More pension turbulence looms

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Norwegian airline Widerøe was flying again on Monday after striking flight attendants won the right to negotiate some of their pension terms and went back to work. The pension victory was encouraging other unions to demand the same, meaning that more labour turbulence lies ahead, and not just for airlines.

Widerøe serves many small airports all over Norway like here at Volda on the West Coast, and the airline has been profitable for the past 13 years in a row. Now it's up for sale, to raise money for its parent company SAS, with Norwegian buyers already expressing interest. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Widerøe serves many small airports all over Norway like here at Volda on the West Coast, and expected that all its flights would be operating normally again this week after a flight attendants’ strike ended. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Widerøe’s management and representatives for its cabin crews came to terms Saturday afternoon, ending a four-day strike that grounded all Widerøe flights and stranded 11,000 passengers per day. The airline still had to cancel several flights on Sunday as it worked to get aircraft back into position, but a Widerøe spokesperson said all flights should be back on schedule and operating as normal on Monday.

Kari Onarheim, leader of the Widerøe flight attendants’ union, said she was relieved and glad that the strike was over. “Common sense won in the end and we have achieved fairness in that our group will also now have influence over our own pensions,” Onarheim told news bureau NTB. Widerøe officials were also relieved.

“We agreed with the cabin crews that they can have negotiating rights over parts of future pension terms,” Widerøe’s chief executive Lars Kobberstad told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). The pension terms, he said, will now be regulated through local contracts between Widerøe’s flight attendants’ union and the company. “For us,” Kobberstad claimed, “this won’t cost anything either in kroner or flexibility for the company.”

Others weren’t so sure, after the flight attendants’ labour organization Parat said it would make the pension negotiating rights won at Widerøe an example for the entire private sector. Parat also won similar rights for helicopter pilots at the company Lufttransport in March, and Vegard Einan of Parat thinks the Widerøe agreement can set the tone for the next major pension contract talks for all other employers.

“Absolutely, we believe this deal should have an effect,” said Einan, who also is leader of private sector negotiations in the labour federation YS of which Parat is a member. “Very few manage to follow all the changes within pension plans, and we think it’s important that employees are guaranteed negotiating rights, so they can maintain the same pension benefits they have today. Not necessarily in every single company, but perhaps in broader pension plans within various branches.”

Employers downplay any effects
Einan’s counterpart in the employers’ organization NHO quickly bashed Einan’s expectations. Svein Oppegaard of NHO downplayed the effect of Parat’s settlement with Widerøe and claimed it would have no bearing on other pension negotiations.

“This is no breakthrough for negotiations over pension contracts,” Oppegaard told DN.  “YS is trying to give the impression that they gained something here, but they haven’t.”

Oppegaard stressed that the Widerøe flight attendants only won an agreement over how they’ll be compensated for a looming transition in 2017 from their current pension program that guarantees a certain percentage of their income at time of retirement (a so-called ytelsespensjon) to a less secure and likely less lucrative pension plan called an innskuddspensjon. An innskuddspensjon, already imposed by many other employers and set to be phased in at Widerøe, only requires employers to deposit a certain amount of money into employees’ pension accounts every year (generally around 5 percent of their income but often as low as 2 percent), leaving the employee responsible for how the money is invested. Employers therefore free themselves of more expensive pension premiums and the higher risk of future pension obligations while employees can wind up with poorer pensions, which is why the Widerøe flight attendants sought compensation.

The difference over interpretation of the impact of the Widerøe settlement between NHO and YS nonetheless sets the stage for more conflicts over pensions in future labour negotiations. Widerøe officials, meanwhile, were more concerned on Monday with resuming their scheduled airline service that is the only transport option in many small communities all over Norway. The strike was costly for the airline, but a spokeswoman said Monday that they aimed to recoup the losses.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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