Strike caught most by surprise

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Activity ceased at construction sites all over Norway on Wednesday, after 19,000 workers in the building trades were called out on strike. The strike comes just as the construction industry was hoping to recover from the finance crisis, and even workers themselves seemed caught off guard.

The large Tjuvholmen development on Oslo's waterfront is among the many projects affected by the strike in the building trades industry. PHOTO: Views and News

“Why we’re striking? I don’t know,” one union member, who suddenly was put on a picket line, told newspaper Aftenposten. Other colleagues seemed surprised by the strike as well, while some noted that “wage development” has been “weak” in recent years, and that there’s a need to prevent social dumping, as foreign construction workers continue to seek work in Norway.

“We’re striking in a show of solidarity,” one union leader told newspaper Dagsavisen. He and several colleagues working for construction firm Veidekke Oslo said the strike is aimed at raising the salaries of their lower-paid foreign colleagues — which would also help the Norwegians stay competitive in the job market. “We need to fight social dumping,” they said.

Dagsavisen reported that the gap between the minimum pay rate of NOK 143 (about USD 23)  per hour and average pay rates of NOK 199 keeps growing, and that employers have been unwilling to tighten it. The unions reportedly want minimum pay raised to 85 percent of average pay.

Work shut down at projects around the country after negotiations broke down between trade union Fellesforbundet and employers’ organization Byggenæringens Landsforening. Fellesforbundet’s leader Anders Skattkjær has said the union wants to maintain its members’ purchasing power, and apparently didn’t think his counterpart’s offer would do that.

Industry observers and labour experts worry that the strike may end up being counterproductive, because demands for raising minimum pay rates can hurt the construction branch and stall new projects that would create new jobs. Strikes have been averted in several other branches and the construction workers’ will to strike may evaporate, if a majority don’t benefit directly.

Officials at construction firms themselves were most unhappy. “We are surprised and disappointed,” the head of their employers’ organization, Ketil Lyng, told Aftenposten. “We were prepared to offer a package in line with what the industrial firms agreed.” And it was now, he said, with the weather getting better after a long winter, that developers and firms had planned to get to work.

Instead, projects from home remodeling to major office building construction at Tjuvholmen face standing idle until the strike is settled. Nearly 100 projects underway at major construction firm Skanska, for example, are affected, and other employees not directly involved in the strike face being laid off.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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