Strike threat postponed

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A threatened strike by thousands of state and municipal workers in Norway’s major cities was postponed for at least another week, after union leaders and state officials agreed on Wednesday to keep working towards a settlement.

Both sides in the conflict took the highly unusual step of extending the strike deadline until after the upcoming three-day weekend tied to the Whitsund holiday.

That came after union leaders and state officials, quarreling over proposed public sector pension reform, already had taken an unusual break in negotiations during the night. That break was followed by special meetings on Wednesday that included the government minister in charge of labour issues, Dag Terje Andersen.

It’s also highly unusual for a cabinet minister (called statsråd in Norwegian) to take part in collective bargaining talks. Most agree, however, that the complex negotiations over pension reform are very unusual indeed.

“This is a special situation that demands special treatment,” Andersen said on national TV Wednesday evening. He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he thinks there’s “a good foundation” for continued negotiations, and that he hoped for “a good solution.”

Thousands of state and municipal workers were poised to walk off the job first on Wednesday, then early on Thursday, if difficult negotiations over the rules governing public pension programs failed to produce a settlement.

At issue are guarantees of pension income and how long it will take to for state and city workers to earn full pension benefits. They can now retire with 66 percent of their most recent salary, if they’ve been on the job for 30 years. Proposed pension reform would require workers to be on the job for 38 years to win full pension benefits, and workers would receive more of less of their final salary depending on how old they are when they retire.

Union leaders claimed Wednesday they are still pushing for a system that would yield at least two-thirds of workers’ final salaries if they retire at age 65. The state hasn’t wanted to be held to that, saying it needs to push through pension reform to reduce pension costs.

Andersen told NRK, however, that “no one wants a strike,” which would close day care centers, disrupt end-of-year exams at most schools and leave far fewer police, health care personnel and social service workers on the job.

Union leaders wouldn’t comment on the postponement of a strike, with one saying only that “it shows just how complex this process is.” Commentators think the postponement is a sign that a settlement will be announced next week.