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Sunday, June 16, 2024

New strike threat lurks behind smiles

More wage negotiations got underway heading into the weekend, this time between leaders of public sector employee organizations and Norwegian municipalities. More than 400,000 workers want a settlement even better than what was won after strikes in the private sector last week, but that’s unlikely without a fight.

They were all smiles when wage talks began on Thursday between representatives of employees in the public sector and the man in the middle, Tor Arne Gangsø. He represents municipal employers and they’re not keen on raises any higher than those won in the private sector. The leaders of labour organizations are. From left: Steffan Handal of Unio, Trond Ellefsen of YS, Gangsø, Tonje Leborg of Akademikerne and Mette Nord of LO. PHOTO: KS

Wage pacts are negotiated in Norway under a model that starts out with collective bargaining within the country’s export-oriented industries. The idea is to help keep notoriously high-cost Norway’s businesses competitive on a national and international basis.

Settlements won set the tone for all other annual wage negotiations carried out during the spring. After a four-day strike that pulled around 25,000 workers off the job at big companies including Norsk Hydro and Aker Solutions and many more, the national employers’ organization NHO came to terms with Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO. That resulted in pay-raise packages of 5.2 percent, aimed at giving workers what LO called “real wage growth” at a time when the average cost of living in Norway is expected to rise by 4.9 percent.

Now public sector labour federations representing teachers, nurses and a wide range of others expect even higher wage offers from public employers represented by KS, the organization representing kommuner (municipalities) all over the country. They argue that their members have been “left behind” regarding wage growth over the past three years.

They’re now backed by LO, which earlier has held fast to the model now supposed to result in the wage hikes of around 5.2 percent for all workers. LO leaders finally agreed that municipal employees must be allowed to demand higher wage growth than that won in the industrial sector, especially those earning the least. It’s a political issue, though, because if public sectors workers get big raises, the state will either need to hand over more funding from taxpayers or cut expenses elsewhere.

The situation is further complicated by disagreement between some of the public sector workers’ labour federations. The biggest conflict has been between LO and Unio, which represents teachers and nurses. Both groups, which command strong public support, went out on strike last year and the year before, only to eventually be ordered back to work by the Labour Ministry. Meanwhile, another LO federation (Fagforbundet) prefers bigger raises for those with the least formal education and earning the least, while Unio wants the biggest raises for the nurses and teachers.

Now all the groups are negotiating with a deadline set for midnight on April 30. Talks often go into overtime, but the labour federations will be keen to head off for marching in traditional Labour Day parades and celebrations around the country on Monday, the May 1 public holiday. If they fail to come to terms, mediation will begin May 3 and can extend through the month although strikes can be called at any time.

They could affect everything from schools to hospitals, transport and a wide variety of public services. KS leader Tor Arne Gangsø, representing public sector employers, said it can be “especially difficult” to satisfy all the various worker groups this year.

At the same time, worker willingness to go out on strike is said to be high because of rising prices. “Our members are most concerned about the economic situation and that prices are rising so much,” Line Tollefsen of Fagforbundet in Nordland County, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. The leader of nurses’ union Norsk Sykepleierforbund, Lill Sverresdatter Larsen, agreed: “None of our members want to go out on strike, but we are ready to do so if we need to.” Teachers’ union leader Steffen Handal has also said he wants raises “well over 5.2 percent.”

Some union leaders have expressed pay raise expectations up to 5.5 percent. Many contend that’s still modest compared to pay granted leaders in the public sector. The private sector’s unhappiness over high executive pay and big bonuses is also reflected in the public sector negotiations: Administrators earning an average NOK 1.3 million a year received raises of 4.4 percent last year, while nurses earning half that or less received 3.1 percent and teachers got 3.3 percent. Nurses and teachers were also angry that once again, the state ultimately ordered them back to work in 2021 on the grounds their strikes posed a threat to “life and health.”

Last week’s strikes, meanwhile, were relatively short but caused enough disruption that employers met union demands to curtail business losses before the strikes spread. Many workers felt vindicated, not least since their 5.2 raise was among the largest real pay increases ever. After three years of pandemic and war-related economic upheaval, the demands seem to have been viewed as understandable, even justified.

“Uncertain economic times demand collective solutions that address everyone’s needs,” KS leader Gangsø said on Thursday. “Everyone involved has a mutual responsibility to find a solution. We head into negotiations in the belief that’s possible.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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