Nurses in public hospitals issue strike warning

The Norwegian Union of Registered Nurses has signalled its intention to take strike action in public hospitals from 22 January 2002 onwards. The union wants to see the wage level of its members raised considerably in connection with the transfer of public hospitals from the municipal sector to the state sector on 1 January 2002.

The Norwegian Union of Registered Nurses (Norges Sykepleierforbund, NSF) has warned that it will take strike action in public hospitals from 22 January 2002 onwards. The backdrop to this move is the fact that the union is now without a collective agreement following the transfer of all public hospitals from the county municipalities to the state sector on 1 January 2002. Since then, both the previous county municipal hospitals and the state sector hospitals have been organised as 'health enterprises', and are members of the NAVO employers' organisation (NO0108139F).

The reorganisation has also led to the disappearance of previous collective relations and collective agreements. Most organisations involved have agreed to prolong existing agreements, but with NAVO/hospital enterprises as the new employer party. These agreements expire in the spring of 2002, and negotiations over a new (joint) agreement will take place in connection with the general 2002 wage settlements. NSF, however, refused to prolong its agreement. Instead the union wanted to see all nurses in public hospitals covered by a new agreement from 1 January 2002, based on the collective agreement in the state sector. The wage level in the state sector agreement is higher than in the previous county municipal agreements. The leader of NAVO, Lars Haukaas, has opposed this on the grounds that he believes it is unreasonable, given that hospitals will not be a part of the state sector bargaining area. NAVO wants to see a joint overall agreement setting minimum wage rates, with further negotiations in the individual enterprises and hospitals.

The strike warning follows a period of sustained dissatisfaction within the NSF over nurses' pay. At the union's national congress in the autumn of 2001 the issue of wage was high on the agenda. NSF expressed deep disappointment with the fact that the new centre-right government (NO0110108F) has not introduced an improved wage package for nurses, as was agreed for teachers in the 2000 bargaining round (NO0006194F). Such a package for nurses was advocated by several parties in parliament (Stortinget) in the summer of 2001. The organisation has encouraged its members to change employer if wage levels are not good enough, and drawn attention to the fact that some employers are able to offer annual salaries that are between NOK 50,000 and NOK 100,000 higher than the norm. This is first and foremost the case in temporary work agencies, which have witnessed a rapid growth in their activities since the general ban on the hiring in/out of labour was lifted in the summer of 2000 (NO9912168F). NSF has also called on its members not to accept 'illegal overtime work or additional/extra work'.

Any strike will at the outset involve only a limited number of nurses, and NSF seems to be anxious not to encourage the use of compulsory arbitration. However, it will be difficult for NAVO to conclude an agreement that grants nurses significant pay rises, at least for the time being. It will complicate negotiations with the other unions in the hospital sector, which have accepted the extension of old agreements until the end of March 2002. Furthermore, the largest employers' organisation in Norway, the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) has strongly emphasised the need for a moderate wage settlement in 2002.

On the other hand nurses enjoy significant support for their wage demands, both among the general public as well as among politicians in parliament. This and the pressing shortage of nurses in Norway may suggest that they will receive an extraordinary lift in pay, grounded in the reorganisation process for the Norwegian hospital sector. Even if strike action is averted on 22 January, it is therefore most likely that the issue of nurses' wages will be a central issue during the spring of 2002.

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