Thousands of public sector workers walked off the job in townships all over Norway early Thursday, after talks broke down between their unions and their employers. Schools and day care centers are among the hardest hit, but the strike also will affect public services within health care, administration and the police.
Some talks were still continuing, for example in Oslo which has separate agreements from those in other kommuner (townships) and between the state and the union Akademikerne, which represents employees with lengthy higher education. Around 25,000 members of unions with the labour confederations LO, YS and Unio, however, were pulled off their jobs. If Akademikerne also opts to strike, around 30,000 workers will be involved in its first phase. The strike may spread, if unions continue to call more of the roughly 600,000 workers they represent out on picket lines.
Pay demands vs. state spending restraint
The unions have been demanding pay raises of around 4 percent plus a variety of improvements in their working conditions, for example fully paid time off to help family members in need, such as sick or elderly parents.
The state, however, which also funds the local townships, has been trying to keep a firm grip on spending and cut back on the use of Norway’s oil revenues. Even though Norway has a left-center government dominated by the Labour Party and its close ties to labour unions, government officials have been resisting attempts by various unions and organizations such as those representing farmers to extract higher pay.
Both Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen of the Labour Party have been warning for more than a year that even though Norway’s economy remains strong, economic turbulence in Europe and elsewhere in the world means the Norwegian government must also show restraint. They think their offers of pay raises averaging 3 percent for most workers and as much as 4.5 percent for farmers have been generous at a time when most countries are slashing budgets and cutting the pay of public sector workers.
‘Surprised’ talks broke down
“We were surprised there was no acceptance for our offer and I’m sorry about it,” the government minister charged with overseeing the negotiations, Rigmor Aasrud of the Labour Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday morning. “We have put an emphasis on equal pay and made an offer that would give an average female worker with full seniority around NOK 20,000 in extra pay. I think that’s a good offer given the situation we’re in here in Norway and in Europe.”
Aasrud conceded, though, that “the distance was too great between the demands we received and the possibilities we had.” The offers made by representatives for state and township employers were rejected and picket lines started going up around several schools, day care centers and other public service centers.
Union leaders, however, were blaming the state for “throwing the country out in a major strike.” Some, like Arne Johannessen of Unio which represents police officers, called the strike “historic” as it’s the first time state employees have struck in 28 years.
“No one probably believed we would have a major strike in the public sector under a left-center government,” Johannessen told NRK, but he called the state’s offer “shameful” and vowed the strike would be felt all over the country.
Its immediate consequences were still evolving Thursday morning. Affected townships included Asker, Askøy, Bergen, Bodø, Drammen, Kristiansand, Larvik, Lillehammer, Narvik, Oslo, Sandnes, Tromsø, Trondheim and Ålesund.
Around 2,100 employees at local colleges, universities and within the police were among those pulled off the job. Several schools, for example in Bærum just west of Oslo, were closed as were many day care centers. Nursing homes and home health care services were also expected to be curtailed and even cruise traffic may be hit, because port pilots in the Oslo Fjord area were among those called out on strike.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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