More power to the people – new findings on labour market conflicts when electricity was a novelty

Published: 2021-04-28

In connection with the international celebration of the labour movement on 1 May, researchers in economic history show how areas in Sweden with early access to electricity at the start of the 1900s underwent rapid change. Electrification led to more strikes, but it was not those who were threatened by the new technology who walked out in protest. Instead, it was the professional groups who had acquired a stronger negotiating position – thanks to technological development.

People on strike. Old photo.
The labour movement’s strikes were historically about wage increases – not fear of technology, shows research. Pictured: A strike in Gothenburg in 1909 (Photo: Museum of Gothenburg, archives)

Labour market conditions are affected by new technology. Currently, the discussion centres on the impact of automation on the labour market, whether jobs will disappear as computers take over, or whether digitalisation drives development towards a gig economy with uncertain employment conditions. One fear is that technological development could generate social unrest and a risk of increased conflict in society.

The ongoing automation shares many similarities with historical technological changes, such as the advent of electricity in the early 1900s. In a study recently published in the renowned Journal of Economic History, researchers Jakob Molinder, Tobias Karlsson and Kerstin Enflo show that areas in Sweden with early access to electricity from the national grid changed rapidly as a result of the new technology.

However, unlike what is feared today, the researchers show that jobs did not disappear. Demand for labour was certainly affected: in agriculture, many jobs were replaced by machines, but the need for a new labour force in other sectors more than compensated for the loss.

“Industry and service sectors workers with some training and experience were particularly in demand, such as lathe operators in the manufacturing industry or electricians in construction,” says Tobias Karlsson, one of the researchers behind the recently published study.

Over 8 000 strikes are included in the study

The rapid structural transformation led to conflicts in the labour market. The researchers have digitised data covering over 8 000 strikes and lockouts that took place in locations around the country between 1859 and 1938.

“The opportunity to examine where the strikes occurred provides new perspectives. By linking this data to information about the extension of the electrical grid, we can investigate the effects of the new technology on the labour market,” says Jakob Molinder.

The researchers also gathered information about the causes of the strikes. The compiled data surprised them:

“Because electrification meant that many jobs could be carried out by machines instead of human power, we thought that at least some of the conflicts would be about resistance to new machinery. But when we went through the causes of the Swedish strikes, we noted that almost no strikes were ascribed to technological change,” says Kerstin Enflo.

The main goal for the strikes: wages increases

Electrification was certainly associated with increases in strike activity, but it was not those who were threatened by the new technology who walked out in protest. Instead, it was the professional groups who, thanks to the new technology, had acquired a stronger negotiating position. The strikes were to a high degree about wage increases.

“This pattern reminds us how strong professional groups in strategic negotiating positions, such as pilots and port workers, use the weapon of strikes today,” says Tobias Karlsson.

Read the article: More Power to the People: Electricity Adoption, Technological Change, and Labor Conflict

Contact

Kerstin Enflo, Professor of Economic History
Lund University School of Economics and Management
Telephone: +46(0)70-374 83 91
kerstin.enflo@ekh.lu.se
More about Kerstin’s research

Tobias Karlsson, Associate professor of Economic History
Lund University School of Economics and Management
Telephone: +46(0)732-76 58 47
tobias.karlsson@ekh.lu.se
Read more about Tobias’ research

Jakob Molinder, researcher in Economic History
Uppsala University and LUSEM
Telephone: +46(0)76-226 28 18
jakob.molinder@ekhist.uu.se
Read more about Jakob's research

The project

The project “From Sundsvall to Saltsjöbaden: a regional perspective on the Swedish labour market” was funded by the Swedish Research Council and ran from 2014 to 2019. The database built up by the researchers within the framework of the project is accessible through the Swedish National Data Service.

More about the project (in Swedish): Researchers sheds new light on the Swedish model – with the help of newly digitalised strike data