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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Labour’s labour minister halts strike

Norway’s Labour Party insists that it fully supports workers’ rights to strike, but its Labour Minister Tonje Brenna has halted a major strike by the state’s most highly educated workers for the second time in a week. The strike was politically charged, and both the state and the Labour-Center government in which Brenna serves had refused to negotiate with the two labour union federations involved.

Labour Minister Tonje Brenna, who also serves as a deputy leader of the Norwegian Labour Party, halted a legal strike for the second time this week. PHOTO: Arbeids- og inkluderingsdepartementet/Simen Gald

Brenna admitted that the two sides (in this case, the state and the two labour federations involved, Akademikerne and Unio) are always “responsible for finding solutions to labour conflicts. They haven’t managed to do so.” She halted the strike by members of Akademikerne earlier this week and on Wednesday she did the same with Unio. Both federations and the state are thus ordered into mandatory arbitration, and thousands of strikers including professors and police were ordered back to work.

In both cases, the federations had pulled thousands of high-level state employees off the job, from key officials within the finance and justice ministries to state meteorologists whose lack of weather forecasts grounded helicopter service and emergency response around the country. “If the helicopters can’t fly, it can have serious consequences for life and health,” Brenna said at an early morning press conference, at which she needed to justify her order. She also cited how striking border control agents could endanger national security and Norway’s international obligations.

“The threshold for resorting to mandatory arbitration (called tvungen lønnsnemnd in Norwegian) is, and should be, high,” Brenna said, but added that she felt she had “no other choice but to end the strike.” She cited much the same reasons as when she called off Akademikerne’s strike on Monday.

Unio leader Guro Lind had pulled more than 3,000 state workers off the job, but had to send them back to work on Wednesday. PHOTO: Stig Weston/Unio

Unio, like their colleagues in Akademikerne, expressed “disappointment” over the back-to-work order, which took effect immediately. That means travelers no longer faced extra-long lines at passport control at Norwegian airports, that helicopter service could resume (also out to offshore oil and gas platforms) that state budget negotiations shouldn’t be delayed and weather forecasts will return to radio- and TV broadcasts.

Unio was quick to note, however, that the state government opted to end the strike, which began May 24, “instead of meeting with us” and negotiating a settlement for both labour federations’ main demand: That state employees should be compensated in line with their level of education and expertise. Both federations have had their own collective bargaining agreements, separate from the one that applies to most all other state workers organized through Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO.

They won their separate agreements during the former Conservatives-led government, but neither LO, the Labour Party nor, according to a new public opinion poll, a vast majority of the public support them. Labour news service FriFagvegelse reported this week that nearly 75 percent of nearly 900 Norwegians questioned in a poll (conducted by research firm Sentio for LO and another labour federation, Fagforbundet) think there should only be one central collective bargaining agreement with the state “to secure equal pay for equal work.” The Labour Party and Brenna herself have also favoured one wage pact for all state workers.

“None of our initiatives in this pay conflict have been followed up by either the state (administration) or the goverment,” said Unio leader Guro Lind after being forced to accept the back-to-work order. “We haven’t met any understanding that the state needs to retain and recruit those with higher education in order to address challenges now and in the future.” That means, in Lind’s opinion, that compensation offered by the state needs to be more attractive. Unio had also stressed, as had Akademikerne, that they were striking more on principle than for pay.

Now both of the formerly striking unions need to go along with mandatory arbitration, and criticized how a Labour Party minister halted a legal strike. “Our battle will continue,” vowed Unio leader Lind on Wednesday morning, “but we now ask all our members to return to work.” Berglund



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