‘Strike shock’ from SAS pilots in Norway

UPDATED: Two Norwegian labour unions representing pilots for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in Norway announced a “strike shock” on Monday, even though their colleagues in both Sweden and Denmark have agreed on new contracts. After first saying only two pilots would be called off the job, the unions are now threatening to order all of their Norwegian members to strike from Thursday.

SAS flights were still taking off from Oslo Monday morning as a strike threat by pilos lingered. PHOTO: SAS

That would cripple SAS’ traffic in and out of Norway, and likely cause serious disruptions for SAS systemwide. Negotiators for SAS at employers’ NHO Luftfart said they were extremely disappointed by the pilots’ decision to strike.

“They put forth demands for pay and working conditions that will increase costs for the airline considerably, and that far exceed the changes other Norwegian employees have these days,” said NHO’s lead negotiator Thorbjørn Lothe. “So it’s completely out of the question (for SAS) to agree to such terms for a group that’s already quite privileged.”

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Lothe was referring to the annual salaries of around NOK 1 million or more for SAS pilots based in Norway, who also work fewer hours on average than most other workers. Lothe said the pilots work between 175-180 days a year, or an average of four days per week. “They have much more holiday and time off than other groups, so there’s no basis for them working less than they do today,” Lothe said.

Union officials blamed SAS for the deadlock, claiming they had dropped many of their initial demands and that they merely were fighting to uphold a “defensible” level of security (see more detail on the pilots’ demands below). An SAS spokesperson tried to downplay the conflict, claiming the airline would keep working “to find a solution” and had a goal of reaching agreement with the pilots by Thursday.

‘Unrealistic’
The pilots’ strike that’s been threatened for weeks has already caused anxiety for SAS passengers in Norway and raised questions over whether the pilots will have much if any public sympathy. One newspaper commentator has called the pilot’s demands “unrealistic” while others have noted that it can seriously jeopardize SAS’ recovery from years of turbulence caused by airline deregulation and the rise of low-fare airlines unburdened by SAS’ extensive labour agreements and other overhead costs.

The pilots’ strike was nonetheless called at 8am Monday, after talks through the weekend with a state mediator went into overtime and then stranded. There had been no earlier clarification from either the two unions involved (Norske SAS-flygeres forening NSF and SAS Norge Pilotforening SNF) or the state mediator Rikmekleren after the deadline passed at midnight Sunday. Flights from Norway thus operated as usual early Monday morning, with SAS routes to Malaga, Copenhagen and Stockholm taking off on time and others boarding.

Aware that their strike is controversial and may lack public sympathy, the pilots initially stated that it would be limited in scope, with just two pilots initially due to be called off the job. The two unions threatened that the strike would expand until a settlement is reached, and then came their announcement that all of the unions’ members at SAS in Norway would be called off the job from Thursday. That threatens to ground SAS in and out of Norway.

Pilots’ Swedish and Danish colleagues won agreements
Hopes had risen during the weekend that a stike would be averted after SAS pilots in Denmark joined their colleagues in Sweden in signing a new collective bargaining agreement with the airline. The Danish pilots thus dropped their own strike plans that had been called at the same time as the Norwegians. The Danish pilots’ new three-year contract calls for pay raises in line with other large employee groups in the country, much like the Swedes’ deal.

The agreements may also pave the way for new seasonal work schedules, with pilots agreeing to work more during the busy summer tourist months in return for less during the winter. “We are very glad we have an agreement in place with the Danish pilots,” said SAS spokesperson Karin Nyman. She said it was “unique” for SAS to obtain a three-year agreement with pilots, and that it would allow the airline to continue to work towards “necessary” efforts to lower costs.

The Danish and Swedish deals also ensure that most SAS flights will continue to be crewed by SAS’ Scandinavian employees, with limits on use of so-called “wet lease” aircraft staffed by non-Scandinavian crews. Nyman said the airline and its Swedish and Danish pilots also had a “joint ambition to work together” for more flexible work schedules.

No deal in Norway
The Norwegian pilots, meanwhile, have been calling for pay hikes and more weekends off that SAS management claims will raise costs by 25 percent. The pilots’ demands have been described as mostly a means of expressing their discontent with SAS’ plans to set up new bases at London Heathrow and in Spain, from which non-Scandinavian crews will operate.

Leaders of the two Norwegian unions wouldn’t comment in detail on the Swedish and Danish agreements. “We have our own national demands,” NSF leader Jens Lippestad told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) just before the weekend, adding that the other pilots’ agreements “didn’t change much” regarding the Norwegian unions’ demands. “If anything, it takes away the advantage of acting together,” Lippestad told DN.

Lippestad’s organization represents around 360 members and is tied to Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO, which in turn backs the Labour Party that’s hoping on Election Day Monday to unseat Norway’s Conservatives-led government. He claimed in a press release that SAS had “shown a lack of willingness” to negotiate with the pilots in Norway and he called SAS’ management and NHO negotiators “arrogant.” He also claimed that SAS “could have avoided a strike if they had given us the same terms as our colleagues in Denmark and Sweden, with national adaptations.”

It’s the “national adaptations” that appear to be the bone of contention, while Lippestad accused SAS of resorting to “divide and conquer tactics” among the airlines’ Scandinavian pilots. SAS’ chief executive Rickard Gustafson has earlier claimed that the pilots in Norway have been jockeying for more power at the airline, also in areas reserved for management.

Jan Levi Skogvang, leader of the other pilots’ union NSF that’s tied to the labour federation Parat, was unhappy over the entire negotiating process. He said he was open, however, to launching a new round of negotiations if SAS/NHO come back with “a decent offer.”

Lippestad insisted that SAS’ pilots in Norway did not want to strike and that’s why only two of them would initially be called off the job. Most SAS flights were thus due to operate as normal at least until Thursday.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund