Strike threat over teacher talks

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It was the teachers’ turn to go to the negotiating table on Thursday, as unions met with the local government sector organization KS. Unions flat out rejected KS’ proposed wage offer ahead of the meeting, and already threatened to take strike action if no agreement could be reached.

Labour organization Unio has about 320,000 members across a dozen sectors. It has shown in the past it's not afraid to take stop work action if negotiations break down, such as this strike in May 2012. PHOTO: facebook.com/unio

Labour organization Unio has about 320,000 members across a dozen sectors. It has shown in the past it’s not afraid to take stop work action if negotiations break down, such as this strike in May 2012. PHOTO: facebook.com/unio

Negotiations broke down between KS and the teacher organizations earlier this year. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that over the next two weeks, the parties will again try to deal with controversial issues including discussions on teachers’ working hours.

“We’re going into labour negotiations with the same demands over the working agreement that we had when we broke during winter,” said Ragnhild Lied, the head of the Education Union (Utdanningsforbundet) and the chief negotiator at Unio, Norway’s second largest labour confederation. “If we must, we are ready to strike. We won’t accept anything to avoid a strike. We are clear on that.”

Teachers have rallied to the cause throughout the year, taking part in petitions, demonstrations and social media campaigns. Hundreds demonstrated outside the parliament buildings in Oslo over the weekend. Lied was confident the momentum would have an influence over KS going into the talks.

KS’s head negotiator Per Kristian Sundnes said there was a real danger of conflict, but was more optimistic that strike action could be avoided. “I reckon there’s a 70 percent chance of avoiding a strike if we get a skilled mediator,” he said. Sundnes denied teachers’ rallying had made any impact on KS’s stance.

Working hours key
Research foundation Fafo told Dagsavisen there were three main sticking points over teachers’ hours. There was disagreement over the level of detail governing working hours to be included in employment contracts, and how much education teachers need across different subjects at different levels.

Under the current agreements the total hours of bound and unbound time are set, but the KS wants a less strict framework. There’s also disagreement about the length of the school year. Currently, working hours are divided into 38 teaching weeks, plus an extra week for professional development and planning. The work time equals a full time equivalent role in total hours.

“I think they’re still far apart on the basic view of working time,” said researcher Kristine Nergaard. “This is a central theme for teaching personnel. We see in the media and in discussions that this is important to them.”

Nergaard said it would be better for KS to reach an agreement through negotiation, rather that letting things reach the point of strike action. “The National Wages Board (Rikslønnsnemnda) has no tradition of making major changes in collective agreements,” she said. “This suggests that KS will eventually look for compromises.”

Money into schools or teachers?
Sundnes told Dagsavisen the reason teachers’ working hours were so important to the municipalities was simply that they wanted better schools, and there’s no money to save on that. “On the contrary, we want to get better teaching and more time with the students from the resources we have,” he said. “There are many who accuse us of wanting to save money. But even though many of the municipalities have poor finances, I have never heard of a council that would save money on schools.”

Lied said working hours were just one part of the wage negotiations. “There are also big challenges related to wage settlement,” she said. “Over the last decade, the figures show that teachers’ salary increase was nine percentage points lower than other municipal employees.” She said education faced major issues in recruiting new teachers, because the younger generation is not interested in the comparatively low paid profession with long working hours.

In this week’s other major wage negotiations, industrial employer groups and unions managed to reach a labour agreement after the talks stretched into 17 hours of overtime beyond the deadline of midnight on Tuesday. The agreement has ramifications for other Norwegian sectors, because it sets the tone for other industries’ bargaining agreements over the coming months.