LO unions plan major merger

In autumn 2002, a number of trade unions affiliated to the LO confederation are considering a possible merger to create a single large union, which would include both private and public transport and might also be extended to cover other parts of the private service sector.

A number of transport and service sector trade unions belonging to the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) are presently deliberating the possibility of a merger to create a single large organisation. In August 2002, the FAFO Institute of Applied Social Sciences, presented a report on the trade unions' organisational structure in the service sector in Norway. The report, commissioned by LO's bargaining cartel in the state sector, of which many of the unions concerned are members, concludes that the present structure does not reflect contemporary working life and industrial structures. The report considers two alternatives to the present organisational structure. The first alternative involves a merger of the unions within the transport sector to create a single large transport union comprising both the private and public sector. The second alternative envisages a possible amalgamation of these transport unions together with unions in the wholesale/retail trade and hotels/restaurants sector. The report also underlines the importance of opening up to, and being a relevant alternative to, unions outside LO

Merger on the agenda

The merger question has been discussed for some time within several LO member unions in the service sector. The leadership of the Norwegian Post and Communication Union (Norsk Post- og Kommunikasjonsforbund, Postkom) has come to the conclusion that the organisation does not have a future alone. This acknowledgment follows only two years after Postkom was established through an amalgamation of two unions organising different groups within Norway Post (NO9906139N). The Norwegian Union of Railway Workers (Norsk Jernbaneforbund, NJF) has also indicated its readiness to link up with a larger union organisation. NJF decided as early as in 2000 to consider various alternatives to the present union structure, including a cartel within the transport sector or the creation of a larger transport sector union. The private sector Norwegian Union of Transport Workers (Norsk Transportarbeiderforbund, NTF) has also decided to deliberate the possibility of a new transport/service sector union. The leadership of NTF has long seen the need for a union with a broader membership base, and is advocating a wider service sector union.

Questions relating to organisational changes have also been placed on the agenda in unions outside the transport sector. The Norwegian Union of Hotel and Restaurant Workers (Hotell- og Restaurantarbeiderforbundet, HRAF) has on previous occasions called for a new service sector union, but has not received much support for its demand. The Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices (Handel og Kontor i Norge, HK) is also favourably inclined towards a merger. HK organises employees within transport (white-collar employees) and the wholesale/retail trade, as well as white-collar workers in manufacturing industry. However, HK may be faced with a problem, since membership of a new services union would not, one must assume, be open to white-collar workers in manufacturing industry.

The FAFO report is to be considered by the relevant local union representatives, and discussions on a possible service/transport union are now already taking place in several unions. Reports from the initial debates seem to suggest that many representatives are in favour of a single, large trade union organisation, either within services as a whole or within the transport sector.

Commentary

The creation of a new service sector union would be the first large-scale reorganisation within this sector of LO in many years. There are a number of internal and external factors explaining why so many unions now are recommending a merger.

First, developments in the transport sector have blurred traditional distinctions between different state departments, and also between public and private transport/ownership. In the last decade or so, the postal service and the railway services have become independent public enterprises. Furthermore, parts of these enterprises are either outsourced or privatised. Another development has been the increasing number of large multinational companies operating in areas such as bus transport and forwarding services. Takeovers and liberalisation of previous state monopolies and the arrival of new private actors also distort the distinctions between branches. These developments are expected to continue in the years to come, and one way for the trade union movement to meet these challenges is by considering amalgamation.

Second, many unions are struggling with low levels of recruitment or suffering from the fact that they are unionising occupational groups that are in decline. The implications are financial difficulties, in the short or long term, for most of these unions. For some unions, the financial situation is already difficult.

Third, the calls for a larger union organisation may reflect a growing recognition among unions of the inability of voluntary coordination and cooperation – ie through a bargaining cartel – to provide sufficient strength. In the 1990s, LO established cartels for the main sectors of the economy, among others the private service sector (NO9904129F). Apart from the state sector cartel, which in fact was a strong cartel long before the other cartels were established, the general impression is that these have not been successful. The unions have not been willing to assign much authority and responsibility to the cartels, and there have thus long been calls for a review of the present cartel structure.

One important question to be discussed is the extent to which a transport sector union, or a much broader service sector union, should be the aim. Transport will nevertheless play a significant role in any new union. There is considerable support for including other service sector branches such as wholesale/retail trade and hotels/restaurants. Within the larger transport enterprises (posts and railways) there are many employees in offices/outlets, and it is assumed that these groups will be positively inclined towards a broader service sector union. Large parts of the private service sector have for a long time been marked by low trade union density, including wholesale/retail and hotels/ restaurants. These unions hope that a new service sector union may be a more attractive option for potential members, because it is believed that such a union would have more resources and greater influence. There are also those who see a large, broad service sector union as a counterweight within LO to the dominant Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees (Norsk Kommuneforbund, NKF) and the unions in private manufacturing industry.

So far there are no indications to suggest that a fully all-embracing service sector union will see the light of day. First, there are important service sector groups outside LO, including a majority of employees within the banking and insurance sector, which currently are unlikely to join a new LO-affiliated union. There are also organised employees within the transport sector that are in unions outside LO, including bus drivers and important groups within civil aviation. Second, such a union would cover groups within the municipal services (including areas of transport such as underground and tram services). These are presently unionised within NKF, which so far has shown little interest in the process. There are also other LO unions in the service sector, which have so far not been included in the merger process. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute of Applied Social Sciences)

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