Public service threatens strikes

Bookmark and Share

Unions announced 30,000 government workers could take strike action from Monday morning if no wage settlement can be reached through mediation. The strike has the potential to affect kindergartens, schools, prisons, courthouses, police, customs stations, traffic stations, the tax office and the defense force.

Education and Research Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen visited Heer kindergarten in Drøbak last week. If strike action goes ahead on Monday thousands of state, municipal and Oslo government employees could be taken off the job, which would have immediate impacts on kindergartens and schools. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

Education and Research Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen visited Heer kindergarten in Drøbak last week. If strike action goes ahead on Monday thousands of state, municipal and Oslo government employees could be taken off the job, which would have immediate impacts on kindergartens and schools. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

The mediation deadline for parties in both the state and municipal government talks is midnight on Sunday, reported newspaper Aftenposten. Wage negotiations between the employers and unions broke down at the end of April. Workers want a pay rise of 3.8 percent, which is more than the 3.3 percent increase negotiated by the industrial unions last month. The industrial negotiations are the first major labour talks annually, and tend to set the tone for the rest of the organized Norwegian workforce’s negotiations.

The negotiations involve four of Norway’s major labour confederations – LO, Unio, YS and Akademikerne – which represent workers at the state, municipal and Oslo levels of government. On Wednesday they said they may together withdraw a total of 10,715 state public servants, 17,100 municipal workers, and 2,264 City of Oslo staff, if strike action eventuated.

Serious impact
It’s possible some of the unions could reach a negotiated agreement with the government, while others could still take stop-work action. The potential consequences include prisoners being released, the temporary closure of kindergartens and schools, and significant delays processing this year’s tax settlements.

For instance, YS warned that it may withdraw staff from Bjørgvin prison near Bergen, meaning 90 prisoners would be discharged on leave or shifted to other jails. Last time a strike hit the prison two years ago, there were eight serious breaches of leave by prisoners, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Five people were jailed for new crimes, where one of the cases was a violent episode,” said prison director Harald Åsaune.

Kindergartens, schools and universities in Fredrikstad, Skedsmo, Tønsberg, Porsgrunn, Sandnes, Stavanger, Bergen, Molde, Trondheim, Steinkjer, Alta and Oslo could be affected. Teachers’ wages and working hours are central to the negotiation. Municipal employers’ organization KS wants them to work 45 weeks a year instead of the current 39, but with the same number of total work hours. This would mean less vacation time, which the unions refused to accept.

The impact could also reach nursing homes, home visits by nurses, occupational therapy and physiotherapy, and municipal administration. Solveig Kopperstad Bratseth from the nurses union told NRK a solution through mediation was still the goal, but the union was prepared if no agreement could be reached. “It is the employer that has the responsibility of maintaining adequate staffing that meets the patients’ needs,” she said. “If they believe there is a danger to life and health, they can apply for an exemption.” She said health concerns were taken into account when choosing the institutions to be involved in a possible strike.

Possibly delayed tax refunds
In the tax office, the staff that could be removed are those working to process Norwegians’ tax settlements. It could delay payments to more than 2 million people expecting tax refunds in June. A strike would also close down the national tax switchboard number preventing telephone enquiries, limit tax collection, and affect national register services like the registration of immigrants, personal identification numbers and certificates.

The strike could also affect traffic officers and port inspectors impacting on boat traffic in the Oslofjord, close down toll and traffic stations, affect users of social welfare service NAV, and hinder many of the government ministries. In Oslo custody officers could be taken off the job, affecting suspects being taken into remand centres, and cases before the courts may be postponed. About 16,000 police officers may also stop work.

Municipal impact will hit harder than state
Bård Jordfald from research organization Fafo said the first strike outlets are largely directed at hurting government revenue by moving staff who collect duties, taxes and customs. He said removing 11,000 state employees in the first round of strikes, roughly 10 percent of members, was standard. “To begin with, you and I will not notice that much, other than that the tax settlement can be delayed,” he told NRK.

However, he said action by municipal workers would have far greater impact, because they provide services directly to the public. “An eventual conflict in kindergartens and schools will affect many directly,” Jordfald said. “The goal of a strike is to impact the employer as much as possible in the purse, but for the education union that only organizes preschool teachers and educators, this is difficult without also affecting third parties.”

Make up the difference
The unions argued they need a bigger wage increase to catch up to industry workers, who had higher salaries than public servants to start with, reported NRK. “It is primarily the state as an employer we want to affect, but we cannot avoid third parties also being affected,” said Pål N Arnesen from YS Stat, the confederation negotiating on behalf of members of 13 YS-affiliated organizations.

As well as the demanded wage increase of NOK 7 to 8 million (around USD 1.2 million), there was tension over local salaries, pensions and working hours.

State employees have only gone on strike twice in the past 28 years, while municipal staff have taken action over the past three wage settlements. The national mediator Nils Dalseide expected he was in for a marathon four-day session when mediation got underway on Thursday, because almost nothing unions and employers argued over in the negotiations round had been resolved ahead of the mediation.

Dalseide said strike action remained a possibility while nothing remained solved. “I do not dare to have an opinion about it, but will say that it can always be the outcome,” he told NRK. “If that’s going to be so this time, I will know more about later.”

The state and municipal governments would not comment on the case while the mediation was underway.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate