Merger of teachers' unions proposed

A single trade union organisation embracing all personnel in the Norwegian educational system may soon be a reality, according to a proposal approved by the delegates at the November 1998 national conference of the Teachers' Union Norway. The proposal was supported by a press statement issued by the Norwegian Union of Teachers, but there are many obstacles to be overcome before such a merger could be completed.

A single trade union organisation embracing all teaching personnel in the Norwegian educational system may soon be a reality, according to a proposal approved at the national conference of the Teachers' Union Norway (Lærerforbundet), which took place in November 1998. In the proposal, the union commits itself to deliberate over the creation of an all-embracing employee organisation for educational personnel. The Teachers' Union Norway is a trade union for pedagogical and administrative personnel in all parts of the Norwegian educational system. A majority of its 35,000 members work in upper secondary schools, but the organisation is also represented among teachers in lower secondary schools. The union was established in 1993 by a merger of four teachers' unions, all of which represented mainly teachers in upper secondary schools.

The leader of the Teachers' Union Norway, Anders Folkestad, stated in a newspaper interview prior to the conference that the new organisation may be a reality within three or four years (Dagsavisen, 8 November 1998), and the decision at the conference leaves open the possibility of advancing the date by which such an organisation may be established.

The implication of the proposal would be the merger of the Teachers' Union Norway with the Norwegian Union of Teachers (Norsk Lærerlag, NL). NL is the largest organisation for teachers in Norway, and comprises approximately 84,000 members. NL's membership base is mainly drawn from nursery schools and lower secondary schools. The Teachers' Union Norway also invites the other unions for educational personnel to join the proposed new organisation.

Several teachers unions in Norway

The trade union organisation of Norwegian teachers, and educational personnel in general, today is a fragmented affair with two large organisations and several small ones. The largest union, NL, is independent, but usually cooperates closely with the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) during wage settlements. The second largest, the Teachers' Union Norway, is affiliated to the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations (Akademikernes Fellesorganisasjon, AF). The Norwegian Association of Research Workers (Norsk Forskerforbund, NF) is affiliated to the new confederation for academically-qualified staff, Akademikerne (NO9807174F) and covers researchers and lecturers in colleges and universities. In addition, there are several smaller unions, such as the Norwegian Union of School Employees (Skolenes Landsforbund, SL) which is affiliated to LO.

Largest teachers` union supports proposal

The Teachers' Union Norway received support for the proposal in a press statement made by NL on 13 November 1998. It was emphasised that a similar proposal concerning the creation of a single union organisation for teachers was adopted at NL's 1997 national conference, and that the question has been raised as an issue at previous conferences. At its 1997 national conference, NL expressed a wish to gather all educational personnel into one organisation, and stated that it would take the initiative to further deliberate on the issue.

The reason for such a merger, according to both unions, would be to strengthen the influence of teachers, especially in relation to the issues of pay and working conditions. Another important element is to take advantage of the fact that they have shared interests, and stand together in an attempt to achieve common goals. By pursuing separate strategies during pay settlements, the teachers' unions have given the employers' side an unnecessary advantage. The unions also stress the importance and usefulness of a professional community of teachers drawing on different experiences and backgrounds.

Commentary

The Teachers' Union Norway and NL seem to be the most viable components of a potential merger, and a merger which includes unions like SL and NF is less likely. When the two largest teachers' unions in Norway discuss merger proposals, it must be seen in light of the fact that they see eye-to-eye on issues concerning pay and educational policies. However, the idea of a joint organisation is not new. A proposal for a single teachers' union was discussed as early as the 1970s, without it progressing beyond the planning stages. NL has frequently advocated the desirability of the establishment of a single organisation for teachers, but concrete plans and initiatives never emerged. Now that the Teachers' Union Norway has indicated its intention to effect a merger, the process of establishing a joint teachers' organisation will move one step further.

Originally, the two largest teachers' unions organised educational personnel with different educational backgrounds and from different levels in the educational system. However, over the years their membership base has grown and they are seeking to organise similar categories of employees in education. Today teachers with at least four-five years of higher education constitute the majority of members in both organisations. In principle, both organisations aim at unionising most groups of teachers, from nurseries to universities, which may lead to increased inter-union rivalry in recruiting members in the future. It has also been argued that recent reforms in the Norwegian educational system have led to a situation in which teachers in different types of schools are subject to similar working conditions. The two organisations share very much the same viewpoints on educational policy, and there are only slight differences between them when it comes to pay and working conditions.

Even though there may seem to be a general consensus, at least among the leadership of the various organisations, about the need to pool the interests of teachers in Norway, that is not to say that a possible merger will pass unchallenged. The Teachers' Union Norway, like NL, has different groups of teachers in membership, and some groups of its members have in the past expressed reluctance to cooperate too closely with other educational unions. It is possible that the higher education group may be reluctant to agree to a possible merger with NL, which mainly organises teachers in lower secondary schools and nursery schools. Another group which may express reluctance would probably be nursery school teachers in NL, who are already suffering from being a minority group.

A central question in relation to a possible merger is confederate affiliation. NL has so far expressed satisfaction with its cooperative venture with LO, under which it cooperates on a need-by-need basis during pay settlements, while at the same time retaining its status as an independent union. The Teachers' Union Norway has also expressed satisfaction with the status quo, as a member of AF, but the split witnessed in AF may make the Teachers' Union Norway willing to consider the creation of an independent joint organisation for teachers. Its leader, Mr Folkestad, has previously argued that a joint teachers' union should be affiliated to AF, but no such demand was forthcoming subsequent to the decision to adopt the proposal at the 1998 conference. (Haavard Lismoen, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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