Sollefteå maternity care occupation shows ways for new social movements

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adalen2On the 31st of January 2012, the residents of the village Dorotea in the northern Sweden occupied their public health center to protest against the withdrawal of emergency care places. Three years of occupation, a municipal change of power and the first indicative referendum in a whole regional council later, the county council eventually gives up. The care sites were restored. One hundred and fifty kilometres south. Another county. Another austerity package, nevertheless directed against the economic peripheries of the county. Almost to the day, five years after the occupation began in Dorotea, January 30th 2017, hundreds of Ådalens inhabitants poured into the foyer at Sollefteå Hospital to declare the space occupied in protest against the impending closure of the maternity ward.

The maternity ward occupation in Sollefteå, just like The Dorotea Insurrection, was far from a spontaneous starting point for organizing around the issue.

In Dorotea there is what one might call a strong local tradition of resistance to centralization and rationalization, often with a presence of civil disobedience. The municipality was in the 1970’s the epicenter of wildcat strikes in the forest industry. In the mid-1970’s  a municipal merger was also hampered by citizens occupying the municipal building and hunger striking. And in 2012 the local health center was occupied, after countless demonstrations and other attempts at advocacy,  mobilizing the local and inland populations against the County Council’s austerity package, called»Project balance«.

This is also the case in Sollefteå and its surroundings which is commonly known as »Ådalen«. As an example, the hospital had been threatened back and forth for way longer than a decade, in a geographical context were people have lived through half a century of state withdrawal. When austerity plans leaked  in the autumn of 2015 – despite the ruling Social Democrats’ election promises to preserve all three emergency hospitals in the county – citizens were thus at least partially prepared. Among other forms of rallying, a broad discussion in social media had already begun, were local residents elaborated the consequences of future cuts. Historically Ådalen is deeply marked by the place it has in the Swedish labor movement’s narrative of  20th century success in the 1900s. In Lunde harbor, an hour by car from Sollefteå, five people were shot dead by the military in 1931 during a strike. The events are commonly viewed as the culmination for decades of conflict intensification with violent tendencies between capital and labor. Social democrats distanced from the participants in the Ådalen events, at the same time using the tragedy to push capital to bargain. So begins the process that is later known as the »Swedish model« – regulated negotiations between the unions and employers’ associations to create so-called collective agreements).

Despite the half century past between those lethal military shooting in 1931 and the tangible threat to life of the various hospital cuts in the mid-2010s – mental connection is obviously potent. »Ådalen rises again« was the slogan for the first  massive anti-austerity demonstrations on October 10th 2015.

A year and a half later this movement has evolved into a complex network of experimental groups. Besides influencing public opinion and again and again mobilizing huge turnouts in the squares, there are also platforms for independent participatory investigative journalism. Other nodes are exploring alternative operational forms (like members-cooperations) for the provision of  health care, and health care workers are organizing for different purposes, mainly outside the traditional unions and in collaboration with independent groups alike in other parts of Sweden. Now there is also then a maternity ward occupation on-going. Meanwhile the struggle has spread to include the city Örnsköldsvik about an hour north from Sollefteå, as that hospital also faces threats of cuts within the same county council budget scheme.

These movements are undoubtedly impressive, inspiring and touching, despite the sad circumstances they are faced to fight.

In the footsteps of the Dorotea Insurrection, the Ådalen Uprising has offered fundamental insights for how dynamic social movements can recompose worn-out notions like democracy and equality to yet again have meaning. That cannot be taken away from the participants, no matter how the struggle for the hospital in general, and its maternity ward in particular, ends.

This short essay was originally published 2017-02-02 in Swedish, by regional daily paper Västerbottens-Kuriren. As it was written for readers much familiar with the geographical and political context as well as the regional history, it might lack such explanations for other readers. Sollefteå municipality (approx. 20 000 inhabitants) is geographically located almost in the exact mid-point of Sweden though the 2/3 northern parts of Sweden is commonly perceived as the north of the country. 50 kilometers southeast is Kramfors municipality (also approx. 20 000 inhabitants). Örnsköldsvik (approx. 56 000 inhabitants) is located 74 kilometers northeast. The county council, or region as it is now re-named,  is Västernorrland (approx. 245 000 inhabitants). The administrative center is the city Sundsvall (approx. 100 000 inhabitants) 86 kilometers south of Sollefteå. The name Ådalen does not refer to any kind of administrative division. It is the common description for the territory around the river Ångermanälven. 


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