Thousands of Norwegians turned out all over the country for traditional workers’ rallies and parades on their May 1st Labour Day holiday. Top city officials in Oslo, meanwhile, used the occasion to launch their political campaigns for re-election this fall.
“Dear comrades!” bellowed Raymond Johansen from the podium at Youngstorget, a central square in Oslo that’s ringed by his own Labour Party’s headquarters and that of Norway’s largest trade union federation LO. The upcoming election “can be historic,” Johansen claimed, if his Labour- led city government wins re-election in September.
It would be “the first time in 50 years” since Labour was re-elected in the Norwegian capital, he claimed, “and we have done what we promised.” He boasted about expanded day care and elder care while also transferring both from private- to public-sector operators. He bashed “commercial, private providers” who put profits “ahead of welfare,” noting how the city also has taken over local energy provider Hafslund, while further claiming to build a “greener, cleaner Oslo where we take care of each other.”
Johansen and Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen of the Socialist Left party unabashedly promoted their political programs. Neither mentioned the current sky-high electricity bills issued by Hafslund, double-digit increases in the property tax they imposed immediately after winning the 2014 election, or ongoing shortcomings in elder care and public housing projects.
The crowd applauded, but there’s no guarantee the left-wing parties will hang on to power this fall despite the festive May Day atmosphere. Municipal elections will be held just after Oslo residents get their first batch of bills from 53 new toll plazas that are being set up around the city. The goal is to get more residents to bicycle or take public transport to work instead of driving, but it may backfire. Labour’s working class constituency will be hit with what can amount to much higher taxes on their daily commute, and that’s not popular among either Labour Party voters or those on the far right side of Norwegian politics.
A grass-roots uproar against more and higher road tolls all over Norway was an issue at Labour Day celebrations on Wednesday. The turnout at the conservative Progress Party’s Nei til bompenger protest in front of the Parliament Building was small, but in cities like Drammen, Bergen, Stavanger and suburban Sandnes, the anti-toll protests had a high profile after attracting widespread voter support. A newly established party FNB (Folkeaskjonen Nei til mer bompenger) has grabbed 17 percent of the vote in Bergen, according to a recent public opinion poll. That can leave toll proponents like Johansen and his “comrades” in Oslo facing a political backlash this fall.
Political issues marked May Day celebrations from Finnmark in the north to Oslo and Kristiansand in the south, where Labour Party leader and prime minister hopeful Jonas Gahr Støre was the main speaker. “There’s great variation in what’s important,” Dag Einar Thorsen, an assistant professor at the University of Southeast Norway told news bureau NTB before the Labour Day demonstrations began. “The organizers of May 1st events traditionally have tried to create the broadest possible support for the banners they’re marching under, but not always.”
The largest single group of people out marching in Oslo on Wednesday was protesting state plans to move the capital’s (and the country’s) largest hospital complex (Ullevål University Hospital) to a new high-rise location adjacent to the National Hospital (Rikshospitalet) at Gaustad, and convert Ullevåls sprawling central location into housing and commercial property development. That’s met strong opposition from the medical community and local residents who want to preserve and improve Ullevål, while also re-establishing Aker sykehus as a community hospital and emergency care facility.
Other banners called for everything from banning nuclear weapons and promoting equality to providing “housing for everyone” and recognizing Palestine. Out marching were local trade union chapters, other various labour organizations, humanitarian agencies and lots of marching bands. Johansen and Mayor Borgen led the parade after a busy morning of local rallies, breakfasts and memorial ceremonies for fallen labour leaders.
Asked whether she really wouldn’t have preferred a day off on the May 1st holiday, Borgen told newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this week that “no, the 1st of May is a day I really look forward to. I’ve marched in the parade for 50 years. It’s an important day to show what’s still important to fight for, which is a more fair society and strong fellowship.” She wasn’t wearing a bunad, but she and most others were dressed up a bit, and ready to preserve Norway’s social welfare state.