Chances ‘high’ for major spring strikes

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UPDATED: Trade union negotiating season looms in Norway, and this year everything from pay to pensions and benefits will be on the table. Dissatisfaction over pension plans has left union leaders demanding changes, and prompting threats of major labour disruptions this spring.

Striking hotel workers marched through the streets of Oslo and other Norwegian cities in the spring of 2016, but negotiating seasons have otherwise been relatively peaceful and resulted in settlements. This year may be different.  PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

“The chances for storstreik (a major strike involving a wide range of labour organizations and sectors) are absolutely in place,” Jan Olav Andersen, leader of the EL og IT Forbundet that represents electricians and technicians, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. “We know that AFP (pension agreements that allow workers to retire early at age 62) is a difficult issue because there are so many different interpretations among employers and employees.”

The large union federation Handel og Kontor, which represents retail and office workers among others, is also bracing for a fight. “I think it’s been a long time since our members have been so clear that they’re ready to strike if we don’t reach our goals this year,” said its leader Trine Lise Sundnes.

Labour unions in Norway now represent just under half of all workers, a major decline from earlier years, but their leaders aren’t willing to yield their power. Instead they’re flexing their muscles on the eve of negotiations due to start in earnest in mid-March. If those involved don’t come to terms they’ll go into mediation with a strike deadline of April 7.

More all-encompassing negotiations
This year’s annual round of labour negotiations is called a hovedoppgjør, meaning it won’t just center on pay (called a lønnsoppgjør). Negotiations in the past few years have been relatively peaceful, apart from in the airline and hotel industry, with workers and employers mostly agreeing on moderation after oil prices took a dive. Now the Norwegian economy is recovering, though, and all aspects of tariff agreements currently in place will be up for renegotiation on both sides. That means talks can bog down over issues like pensions.

Norway’s official retirement age remains 67 but many workers can opt to retire at 62 in return for lower benefits. Some employers are trying to cut back on that option, though, at the same time that the value of pension plans in general has declined as employers have sought to cut costs. Very few Norwegians in the private sector remain eligible for a fixed pension income for the rest of their lives (traditionally a combination of state- and employer-funded benefits that provide retirees with 67 percent of their income at retirement in the best plans).

Most Norwegians now have pension plans that involve a fixed amount of funding by employers every year, often 5 percent of gross salary, for which the investment risk lies with the employee and benefits are only paid out for 10 years past retirement. State pension benefits are life-long, but many retirees can face a dramatic decline in income at age 77 or earlier. Now the state itself is also trying to move away from traditional pension plans that ensure a fixed salary for life, and opposition can be fierce.

Negotiatons may be centralized
News bureau NTB reported Tuesday that Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO will decide whether each union federation will conduct its own negotiations or whether LO will call, by February 27,  for a sentralt oppgjør, which would group all negotiating parties together with LO and national employers’ organization NHO running the show. The last time that happened was in 2008, when the main conflict was also over pensions. Later on Tuesday, one of the largest federations, Fellesforbundet, voted to go it alone outside the LO fold, in the hopes of settling some issues specific to it. The federaton’s leader, Jørn Eggum, said he still thinks LO will prevail in its pension demands.

Dagsavisen reported that several federation leaders favour central negotiations, on the theory there’s strength in numbers, not least if many sectors go out on strike at the same time. “Pensions are a large and complicated issue, and our members are very clear that they want to be able to vote over the results,” said Jan-Egil Pedersen, leader of another federation, Norsk Nærings- og Nytelsesmiddelarbeiderforbund (NNN).

The transport workers’ union and Handel og Kontor favour a combined form of negotiations, while those in the public sector aren’t commenting because the first rounds of negotiations involve leading private industries subject to competition.

NHO stresses cooperation
The leader of the employers’ organization NHO, Kristin Skogen Lund, meanwhile, has been keen to present a cooperative image heading into negotiations. She even told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this month that the relatively high levels of pay in Norway “are good, because they make us more productive and better-prepared for the future.”

Lund also claimed she was worried that the share of the workforce in Norway that’s organized in labour unions is declining. She flatly denied that Norwegian companies dream about a future without labour unions.

“It takes two to tango,” she told Aftenposten as she visited a worksite with LO boss Hans-Christian Gabrielsen. Both support a longtime system of cooperation between unions and employers and Norway, and that the uniqueness of the so-called “Norwegian model” needs to be preserved.

“When I meet my European counterparts, I don’t think any of them have such a relationship with their labour organizations’ leaders as I have with Hans-Christian,” Lund said. “It’s important that we cooperate.” Gabrielsen agreed, as both braced, though, to face off over pension and pay issues in the weeks ahead.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund