Edo Fimmen (Sigvard Nyström)

The following was written as an appendix to the “History of the IUF – The International Union of Food and Allied Workers Associations” which he co-authored with Peter Rütters and which was published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bonn in 1989. Nyström was president of the Swedish Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union from 1968 to 1978. And president of the IUF from 1977 to 1981. In his youth, Nyström was an activist in the Socialist Youth organization led by Zetha Höglund and he remained a left socialist (in the Swedish Social-Democratic Workers’ Party) until his death in 1994.

Jean Schifferstein, the first general secretary of the IUF (from its founding in 1920 to his death in 1940) shared many of Fimmen’s views on the international trade union movement and there was regular co-operation between the IUF and the ITF at secretariat level in the inter-war years. This history, and his own political views, accounts for Nyström’s interest in Fimmen.

It has been said that the trade union and political labour movement in the democratic part of the world is two branches of the same tree. The political branch has always had prominent personalities that have dominated their parties and, often enough, the community. This dominance had its roots in their creation of guidelines for the movement’s actions in different situations; they were the pioneers in both practical and theoretical work. The trade union movement has always had leaders who were close to the working people, and who understood how to solve the problems of the day as satisfactorily as circumstances permitted. There has never been a serious challenge to this distribution of work between the two branches of the movement. Theoreticians have never had the close contact with workers enjoyed by trade union leaders. However, the wisdom of the political leaders has seldom been questioned.

Edo Fimmen’s opinions on the purpose of the trade union movement differed in important ways from the accepted view. In 1924, Fimmen published a document entitled Labour’s Alternative, the United States of Europe or Europe Limited.

In this document, Fimmen discusses the concentration of capital and its causes, and the international joint interests of capital. Capitalism knows no national border, said Fimmen. What then is the job of the trade union movement? “It is necessary to recognize that the trade union movement must be something more than a mere machine for the raising of wages and the reduction of working hours, that international organization must have other ends in view than that of being an automatic apparatus for the distribution of information, and that the workers must organize in order to fight capitalism and conquer it. The realization of these things is an indispensable preliminary to the elaboration of right methods for the campaign.”

He goes on: “The capitalist possess no International, as far as any organized institution is concerned; they do not hold congresses; they do not pass pious resolutions about international class solidarity. Nevertheless, they think and act internationally, for they are well aware that their interests can best be promoted in that way. The workers have international organizations, hold international congresses and pass numerous and high-sounding resolutions. None the less, they continue to restrict their activities to the national arenas. They are terribly alarmed lest any international organization, even through created by themselves, should gain sufficient power to have a word to say about their national questions of have a finger to thrust into their national pies.”

This, Fimmen’s analysis of the capitalist and labour leaders of 1924 could have been written 60 years later. Conditions have not changed to any great extent. How did Fimmen think that greater order could be achieved?

“One of the most important tasks is to make the workers of all countries realize this truth: it is up to them to devote their energies, their financial resources, their organization, their industrial power, both nationally and internationally, to the great struggle against militarism, capitalism and imperialism.”
Fimmen’s opinion on international trade union co-operation: “From the organizational standpoint, the IFTU (in Amsterdam) is out of date. In itself, an International formed out of organizations which pursue particularist national aims, and desire to promote the special interests of the workers in particular countries, is a somewhat illogical creation . . . the IFTU has only one justification for its existence: the lack of something better”. Fimmen envisaged a trade union International based both on the national trade union confederation and the international trade secretariats.

“If only it was possible without internal conflicts to change the present international trade secretariats’ structure to that of a central body which in the new era of international struggle will succeed in performing its task, and avoid the formation of a new trade union international besides the existing one . . . .“

But one of the conditions required to balance Fimmen’s equation was that real international contact could be established between all the workers of the world. It had proved to be completely impossible to establish any co-operation at all with the members of the Soviet trade union movement; the Soviet leaders made sure of that. Fimmen’s dream of a united front remained only a dream, but that does not mean that his visions of the way trade union international co-operation should be arranged were faulty in all respects.

Fimmen’s position in the transport workers’ International remained strong. He was still the secretary general of the International at the time of his death in 1942. The world might have become a somewhat different place if the trade union leaders had not just been men of action, but had also indulged in some theorizing and spent a little time trying to solve Fimmen’s problem: how to replace the existing capitalist system with a society that was democratic in all respects.

NEXT: The Concentration of Capital and Its Causes