Corona sabotaged labour negotiations

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Spring wage and benefit negotiations between Norway’s biggest trade union federations and employers’ organizations traditionally rank as among the most important events of the year. The Corona crisis has upset just about everything, though, with all talks put off until early autumn in an unprecedented postponement.

Jørn Eggum (left), leader of the large trade union federation Fellesforbundet, ceremonially handed his members’ demands over to Stein Lier Hansen of employers’ organization Norsk Industri last week. Two days later they both realized it was impossible to negotiate in the midst of the Corona crisis, postponing annual labour negotiations for the first time ever. PHOTO: Fellesforbundet/John Trygve Tollefsen

“Our delegation had been very goal-oriented,” Jørn Eggum, leader of the powerful labour federation Fellesforbundet, stated in a press release heading into the weekend, “but we could see that it wasn’t possible to negotiate further under the chaotic situation Norway is now experiencing.”

Eggum and his counterpart at the employers’ organization Norsk Industri, Stein Lier-Hansen thus had to agree to postpone negotiations until August. Their talks are always at the forefront and generally set the tone for all other labour negotiations, but after the traditional (if Corona-improper) handshake launching talks two days earlier, they were over before they really began.

Eggum stressed how his group’s negotiations with industrial employers will still “form the framework” for wages and benefits for all Norwegian workers. “The only responsible thing to do in this situation, however, was to put them off,” he said. He noted how “this has never happened before,” but insisted that labour principles for Norwegian employees will endure. All other spring labour negotiations have been postponed as well.

‘Taking a pause’
The main problem is how the Corona virus is wreaking havoc with Norway’s otherwise strong economy, and those all over the world as well. In a matter of days, many of Norway’s biggest and strongest companies had to send employees home to work, airlines had to slash flights and ground aircraft because of travel restrictions and an utter lack of future bookings and ticket sales, hotels had to close after conferences and other major events were cancelled, restaurants closed as well and all events attracting more than 50 people were cancelled, too.

Layoff warnings were already pouring in by Friday, when Lier-Hansen and Eggum signed a letter agreeing to “take a pause” in the current negotiations. By Tuesday, more than 45,000 laid-off employees of various hard-hit businesses were filing applications for unemployment benefits, and the number is expected to grow rapidly.

Wanted ‘real’ raises
The two lead negotiators were already at odds before talks began, with Eggum and other union leaders in Norway demanding “real” pay raises after several years of moderation that barely kept up with albeit low inflation. Eggum was talking about raises of around 3.7 percent, while Leir-Hansen was demanding less than 3 percent. The result, whenever it comes, will be important since it’s likely to set the rate for most raises in Norway.

Eggum also was poised to demand more employer-paid continuing education and training programs to help boost competence in the ever-changing digital age. Pay was most important, though: “We must, through these negotiations, make sure that employees in Norway acquire increased purchasing power.” Leir-Hansen was more preoccupied with preserving his member companies’ profitability, and jobs.

Some had been willing to strike
At least two of the labour groups due to negotiate after Eggum’s and Leir-Hansen’s so-called frontfagene, airline flight attendants and hotel workers, were actually poised to strike if they didn’t receive “real” pay hikes and more predictable work schedules.

Now most all flight attendants and thousands of other airline employees at SAS, Norwegian and Widerøe are being laid off, as are hotel workers who, at the Choice chain, complained in December of how they’d only received raises last year equal to NOK 0.15 an hour. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported just a two months ago that the willingness to strike was strong. Now the airlines have grounded much of their fleets, many hotels have closed and workers may not have jobs at all when labour talks resume.

Corona effect
Corona virus concerns had already affected the negotiating climate before talks were postponed. Some argued that employers were all but exploiting it to fend off bigger pay raises. Eggum argued as late as last week that many of the companies hit hard were more worried about liquidity than profitability. Now many are simply struggling to survive.

The two sides started talking last Tuesday, just a day after the Oslo Stock Exchange crashed, the price of Norwegian oil collapsed and the krone weakened to a level never seen earlier. No one knows what those numbers will be in August, or how many union members will even still have jobs, but they’ll at least start talking again.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund