New union boss takes command

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He’s already being called one of Norway’s most powerful persons: Hans-Christian Gabrielsen is the new leader of the country’s largest trade union confederation LO, responsible for around 900,000 union members in Norway, spread over 25 labour federations. That gives him lots of clout in a country where organized labour has deep traditions and commands respect.

Hans-Christian Gabrielsen was elected as the new leader of LO, Norway’s largest trade union confederation. PHOTO: LO/Sandra Skillingsås

Gabrielsen was elected as LO’s new leader after its latest national congress, and he’ll head the organized labour effort for the next four years. He replaces Gerd Kristiansen, who retired from LO’s top post but will remain active in the movement. Some commentators think Gabrielsen, who’ll turn 50 this summer, may end up holding the post for the next 12 years given his relatively young age.

He hails from a modest background, working first in the cellulose industry at Tofte for 11 years and later representing its workers, also on the board of forestry firm Norske Skog, before going to work for the union federation Fellesforbundet in 1996. He moved up the ranks and gained international experience in negotiating labour agreements involving the multinational Norske Skog. From there he moved on to LO, where he’s been responsible for business policy, the environment and climate issues, corporate democracy and cooperation between LO, the seafarers’ and officers’ unions.

Gabrielsen, who lives at Slemmestad in Asker, not far from his roots on Hurum, also ventured into politics, becoming a member of the local community council for the Labour Party. He became leader of the Labour Party in Røyken and deputy leader in Buskerud County, has been a member of the party’s national board and his first major goal is to mobilize union members to vote for Labour in the upcoming national election in September. LO is never as powerful as when Labour runs the government, so it’s in his interests to campaign for the ouster of Norway’s current Conservatives-led government coalition.

Gabrielsen replaces Gerd Kristiansen, shown here thanking Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre for his address at the recent LO Congress. LO will be working hard to get Støre elected as Norway’s next prime minister. PHOTO: LO/Sandra Skillingsås

In addition to that, however, he faces myriad challenges within LO itself. He managed to quell a revolt among some LO members who want Norway to dump its current trade agreement with the EU (called the EØS-avtale) in favour of a new deal that will give Norway more power to decide its own rules and regulations instead of having to comply with those set by the EU. For all its shortcomings, the EØS pact was supported by LO’s leadership, the Labour Party’s candidate for prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre and nearly all Norwegian newspapers, and that prevailed in the end after intense debate.

So did some other issues, though, which Gabrielsen now must defend, including calls for a controversial “economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.” It was approved on the grounds that it may be the only way to pressure Israel into “ending its occupation” of Palestinian lands, “since dialogue and resolutions have had little effect.” It’s unlikely for any Norwegian government, even a Labour-led coalition, however, to go along with the demand.

Some LO officials also continue to call for just a six-hour workday and removal of new rules, ushered in by the current conservative government, that allow more temporary- instead of full-time employment. The Labour Party supports the latter.

Gabrielsen has admitted he probably won’t have much time in the years ahead for his favorite hobby, playing the drums in a rock band. “You have to concentrate so much, you play with others and you have to listen all the time,” he told newspaper Dagsavisen recently. Those are traits he’ll likely be calling on in his new top post at LO, too. Berglund