Major union merger in municipal sector

A new public sector trade union will be established in summer 2003 when the Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees (NKF) and the Norwegian Association of Health and Social Care Personnel (NHS) merge. The new organisation will have some 280,000 members, making it Norway's largest trade union.

In October 2002, the Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees (Norsk Kommuneforbund, NKF) and the Norwegian Association of Health and Social Care Personnel (Norsk Helse- og Sosialforbund, NHS) decided to merge. The new trade union organisation will be Norway's largest, with approximately 280,000 members, and nearly twice as large as the second-largest union. Both unions held their national conferences in October 2002, and the decision to establish a new union through merger received large majorities in both organisations. The final decision to wind up the two unions will be taken at extraordinary national conferences in June 2003, and shortly afterwards a founding meeting will be held, at which the new union will be formally established.

The two unions concluded a cooperation agreement in the summer of 1998, which among other matters involved joint deliberation of a possible merger (NO9809185F). Since then, they have worked hard to come up with a joint platform for a new trade union organisation. Cooperation between the two unions has also taken place in other areas, such as in recent collective bargaining rounds.

New municipal sector union

NKF, which is affiliated to the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO), has 230,000 members and is already the largest trade union in Norway. For some years, it has been an influential force in industrial relations. Its membership base consists of more or less all occupations in the municipal sector and health sector, but the union recruits mainly among employees without higher education. NHS, on the other hand, focuses primarily on female-dominated occupations, such as state-enrolled nurses, with two to three years of higher education in the health and social care areas. NHS has approximately 50,000 members. It was previously a member union of the Confederation of Vocational Unions (Yrkesorganisasjonenes Sentralforbund, YS) but left YS in 2001. The membership of both NKF and NHS is primarily made up of women. However, whereas NKF also organises some male-dominated occupations within technical services, the NHS membership base consists almost only of women.

The new union is to be organised into four occupationally-based sections. The health and social sector will make up the largest section, with more than half of all active members. The various sections will enjoy a large degree of independence within their own areas, but collective bargaining responsibility will be at the coordinated level. The basic organisational structures will run across the sections, involving all members regardless of occupational divisions. The implication of this is that NKF and NHS will not only have to reorganise at the central level, but also amalgamate their local-level branches. The new union will also establish 'competence centres' at regional level, whose purposes include assisting union representatives and members in a wide range of areas. The goal is to transfer resources away from the central union offices in Oslo, closer to the members.

At the merged union's founding meeting in summer 2003, decisions are to be made about new organisational rules, the composition of the leadership, and the extent to which the new organisation is to be affiliated to LO. So far it seems that the chair of the new union will be the present chair of NKF, while the deputy chair will be the present chair of NHS. It is also assumed that the new union will chose to be affiliated to LO. It is emphasised, however, that this issue has not been settled yet.

Commentary

The main rationale behind the merger of the two unions is to achieve increased political strength as well as increased strength vis-à-vis the employer side. The interests of NKF and NHS converge in many areas, and they recruit their members to a large extent among the same occupations.

The new organisation will beyond doubt be an influential actor in Norwegian working life, with strong interests and viewpoints in relation to issues such as the organisation and restructuring of the public sector. This issue will also most probably be high on the political agenda in the months to come, since the present centre-right coalition government of the Conservative Party (Høyre), the Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig Folkeparti, KRF) and the Liberal Party (Venstre) has called for increased private competition in public services (NO0202103F). This, according to trade unions such as NKF, will lead to a weakening of services for the public, a weakening of employees’ rights, and a more brutal working life. On the other side of the political continuum, there are those who believe that strong public sector trade unions – NKF is often cited in this regard – contribute to weakening the opportunities for, and possibilities of introducing, necessary reorganisation measures in the public sector.

Two other central issues to be dealt with by the new union will be low pay and equal pay. Both unions organise significant female-dominated groups usually regarded as low-pay groups. An important task for the new union will thus be to safeguard the interest of these groups in the face of increasing wage demands by public sector groups with higher education. This also means safeguarding members' interests in a situation where wage formation in the municipal sector in recent years has increasingly become more decentralised and individually oriented (NO0206105F).

Despite converging interests in many areas, the merger involves two relatively distinct unions with different cultural backgrounds and traditions. NKF has traditionally favoured a broad organisation across occupational boundaries (on the principle of industrial unionism), while NHS has long advocated its role as a professional union. More recently, NKF has also emphasised the occupational interests of its members. Thus a precondition for the merger has been the ability to come up with a model where by the occupational interests of members are safeguarded, while joint organisational bodies remain strong. Time will tell how successful the two unions are in this regard, and the extent to which they are able to prevent internal tension.

The two unions also differ with regard to their relationship with the political system. NKF has traditionally been seen to be a strong supporter of the political cooperation between LO and the Norwegian Labour Party (Det norske Arbeiderparti, DnA). This cooperative venture has been important to the union’s political influence, but has also been criticised externally – among others by NHS. So far it is not clear how closely the new union will cooperate with the DnA, or indeed any of the other political parties. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute of Applied Social Sciences)

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