New talks resume in local strikes

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There was a new glimmer of hope on Tuesday that municipal employers and their striking employees might start resolving their differences. All parts in the ongoing conflict at the township level agreed to start talking again with a national mediator, even though admittedly stubborn union leaders put up a hard line and other strikes dragged on as well.

Arne Johannessen, lead negotiator for labour organization Unio, has admitted it may be difficult for the unions still striking to win any better offer than those that have settled, but claims they need to make a statement. PHOTO: Unio

News bureau NTB reported Tuesday morning that labour organizations LO Kommune, Unio and YS Kommune would all voluntarily show up for talks with municipal employers’ organization KS in the offices of the national mediator (Riksmekleren) from 11am Tuesday. The goal was to end strikes that continue to disrupt public services all over Norway.

“I’m glad we have come far enough that there’s a basis for voluntary mediation,” Gunn Olander, negotiations leader for YS Kommune, told NTB. That’s the division of trade union confederation YS for unions representing employees in Norway’s municipalities (kommuner, or townships). YS Stat, which represents state employees, settled its differences with state employers over the weekend as did LO Stat in return for a raise of around 4.1 percent and agreement on some contested workplace issues.

The municipal employees, though, kept striking as they have for nearly two weeks, forcing shutdown of hundreds of schools and day care centers and disruption of health and nursing home care, garbage collection and a long list of other community services. After the state union settlement, it’s been expected that mediation would resume but some union leaders like Anders Folkestad at Unio have claimed they’re still so angry that they won’t go along and send their members back to work, either at the state or local levels.

Unio thus still has 16,000 members out on strike, including 3,400 state employees from Thursday, when the strike was due to spread further. Unio’s leaders claim it’s time to “make a statement” and set an example for future strikes, and that especially those public sector workers with lengthy education won’t sell themselves cheaply.

‘Making a statement’
Arne Johannessen, lead negotiator for Unio, has admitted that it will be “difficult” to extract any better agreement than the 4.1 percent raise won by the other state unions this year, but he claims “we can’t stand still and watch the gap widen between public sector and private sector pay.” Both state union leaders and state employers continue to avoid the fact that state workers have much better pension plans, benefits and job security than private sector workers. Economists have noted that they don’t calculate that value into the pay gap issue, with political commentators suggesting that’s because the unions can throw pension benefits back at the politicians who ultimately control state pay scales. Norwegian politicians also enjoy much better pension plans than those found in the private sector themselves.

Meanwhile, pressure may be building on both sides, not least as garbage starts piling up in Oslo and starts posing health hazards in cities like Bergen. The labour organizations’ strikes are actually saving the townships millions of kroner every day, and their “statement” may amount to little more than a PR stunt that can backfire as the general public grows weary of having to find child-minding solutions and deal with stinky garbage.

Despite the reports of renewed mediation, the labour organizations also were warning, though, that their strikes would spread later in the week, with YS Kommune prepared to pull another 290 persons off the job from Saturday, LO Kommune expanding its striking members to more than 31,000 and Unio boosting its strikers by 344.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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