Berkeley County officials host Swedish delegation

April 04, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The free market met labor relations Sweden-style last week, following a brief meeting Thursday by the Berkeley County Commission with members of a labor negotiating team from that country.

The four-member delegation - members of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions - visited New York and Washington, D.C., earlier in the week before stopping in Berkeley County to meet with county and City of Martinsburg officials as part of a fact-finding tour of labor practices in the United States.

Following the meeting with the commissioners, Martina Gustavsson, senior negotiator of that organization's Employer Policy Division, outlined the significant differences between the countries' labor practices.

"The differences between Sweden and the United States is big," said Gustavsson, who said she lived in Florida for a year more than a decade ago. "(In Sweden), the union is strong."


Retired Director Anders Hagman said about 90 percent of the labor force in his northern European country of about 9 million people is employed under collective agreements, and that it was rare to find individual agreements between employees and employers.

Hagman said the country's citizens, who are taxed at about 30 percent of their income, also enjoy extensive parental leave time for mothers and fathers, as well as free schooling, free child care and universal health care, prompting Commission President Howard Strauss to ask if the country was monitoring France, where a move to change that country's labor laws has resulted in widespread rioting by young people concerned over loss of job security.

During its meeting with the commission, the delegation also got a brief lesson from Commissioner Ron Collins on how the county determines salary levels. He said market analyses of neighboring jurisdictions help officials determine an average rate of pay in Berkeley County.

While acknowledging that Swedes are the most heavily taxed people in the world, the delegation called that country's extensive social safety net more indicative of how its citizens view themselves as part of a collective in most matters.

"When you see how hard it is to pay for education and child care and a visit to the doctor, you can see that it's not bad to pay taxes," said Gustavsson, who noted that many of the charges and fees Americans pay for public and private services are included under a more centralized tax in her country. "You're on your own in a different way than you are in Sweden."

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's The World Factbook Web site, Sweden has a work force of about 4.49 million workers, and a birth and date rate that runs about even, with 10.36 births and deaths per 1,000 citizens.

Hagman said the unemployment rate in his country is about 4.5 percent.

Despite not finding much common ground, good will abounded and the commission presented the Swedes with Berkeley County bicentennial commemorative pins and a copy of the county's recently approved 2006-07 budget.

Hagman presented Strauss with a small carved wooden horse and a map of Sweden.

Gustavsson said she found her visit to America, which also included a trip to Charlottesville, Va., informative.

"It is very good to meet people in other countries," she said. "The possibility to meet people in actual situations and ask questions, and then we have all the facts we can take back the knowledge that you can do things differently and it's good. There's not just one way that's right."

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