50 Shades of Trade: Swedish Trade Union Interests and the Neoliberal World Trade Regime post 1979

Lilla Sparbanksfoajén Session 2: The Neoliberal Shift organized by Jonas Ljungberg and Erik Bengtsson


Li Eriksdotter Andersson


The conclusion of the GATT Tokyo Round in 1979 marked a turning point for the international trade regime. Prior to the Tokyo Round, global trade institutions were shaped by two partially conflicting principles established in the aftermath of WWII. These principles included open or ‘free’ international trade in goods and services, and the freedom for states to enhance their welfare provision and regulate their economies to reduce unemployment. As suggested by previous research, the Tokyo Round shifted the relative dominance of these principles, ushering in a period of at least three decades during which a ‘purer’ form of economic liberalism became the more dominant ideology in international trade governance (Lang 2011). This shift has been referred to as the transition from an ‘embedded’, to a ‘redisembedded’, or ‘neo-’, liberalism (Ruggie 1997).

During the same period, there has been a trend towards increasingly deep and comprehensive trade agreements with a growing scope and ambition (Dür et al 2012). These agreements now typically address not only tariff levels but also so-called non-tariff barriers, such as import quotas, subsidies, and technical barriers in the form of rules and regulations. Negotiations have also focused on whether trade agreements should be widened to include provisions on labor standards, or not.

To fully comprehend the development of international trade, it is crucial to examine how trade interests are shaped in relation to the shifting and increasingly complex trade landscape. This involves understanding the formation of trade interests not only at the state level but also through and within specific interest groups. This paper examines the articulation and internal struggles of trade union interests within the Swedish trade union confederation (Landsorganisationen; LO) in relation to the changing international trade landscape and the principles of economic liberalism and state welfare provision. Using organizational materials from LO and its member unions, the study focuses on two pivotal moments in union discussions on trade: the early 1980s LO ‘Economic policy for the 80s’ report and the mid-2010s TTIP and CETA trade agreements negotiations.


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