AF union confederation disintegrates further

Another five member trade unions decided in June 1998 to leave the AF confederation in order to line up with Akademikerne, Norway's new confederation for academically qualified staff. Since autumn 1997, 12 unions with 90,000 members have decided to leave AF.

In the autumn of 1997, seven member trade unions decided to leave the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations (Akademikernes Fellesorganisasjon, AF), in order to create their own confederation for academically qualified employees, Akademikerne ("the Academics") (NO9711133F). The new confederation is aimed at employees with higher university degrees (involving five years or more of study).

Further withdrawals

June 1998 saw another five trade unions decide to withdraw from AF. The largest of these was the Norwegian Association of Research Workers (Norsk Forskerforbund), which organises employees in research institutes, universities and postgraduate colleges. This union justifies its withdrawal by arguing that it will have more in common with Akademikerne on issues such as pay and working conditions. It is also seen as an advantage that Akademikerne is a more homogeneous group, since it accepts only people with higher university degrees. The organisation for priests and clergy employed by the Church of Norway, the organisation for agricultural graduates and two smaller organisations for social scientists and economists, have also decided to leave AF for Akademikerne. All in all, 90,000 members have decided to leave since autumn 1997, and the implication is that AF will lose a third of its membership base at the end of 1998.

According to AF's statutes, a member association that wishes to leave the confederation at the end of a year, must report this in advance by 1 July in the same year. This means that any further withdrawals in 1998 will not take effect until the end of 1999. It is likely, however, that AF may lose more affiliates after that date. One of the largest remaining trade unions in AF, the Norwegian Society of Engineers (Norges Ingeniørorganisasjon, NITO) has also decided to reconsider its membership, but no decision will be made until the representative committee meeting in November 1998. NITO does not satisfy the requirements of membership in Akademikerne, but may choose to continue as an independent trade union. In an interview with Aftenposten on 24 June 1998, the leader of NITO, Sverre Vikhals, argued that the wish to fight for more market-determined pay for its members in the public sector is one of the reasons why the organisation is reconsidering its membership of AF. Another reason is the fact that the other union for engineers, the Norwegian Society for Chartered Engineers (Norske Sivilingeniørers Forening, NIF), has decided to leave AF for Akademikerne.

AF has initiated an internal process of deliberation to establish the economic and organisational consequences of its disintegration, but the recent withdrawals have led to a postponement of the plans to reorganise the confederation. AF's leadership will consider the question sometime during the autumn of 1998, and a new organisational structure is expected to be in place some time in 1999.

Commentary

AF was established in 1975, and its membership base grew quickly. Trade unions associated to the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) and the Confederation of Vocational Unions (Yrkesorganisasjonenes Sentralforbund, YS) also aim to organise people with higher education, but in most cases people with higher education have joined trade unions affiliated to AF. Prior to the split in autumn 1997, AF had approximately 240,000 members, and the highest membership growth of the three main union confederations. The split in AF has led to a situation in which there are two main confederations organising employees within higher education.

Even though the split in AF came as a surprise to the media as well as to AF's own leadership, there has been emerging signs of dissatisfaction among the member associations with the results achieved by AF in pay settlements in the public sector (NO9806170F). The member associations have regularly demanded substantial pay increases prior to negotiation, but these demands have been met to only a minor extent during bargaining. Many groups in AF have been dissatisfied with what has been seen as increasing differences in pay between member groups in the public and private sector. Recent research also indicates that the gap between levels of pay within the public sector has narrowed, which means that the relative differences in pay between AF's members and other public sector employee groups have decreased.

There has also been internal tension between the various member groups within AF. To a greater degree than its counterpart organisations in Denmark and Sweden, AF has opened up to include trade unions which organise people with a lower level of educational attainment, at postgraduate college level. Nurses, teachers and engineers, among others, have been allowed to become members of AF. This has led to conflicting views as to whom priority should be given in public sector settlements; the female-dominated groups with a lower level of education or other groups with a higher level of education. Within AF there have also been diverging views concerning the principles of pay structures. Many unions want more decentralised and individual pay negotiations, which is established in a clause in the statutes of the new confederation, Akademikerne. AF's largest trade union in the state sector, the Teachers' Association (Lærerforbundet), has been opposed to the setting aside of funds to local negotiations, and does not want to see the development of individual pay increases.

It is uncertain what effect the split in AF will have on the public sector bargaining system in Norway. This is already a complicated system, because three or four different negotiating partners on the employee side must attempt to agree on one agreement which covers all employees. Although it is almost impossible in practice to achieve better agreements through industrial action than what has already been achieved through negotiations, strikes have occurred frequently in the public sector. The fact that there is now one more negotiating partner on the employee side, may make it even harder to reach agreement in public sector, without one or more of the social partners resorting to industrial action. The tense relations between AF and Akademikerne may also make it more difficult to reach an agreement which all employee organisations can recommend to their members. On the other hand, the fragmentation of AF may make it easier for the remaining trade unions to agree on the groups to which priority should be given, something that may increase AF's effectiveness in pay negotiations. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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