Norway’s conservative government acted again this week to shut down remaining strikes by thousands of nurses, teachers and other public sector workers around Norway. They claimed the strikes put life and health at risk, but disgusted strikers and their leaders claim it’s all a sham to force them back to work and accept the same raises that other unions already have.
“We view the reason given for compulsory arbitration was just an excuse,” claims Lill Sverresdatter Larsen, leader of the Norwegian nurses’ union Norsk Sykepleier-forbund. “We believe our counterpart (the national organization KS that represents municipal employers) worked actively to find some alleged danger to life and health.”
In the first order Friday to end nationwide strikes by around 20,000 members of unions in the labour federation Unio, Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen of the Conservative Party claimed reduced staffing at a garbage recycling plant in Fredrikstad posed fire danger. On Monday, Isaksen claimed some home nursing services in Oslo (which negotiates separately from the state) endangered the health of recipients.
Both reasons, provided to Isaksen by so-called fagfolk (professional experts) also working for municipal employers, were firmly dismissed by both Larsen and the leaders of teachers’ and nurses’ unions in Oslo. Larsen claimed on national radio Tuesday morning that home health care staffing was higher than it usually is during annual summer holiday season, while a machinist at the recycling plant in Fredrikstad stressed how it had been shut down for maintenance at least three times in the past year, and that the union had made sure there was continual fire control throughout the weekend. He claims the strike was halted under “false premises.”
The orders for compulsory arbitration affected all strikers around the country, not just those in Fredrikstad or Oslo. That only increased frustration among teachers and nurses who weren’t willing to settle for the 2.7- or 2.8 percent pay raises accepted by industrial workers earlier in the spring strike season this year. Isaksen blamed his decisions on strict rules regarding life and health issues during strikes, and that he had to accept the recommendations.
Aina Skjefstad Andersen, leader of Unio’s teachers’ union in Oslo, claimed the Labour Party-led City of Oslo’s employers just didn’t want to negotiate any further after the strikes were called late last month. “This is something the city clearly decided on (and asked Isaksen to carry out),” Andersen said. “Oslo wasn’t interested in finding a solution.”
She claimed all the union leaders had carefully evaluated who they pulled out on strike, in order to avoid raising any issues of risk to life or health. “We’ve done everything by the book and have not put life or health in danger,” agreed Bård Eirik Ruud, head of the nurses’ union’s chapter in Oslo.
Larsen noted that the situation “was no better” when the Labour Party had control of state government, with history showing how orders for compulsory arbitration have been used to end nurses strikes for decades. Another theory is that other labour federations that settled for less than the teachers and nurses demanded would have been in an awkward situation if the teachers and nurses ultimately won higher pay. That could have angered already-dissatisfied members of LO, Norway’s largest labour federation, which settled for 2.7 percent raises from employers’ organization NHO in April.
Unio was thus up against both other labour federations and government officials at both the local and state levels, raising more questions about how strong the labour movement in Norway really is. “The right to strike is fundamental,” claimed Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left Party (SV), on NRK’s morning radio program Politisk kvarter on Tuesday. He thinks it’s “much too easy” to halt strikes in Norway. Whether he’ll be able to change the strict rules that Isaksen felt obliged to follow is another question. Now all involved will appear before an arbitration commission (lønnsnemnda) that will decide on actual raises.
“We hope they will consider the social responsibility that our counterparts (municipal employers) have not,” Larsen stated. She also noted how surveys showed that fully 74 percent of the public supported the nurses’ (and teachers’) demands for higher pay: “The last word has not been said.”