Pastors on strike during holidays

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A highly unusual strike among pastors in The Norwegian Church continued through the Christmas holidays. It’s the first time pastors have walked off the job in Norway, and possibly in the world, according to their labour organizations.

Pastors in The Norwegian Church, like these picketing outside the Oslo Cathedral, want to preserve housing allowances and thereby stable pay, especially for new pastors. PHOTO: Fagforbundet/Birgit Dannenberg

The strike began earlier this month, over the looming loss of compensation for housing that the clergy was long offered (or forced to accept) in Norway. When the state still controlled the church, it provided often rather grand if rundown historic homes for local pastors (presteboliger) that were located near the churches where they served. When that ended five years ago, the pastors were granted another extra NOK 40,000-60,000 a year to cover local housing costs.

That special agreement is now due to run out from January 1 as a result of the reform of the state church. The pastors’ new employers, both a bishops’- and church council (Kirkerådet), no longer recognize the agreement and cite “a need for greater freedom” in negotiating pastors’ salaries.

Striking for ‘the future of the church’
The pastors, already facing severe Corona-related restrictions on church services this year and no settlement of the housing compensation conflict in sight, thus felt compelled to strike on behalf of new, mostly young pastors who now risk lower guaranteed pay. It means that many of the pastors who’ve been out on strike since December 12 have nothing to gain themselves, since their pay is generally well-established and they’ve arranged their own housing. New pastors, especially those sent to outlying districts, face starting out at a much lower pay level with no housing compensation.

Jorund Andersen, parish pastor at the large Ullern Church in Oslo, told newspaper Klassekampen just before Christmas that it saddened her “not to be able to be together with the congegration this holiday season,” which runs through this week. She thinks it’s difficult to be on strike not only during the Christmas- and New Year holidays but also during the Corona pandemic.

“At the same time, I think this issue (compensation for new pastors) is so important that I feel I have to stand up for it,” Andersen said. “It’s the price you pay to be organized that you stand together in a conflict.” She and other pastors want the amount of the former housing allowance to remain incorporated into the guaranted minimum pay for pastors, which now runs from around NOK 400,000 (USD 46,500) a year for those with a bachelor’s degree to around NOK 500,000 for those with six years of higher education in theology. If the allowance is not retained, the guaranteed pay levels will decline by NOK 40,000-60,000.

‘Justified’
Even the current guaranteed pay is relatively low in high-cost Norway. Commentator Kjell Werner, writing in newspaper Dagsavisen, calls the strike “justified” for maintaining current pay guarantees. So does commentator Helge Simonnes, former editor-in-chief of the district-oriented newspaper Vårt Land, who noted Monday that the conflict simply reached a breaking point and that the pastors shouldn’t be left “sitting with income lower than it was five years ago.” Martin Enstad, leader of the pastors’ labour organization Presteforeningen in the Unio trade union federation, also claims that when guaranteed pay levels decline, a larger portion of wage development will be subjected to negotiations and, potentially, more labour conflicts.

The Norwegian Church remains mostly state-funded and faces a need to recruit new pastors to replace many nearing retirement age. Werner argues that cutting guaranteed pay levels won’t help recruitment efforts. The church council now in charge counters that having more freedom to negotiate pay levels can make it easier to attract new pastors. Enstad argues that such practice can create more pay differences among the clergy.

The strike spread on the weekend before Christmas and there were around 43 church employees who’ve been pulled off their jobs heading into New Year. Several trade union groups are involved including Unio, Fagforbundet, Fellesforbundet and Creo.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund