Yngve Hågensen, hailed as one of Norway’s most important labour union leaders of the 20th century, was laid to rest in Oslo’s historic cathedral on Friday. His funeral was attended by the current and former prime ministers including the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg.
Hågensen had a rough start in life. He was born in Norway’s Arctic city of Vardø in 1938, into a poor family whose widowed mother had to send both Yngve and a brother to a care home because she couldn’t support them. When their home region of Finnmark was burned by retreating Nazi German invaders in 1944, Hågensen was evacuated to Southern Norway and wound up at the opposite end of the country, in Halden. He had to start working to support himself from the age of 14, at a sawmill: “His upbringing would either measure him in rags or strengthen him for a demanding life ahead,” wrote one of his biographers, Reidar Hirsti.
Hågensen opted for the strengthening, and was later hired by the labour organization representing sawmill workers, Saubrugsforeningen. He rose through the ranks and later through those at LO, Norway’s largest trade union confederation. He’s said to have won more and more strength with his rough language, clenched fists and a keen understanding of the labour movement’s proletarian roots. He was skeptical towards anyone in the labour movement or the Norwegian Labour Party who came from privleged backgrounds, including former prime ministers Gro Harlem Brundtland, Stoltenberg and current Labour prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who spoke at his funeral.
By 1977, though, Hågensen was himself part of the “elite” within LO, and became LO leader in 1989. He had huge influence throughout the 1990s, holding Norway’s top labour union post until 2001. His biography was entitled “Do your duty, demand your rights,” and he rarely settled for anything less. He was known for his temper and rough language, but also as a surprisingly sympathetic soul who’d been elected to his first term as head of LO by a vote of 193 to 121.
His 12 years at the top of LO yielded major victories along with downturns he had a hard time accepting. Through it all he wanted Norway to join the EU, and was disappointed that referenda in both 1972 and 1994 turned down EU membership.
He died at the age of 84 earlier this month after a sudden illness. Current LO leader Peggy Hessen Følsvik noted how Hågensen made his mark on the labour movement, also through unusual solidarity with employers that brought Norway out of economic crisis and high unemployment in the early 1990s.
“It was also under his leadership that LO won a fifth week of holiday for workers,” Følsvik noted. “We’ve lost a giant who meant so much for so many,” she added in a tribute published this week in newspaper Dagsavisen. “His name will stand in the history books as one of the great LO leaders.”