Labour movement loses its steam

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NEW ANALYSIS: It’s not just Norway’s Labour Party that has seemed to be imploding after decades of dominance. The labour movement itself, once a huge force in the Norwegian power structure, is losing members and momentum, leaving the working class it long represented with a loss of faith that’s shaking up voting patterns.

Neither the Norwegian Labour Party nor its platform or leader, Jonas Gahr Støre, appealed to voters in the last election, and the party is now in crisis. Trade union federations like LO, which have tradtionally backed Labour, are losing public support, too. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Just when observers think developments within the Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) can’t get any worse, they do. The sexual harassment scandal around Labour veteran Trond Giske continues to swirl, with lawyers and friends on his side vowing to fight for him while he remains on sick leave. Others claim that will only further damage the party, after its embattled leader Jonas Gahr Støre concluded late last week that Giske had violated the party’s guidelines against sexual harassment, and that the party had lost confidence in him.

Then came news that two of Giske’s top aides were quitting, since Giske no longer is deputy party leader. On Sunday evening, just before the party’s national board gathered in Oslo on Monday, the leader of Labour’s secretariat, Hans Kristian Amundsen, announced he was also resigning. Amundsen claimed friction between him and Labour Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng had grown so strong that the two “couldn’t be in the same meeting.” He’s held powerful positions within the party including as top adviser to former Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, but he claimed he and Stenseng simply couldn’t agree on how to handle all the complaints of sexual harrassment against Giske. Støre said on state broadcaster NRK Monday morning that he’d accepted Amundsen’s resignation. Stenseng’s role has also been called into question, with no guarantee she’ll survive all the turbulence either.

Labour losing its constituency
Sparks were thus expected to fly at Monday’s extraordinary Labour Party board meetings, not least over whether Giske (who will continue as a Member of Parliament because elected officials can’t simply resign or be fired in Norway) could still be a member of the party’s central board himself. The board unanimously decided he could not, declaring at midday Monday that it wouldn’t be “natural” for Giske to take part in board meetings since he’d already had to resign as deputy party leader.

The sparks may still be ignited as more members of the working class that Labour traditionally represented are speaking up or bailing out. While Labour Party officials discussed Giske, sexual harassment, the party’s terrible election results and the way forward on Monday, the old working class’ rank-and-file doesn’t always feel Labour is defending them any longer. Many are defecting to other parties. That can leave Labour without its labour constituency. Some workers complain that party officials themselves don’t think Norway has much of a working class longer, as the population has become more highly educated and lots of industrial production has been moved abroad.

Among them is Tor Gunnar Hastvedt, a self-described “labour author” and longtime industrial worker who blasted the Labour Party and Støre  in a commentary in newspaper Dagsavisen on Monday, Hastvedt is not the first to complain. He thinks working conditions in Norway have deteriorated over the years, with a more “commandeering” management culture and much less job security. He claims there’s a reason why Labour could claim around 50 percent of the vote in the 1950s compared to just over 20 percent now: Far fewer Labour officials or Members of Parliament have a working class background. Many view Labour leader Støre himself as coming from the elite and not the rank and file.

Working class ‘overlooked’ or ‘ridiculed’
“It’s been claimed that Norway doesn’t have a working class any longer,” Hastvedt wrote. He argues it’s simply “overlooked,” or ridiculed “because we don’t have academic credentials, we don’t sip wine, maybe we’re vulgar,” and he claims the trend continued even when Labour held government power. It’s enough to make one wonder whether Norway has its own population of so-called working class “deplorables” who dumped the Democrats in the US, voted for Donald Trump instead, and won.

Hastvedt, who said he’d voted for Labour since 1981, wrote that he has switched parties and thinks others will, too: “Maybe they’ll vote for the (conservative) Progress Party, maybe they won’t vote at all. With Støre in the driver’s seat there’s absolutely the chance that the party can fall down to 8 percent like (Labour’s) sister party did in the Netherlands, or 6.3 percent like the French social democrats.”

Union representation in decline
Surveys, meanwhile, have been showing that the numbers of Norwegians opting to organize themselves in various trade unions are falling. The latest show that a majority of employees in Norway are not union members. State statistics bureau SSB could report last spring that total numbers of union members keep rising, but those from OECD show that their share of the total workforce has declined, from 52.1 percent in 2013 to less than half now (49 percent according to Norwegian labour research organization Fafo).

Dagsavisen reported over the weekend that the degree of organization among Norwegian workers has fallen steadily over the past 10 years. According to Fafo, around 80 percent of workers in the public sector are organized, while only 38 percent are organized in the private sector. Union membership is lowest among those under the age of 25 and highest among the oldest workers (age 50 to 64).

The decline has been especially hard on LO, Norway’s largest trade union confederation that once was a powerhouse in the country and remains closely alligned with the Labour Party. Dagsavisen reported how LO once represented two-thirds of all union members in Norway. Now less than half are part of LO. Numbers from Fafo show that only 28 percent of all employees in the sales, service and health care sector were organized in 2014.

Harassment in the unions, too
While the Labour Party has struggled with sexual harassment, so have labour unions themselves, along with a wide range of sectors from academia to business, finance and the arts. A large dinner meeting of union representatives tied to the transport federation in 2015 ended up being halted after male members were accused of harassing and even assaulting those serving them. “I’ve never been so angry at my fellow union comrades,” Ole Einar Adamsrød of the Norsk Transporarbeiderforbund told their trade publication FriFagbevegelse. Hotel and restaurant workers have been prime targets of harassment for years, in this case from labour union representatives otherwise charged with protecting them.

Harassment within labour organizations has caused some women to drop membership or not attend union events because of a culture of harassment. In November, around 700 women working in labour organizations launched their own campaign against harassment, and men are standing up against it, too. Newspaper VG has reported that a top LO official has been suspended because of harassment complaints against him. Newspaper Aftenposten reported last month that a top negotiator for the union federation Fagforbundet was warned against specific men within the labour movement because of their records of harassment.

That doesn’t help recruitment to labour unions, which SSB has characterized as “less popular.” Both union officials and Labour Party officials are thus trying to reverse the tide as their support wanes, and Støre struggles to retain his support as well.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund