Unions dictate many policies

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Roar Flåthen may well head the most powerful trade union confederation in the world. This week he and his colleagues were gathering for an annual conference in the mountains of Norway, where they could spar with, among others, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

Trade union boss Roar Flåthen enjoys access to the prime minister that even he admits is probably unparalleled internationally. PHOTO: LO/Trond Isaksen

Norway has long been known for its powerful organized labour, which maintains strong influence over socialist and non-socialist governments alike. Union bosses now enjoy almost direct access to Labour Party ministers, who make up the majority of Norway’s present ruling coalition.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that Norway’s biggest trade union confederation, Landsorganisasjonen (LO), has been able to determine what the Stoltenberg Government does in a number of areas. LO’s close links with the Labour Party have allowed it, for example, to block liberalization of the labour market, secured generous subsidies to the shipbuilding industry when it was in trouble, and low-cost electricity deals for various industries.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg stopped to review a new highway project while on his way to the LO conference in the mountains this week. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

When Flåthen’s predecessor Gerd-Liv Valla was forced to step down as head of LO in 2007, many believed LO’s influence would decline. Last week LO (equivalent to the British TUC or the American AFL-CIO) did have to accept  a government policy that reduces state benefits to the disabled when they reach pension age, in line with reductions in pension payments under ongoing reform.  Nevertheless, the unions have been successful in blocking social dumping, protecting their members from competition from migrants willing to work for less than union scale.

“There’s no country in the world where the Prime Minister is as available to the head of the trade union confederation as in Norway,” Flåthen told Aftenposten, acknowledging that he speaks with Stoltenberg often. “We always discuss politics, and I always have a message that’s important for LO.”

Stoltenberg confirms the unions have power. “LO should have and does have great influence,” he told Aftenposten. “We achieve better solutions in Norway than in many other countries precisely because we cooperate with LO and the other union organisations.”

The close relationship between LO and the government does have another consequence. Since its unions are inside the system of power, it’s led LO to moderate its pay demands in line with the interests of not only their own members but also of a wider public.

This week’s annual conference of the LO-affiliated union for government employees, LO Stat, at Gol in the Hallingdal valley, illustrates the close relationship between the Labour Party and LO. Both Flåthen and Stoltenberg were speaking at the conference and would debate the disability issue. Some think Flåthen has given in too easily to Stoltenberg and were eager to hear what new demands LO’s leader might make on the government.

Views and News from Norway/Sven Goll
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