Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie of the Conservative Party ordered an end to Norway’s longest hospital strike ever Tuesday evening. All striking doctors and other medical professionals were ordered back to work immediately.
“I’m very sorry about this, it’s their responsibility to negotiate pay,” Hauglie said on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s national nightly newscast Dagsrevyen. “But now we had come to a situation where I had to step in.”
Hauglie used her authority to call both sides in to a meeting late Tuesday afternoon, to ask whether there was any willingness on either side to return to the bargaining table. There wasn’t, so she ordered what the Norwegians call tvungen lønnsnemnd (mandatory arbitration), forcing the two sides to settle. That probably means the doctors will have to give up their demand for contractural relief from what they consider to be excessively long duty shifts. Hospital employers have always had an exemption from Norwegian labour regulations that limit legal work hours.
It was a shortage of just one doctor at a hospital in Northern Norway that unleashed the arbitration order. Nordlandssykehuset in Bodø lacked a doctor to provide emergency medical care Tuesday evening and ordered a non-striking doctor to work. The union objected, calling it strike-busting, and Health Minister Bent Høie continued to refuse to step in.
When the hospital then alerted county authorities that it would not have adequate staffing in an emergency, a decision was made that the five-week strike had threatened life and health. State health authorities sent a report to Høie’s government colleague Hauglie citing their concerns and she decided the strike had to end.
Hauglie denied that the situation in Bodø was the entire reason she stepped in. She claimed the lengthy strike had also forced the postponement of so many operations and hospital examinations that the sheer backlog was also threatening life and health. As of Tuesday evening, a total of 628 employees at 15 hospitals around the country had walked off the job, and their union planned to pull another 54 out on strike on Thursday.
Doctors and their labour organization expressed deep disappointment, and bitter relations with the employers’ organization Spekter that represented the hospital administrators looked likely to continue. No one was smiling at Hauglie’s hastily called press conference Tuesday evening. The doctors will continue to demand more influence on how duty schedules are set up at Norway’s public health insitutions.