Critics bite into union boss

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It was not a good week for union boss Gerd Kristiansen, the tough-talking head of Norway’s largest labour federation LO. It started with attacks on her own high salary and ended with biting criticism over how she avoided high Norwegian dental prices by getting her teeth fixed in Hungary. The local dentists’ union was not smiling.

PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

LO boss Gerd Kristiansen improved her smile after traveling to Budapest for dental care that’s much cheaper than in Norway. That’s left a bad taste in the mouths of many union members. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“We have seen that the LO leader is worried about social dumping and costs in other branches, but when it comes to her own teeth, she chooses the cheap solution abroad,” Morten Rolstad of the Norwegian dentists’ union told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “It sends a negative signal when people in leading positions don’t support Norwegian jobs and business.”

Kristiansen was probably wishing she’d never opened her mouth and told Dagbladet Magasinet last weekend what she did around four years ago when she literally needed a new smile. After smoking for many years, Kristian had a bad case of gum disease and faced major dental work.

“They had to file down all my teeth, right down to the root,” Kristiansen told Dagbladet. “And it was terribly expensive. Just the upper teeth cost NOK 250,000 (USD 31,000 at current exchange rates). I traveled to Budapest. There I paid nearly NOK 100,000 for my whole mouth.”

‘Hypocritical’
She was actually trying to demonstrate the need for better public sector dental care in Norway but it backfired badly. Norwegian dentists have had to face losing business for years to highly skilled but much cheaper dentists abroad, who welcome “dental tourists” from Norway. “When people in leading positions front such cheaper treatment, it undermines Norwegian jobs,” dentist Arnt Helge Dybvik of Sandefjord told DN. “And it’s hypocritical: Gerd Kristiansen criticized Norwegian Air (target of a recent major strike) for using foreign crews who are paid less than Norwegians, but with it comes to her own teeth and economy, she doesn’t accept Norwegian cost levels.”

Sveinung Stensland, a member of the Parliament’s health committee for the Conservatives, noted that the labour movement and the Labour Party have opposed allowing patients to get help abroad if there’s no capacity in the Norwegian health care system. “They think that will hurt Norway’s public health system,” Stensland said. “It’s fine that the LO leader received help for a better smile, but dental hygienists and dentists hold Norwegian jobs just like Norwegian industrial workers do. Since she traveled abroad because the price was so high here, does she then think pay levels are too high in Norway? That’s generally why costs are so high.”

Kristiansen didn’t want to comment on the criticism but LO’s communications chief Jenny Ann Hammerø wrote to DN that “Gerd Kristiansen chose to undergo dental treatment in another European country, paid out of her own pocket. LO is not, and has never been, against Norwegians buying goods and services abroad. Gerd Kristiansen’s intention in telling her story was to point out the need to strengthen public responsibility for dental health, in line with a measure approved by the LO congress.”

The irony is that she likely could have received state financial aid to cure her particular dental problem. “It sounds like she didn’t research what support options she had,” said Rolstad of the dentists’ union (Tannlegeforeningen).

‘Gotcha’
The bottom line was that first Kristiansen found herself having to defend her million-and-a-half kroner salary in much the same way business executives defend their high salaries, and then she had to account for trying to get around high prices that result from high pay, even though she arguably could afford Norway’s dental bills better than most. Traditional opponents of the powerful LO felt they’d caught the LO boss in an embarrassing bind.

“It’s great that the unions’ queen had her teeth fixed in Hungary,” said Carl Christian Blich, a member of Oslo’s city council for the Conservatives. “But how long can you be LO boss when you stab members in the back like this?” Employers’ representatives now in negotiations with LO over wage settlements may also benefit from Kristiansen’s dental history.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund