, institutions/discourses, political authority, the creation of collective groups/movements opposing the law, as well as opportunity structures.
The second purpose of this paper is therefore to propose a more satisfactory explanation on the continuous existence of LAS based on labour process theory and related industrial relations and political economy literature, taking issues of conflicting interests, attempts at creating hegemonic discourses and party/election tactics into account (Burawoy 1985, Thompson & Harley 2011). It is argued, among other things, that the government’s decision to support LAS even though ideologically opposing it is made in order to justify other far-reaching weakenings of labour and that influential employers have found ways of largely by-passing legislation in practice. The paper thus attempts to contribute to previous research aimed at framing the labour process at the workplace in a wider political and economic context (Thompson 2003).
Rutgers: Rutgers University, 2013.