Top Norwegian politicians from left to right were mourning the sudden death on Tuesday of the country’s largest trade union federation’s leader, Hans-Christian Gabrielsen. The LO boss is believed to have suffered a massive heart attack while sleeping, at the age of 53.
“Hans-Christian didn’t wake up this morning,” Peggy Hessen Følsvik, LO’s deputy leader, told state broadcaster NRK. “His heart just stopped beating. The entire LO family is in deep sorrow.”
It’s not often Norwegians see their political leaders fighting back tears, or normally tough labour union officials almost unable to speak. The sudden death of Gabrielsen came as a huge shock, right in the middle of annual spring labour negotiations that Gabrielsen led, and shortly after a nationally televised press conference on the effects of the Corona crisis in which he’d participated.
“Hans-Christian was a calm and restrained leader who will be remembered for his decency and his deep commitment to workers,” Følsvik said. “He was greatly respected and commanded confidence far beyond his own ranks.”
He grew up at Slemmestad, between Oslo and Drammen, and worked for the forest products firm Tofte Industrier for 11 years before being hired by trade union federation Fellesforbundet in 1996. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming deputy leader in 2003. He moved on to Norway’s largest trade union federation LO and was elected its leader in 2017. Gabrielsen also served on his local community council, representing the Labour Party, from 1995 to 2003.
“As leader of the Labour Party, I would like to say we’ve lost someone in whom we’d placed our confidence,” said Jonas Gahr Støre. “Personally, I’ve lost one of my closest political confidants.” Støre said he’d spoken with Gabrielsen on both Saturday and Sunday, and had two meetings with him on Monday.
“It’s simply unreal to receive the news that he has died,” Støre told NRK.
Støre wasn’t the only one choking up on Tuesday as word spread of Gabrielsen’s death. Raymond Johansen, leader of the Labour Party-led Oslo city government, opened his early afternoon press conference, to announce new Corona virus control measures, by saying that “it’s hard to stand here now,” after being told just a half-hour earlier “that Hans-Christian Gabrielsen is dead. That came as a great shock. I and many others have lost a good friend, and LO has lost a warm and wise leader who still had so much to do. It feels completely unreal.”
Gabrielsen’s counterparts at Norway’s national employers’ organization NHO were also stunned, and heaping praise on the man who was their adversary but also partner in Norway’s business and labour system. “Hans-Christian Gabrielsen was fully engaged for workers in Norway,” said Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservative Party. “He sent a clear message about what LO meant, but was also constructive and always keen to find solutions. He also mastered the art of easing tense situations with a joke or a funny comment.” Isaksen had also just been in a meeting with Gabrielsen on Monday, regarding the situation for workers in European countries who can’t get to their jobs in Norway because the Corona crisis has closed borders.
Former finance minister Siv Jensen of the conservative Progress Party also expressed “great sorrow” over news of Gabrielsen’s death, calling him a “highly respected LO leader who will be missed.” Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, leader of the Center Party, also said he’s genuinely miss Gabrielsen, while the Socialist Left Party’s leader Audun Lysbakken said the Norwegian labour movement had “lost a giant today. Hans-Christian was tough and clever, exactly the leader working folks have needed in a crisis year. He was also generous, listened to people and had lots of new ideas.”
Many called Gabrielsen, who’s survived by his wife Trine and daugher Camille, a “pillar” of the labour movement, who always managed to bring people together. LO’s deputy leader Følsvik will take over his duties until a new leader can be elected. The flag outside his former workplace in Tofte was lowered to half-mast.