Norway: Trade union employees go on strike

The Norwegian Trade Union Confederation (LO) and its member unions faced strike action from their own employees for the first time in November 2014 when workers walked out over increasing wage differences. They stayed out for 12 days until a new collective agreement was concluded. The workers demanded access to more detailed wage statistics.

Introduction

A strike was called in November 2014 by employees of the Norwegian Trade Union Confederation (LO) and its member unions when negotiations broke down between the Norwegian Labour Movement Employers' Association (AAF) and an LO-affiliated trade union, the Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices (HK).

LO and its affiliated trade unions have evolved into large organisations with many employees, as have other organisations and companies that are closely linked to the trade union movement, such as the Workers' Educational Association (AOF) and the Norwegian People’s Aid. AAF is the employer organisation for the trade union movement and was established in 1997, and today it has more than 100 members with around 2,500 employees. Most employees belong to the LO-affiliated HK union. However, employees who have been recruited from their own union – and who are often former union representatives – tend to keep their original union affiliation.

Until 2003, the collective agreement that covered trade union employees did not allow them to strike and insisted disagreements should be resolved through arbitration. Although this is no longer the case, union workers negotiate their collective agreements in the autumn to minimise the harmful effects of any conflicts, rather than in March and June when most other agreements are negotiated and settled. HK and AAF have asked the National Mediator to step in on several occasions in the last 15 years to help them reach agreements.

300 union employees strike

When mediation broke down in 2014, 141 members of HK went on strike. These were mostly people who worked for LO-affiliated trade unions and at some of the LO regional offices. However, the number of strikers grew to about 300 as people at the LO main office became involved. At the point when the strike was called off 12 days later, employees of the Norwegian Labour Party (A/Ap) and the Socialist Left Party (SV)  had been poised to join the action.

HK said its main demand was to have more open wage-setting procedures and access to better wage statistics. HK's Deputy Leader, its chief negotiator Bjørn Mietinen, said there were increasingly large wage differences among trade union employees and employees in leading positions were benefiting more than others from annual wage increases. An underlying issue seems to have been the commonly held belief that LO employees who had been recruited from other unions tended to get higher increases than HK union members who generally hold administrative positions. HK demanded more detailed wage statistics which would allow them to compare wage levels among different groups of employees, including those who were not HK members.

AAF said that because a committee made up of representatives from both parties had presented a report on wage statistics before negotiations started, there was no need for more detailed figures. They pointed out that HK had the right to ask its own members for data about their wages, and that LO had offered much better wage increases to HK members than awarded to workers in many other sectors.

The two sides met on 25 November and agreed a new collective agreement on the same day. The employees got a higher wage increase than had been originally offered. The parties also agreed on principles regarding the content of future wage statistics.

Commentary

This strike led to considerable interest from the media. It was challenging for LO and its affiliated trade unions to take the role of the employer in a strike. However, the LO president and the leaders of the affected trade unions were careful not to comment on the strike and referred matters to the employer organisation AAF. It was also demanding for the employees who were involved, and for their trade union HK. Both sides seem to have been careful to follow the procedures, and the industrial action took place without problems.

The strike highlighted the fact that many trade unions and affiliated organisations are now large employers with increasingly professionalised employment relations and human resource policies. The AAF handles a great variety of issues from competence development to advice on restructuring processes. It not only fills a need among the trade union movement for handling wage bargaining and potential strikes but also allows unions, as employers, to get the same assistance as other employers enjoy through membership of employer organisations. This is vital, as unions can hardly join an employer organisation they might have to negotiate with on behalf of their members.

However, this professionalisation of employment relations coexists with the traditional recruitment channels within the union movement. This group of employees is still important for the unions since they bring with them knowledge of the sector and of collective agreements and industrial relations practices.

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