UPDATED: Thousands of state workers around the country were poised to go out on strike Thursday if their demands for higher pay aren’t met. After more than 16 hours of overtime negotiations that ended Thursday afternoon, state mediators managed to avoid a strike that would pull as many as 77,000 public sector employees off the job.
Newspaper VG reported late Thursday morning that there likely would be no major strike after all. Details remained sketchy, but VG reported that three of the four major trade union federations representing state workers had all agreed to a proposed settlement put forth by mediators Richard Saue and Nils Dalseide.
Federations LO Stat, Unio and YS Stat reportedly support the proposal. The only hold-out, according to VG, was Akademikerne, which represents a wide range of state employees within education and various other state agencies. The stalemate was later resolved on Thursday afternoo, after 16 hours of overtime talks, through two agreements. LO Stat, YS Stat and Unio received a “pot” to split between central and local wage hikes, while Akademikerne received one pot of funds to be used strictly for raises decided at the local level.
A strike would have affected police, university and college employees, those working at state welfare agency NAV and many other state offices. National mediator Dalseide and his colleagues started making a last-ditch effort this week to ward off a major strike after negotiations between the state and the four major labour organizations representing state employees broke down.
The unions objected to wage hikes of less than 3 percent that they don’t think will reduce a pay gap between men and women. The unions also claimed the state was allocating too much of the amount set aside for moderate pay raises for local wage settlements, instead of standard raises on a nationwide basis.
Strike could escalate quickly
A strike was due to begin relatively modestly, with 6,200 workers called off the job. LO Stat planned to send the largest amount of state employees (4,000) out on strike, mostly in Oslo and Trondheim and mostly at NAV and tax offices. State prison personnel would also be affected along with those working on the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.
Unio was set to call out 1,100 of its members, mostly at Norwegian colleges and universities and within the state police. Akademikerne planned to pull 814 members off the job at state directorates, NAV, the police, and the state military research institute (Forsvarets forskningsinstitutt), while YS threatened to call out members working at the customs agency, several state ministries and the Bjørgvin Prison in Bergen.
The strike was also set to escalate quickly, with the unions threatening to pull as many as 77,000 state employees off the job. That would have affected everything from law enforcement to whether students were able to take year-end exams.
‘Unfair and unreasonable’ pay standards
The threatened strike and reported settlement came while 1,700 state employees of Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) were already off the job, all but shutting down news operations and most all radio programs. That strike entered its second week on Tuesday but was settled Wednesday night after NRK journalists prevailed with their demands for more than the 2.8 percent pay raises offered by the state. They claimed that wouldn’t narrow the gap between their salaries and those at private media operations. They also won better terms for continuing education and an end to what many considered exploitation of young new journalists who only are offered short-term work contracts with none of the job security that long has helped justify lower pay at NRK.
The NRK strike and new state strike threats surprised many who thought this year’s annual spring labour negotiations would proceed without conflicts. Norway’s two large trade union federations LO and YS settled their differences with national employers’ organization NHO earlier this year, and since the private sector came to terms, most thought the public sector would as well. The main issues now have been over pay, and they’re often easier to settle than issues of principle regarding work conditions, pensions and benefits.
State workers, however, have grown weary of accepting lower, standardized pay scales at a time when more top state bureaucrats are securing much higher pay that more closely resembles that paid in the private sector. They also don’t think it’s fair or reasonable that their raises should copy those agreed in the private sector, especially when private sector employers have been able to demand low pay raises or none at all as Norway recovers from an economic slump sparked by the collapse of oil prices in 2014. Many unions representing private sector workers have accepted minimal pay packages in an effort to ward off more layoffs.
Politicians, NRK caught in a squeeze
“It’s not carved in stone that all NRK journalists and all state employees must be satisfied with a 2.8 percent raise,” wrote political commentator Arne Strand in newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. He also noted that demands for reducing pay gaps between men and women, and between the public and private sectors are “not unreasonable.”
Norway’s farmers secured state subsidies and tariff protection last week that give them the equivalent of 3.5 percent pay raises on average. State workers want the same sort of consideration and more flexibility regarding the negotiating models used for decades.
Politicians, meanwhile, risked criticism from voters if more taxpayer revenues are used to allot state workers higher raises than those accepted in the private sector. NRK’s management also faced criticism if it uses revenues from the mandatory broadcasting license fees collected from Norwegian households and businesses on higher pay for its workers instead of on more and better programs.
NRK’s management was already under attack from license-paying viewers who currently aren’t getting any of the newscasts and other news and feature programming that they’ve paid for.