Norway: Strike in rail sector settled and new rules coming down the line
Industrial action that disrupted operations on Norwegian railways for five weeks in autumn 2016 was settled, with the government agreeing to reframe the national regulations for train drivers’ qualifications ahead of the planned privatisation of much of the rail network in 2017.
All collective agreements in Norway were up for negotiation in 2016. In the railway sector, the most difficult issues proved to be qualifications and safety. Spekter, the employers’ association, represented the rail companies Norges Statsbaner (NSB) and CargoNet, and the Norwegian Locomotive Drivers’ Union, an affiliate of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), represented workers.
Both parties argued that safety was their main concern. The union’s concern was that companies with less qualified drivers would enter the market and so they demanded that the collective agreement should include regulations about the level of education and qualifications that newly hired drivers should have. Spekter argued that making qualifications a part of the collective agreement would imply that managerial prerogative and responsibility on safety issues was being outsourced or delegated to the trade unions. However, the legal position was that management had to take responsibility for any malfunctions or accidents. NSB and CargoNet did agree that the current regulation of qualifications left room for ambiguity, but maintained that regulations are not an issue for the social partners.
Two options were on the table – a national regulation proposed by the Ministry of Transport or a collective agreement that would set requirements for minimum qualifying time and training. The Ministry of Transport took no action and Spekter refused to include such conditions in the collective agreement.
Industrial action initiated and settled
Mediation was not productive and a strike was called. From 29 September to 1 November 2016, the industrial action affected a large part of the service, particularly in the Oslo area, and commuters were hit hard. At the height of the strike, 124 drivers refused to work and 300 scheduled departures a day were cancelled. The media portrayed the conflict as especially harsh and deadlocked. Several mediation attempts proved unsuccessful. However, after five weeks (a long time for industrial action in Norway), the State mediator managed to persuade both parties to sign a joint petition to the Minister of Transport asking for a national general requirement on qualifications. The Ministry promised to start working on a national standard for all companies in the industry.
In the meantime, the companies have made a commitment to uphold the present system of training. These promises brought the strike to an end and the railway network started running again on 1 November. A week later, on 8 November, the Ministry launched a hearing to begin the process that will lead to changes in the national regulations.
Impending changes in the railway sector
Neither qualifications nor statutory regulations are normally part of collective negotiations in Norway. To put the strike in perspective, it will be important to have the large-scale railway reform in place by 1 January 2017 given the forthcoming privatisation of a number of railway lines initiated by the right-wing government. The State-owned company NSB operates almost all passenger trains in Norway. CargoNet, a subsidiary of NSB, operates the major part of the rail freight services. Oslo’s airport express line is operated by the State-owned Flytoget.
The European Economic Area agreement implies that train drivers and train driver education in Norway must be interpreted in light of Directive 2007/597/EU on the certification of train drivers operating locomotives and trains. This is implemented through the 2009 Norwegian drivers’ regulation that stipulates that every driver must have a licence and a certificate. The licence is awarded after a five-week training course at the Norwegian Railway School, a public vocational training school run by the Norwegian government’s agency for railway services. Subsequent training for the certificate can take place either in a certified vocational school or at officially approved training centres in the railway companies. Any railway company that has a security certificate is licensed to provide training for certificates. At present, just 15 weeks of training is all that is necessary to become a fully qualified train driver, through combined training at the Railway School and in the companies.
The right-wing government has instigated major changes in the railway sector that have implications for the public administration of rail services, the nationally owned NSB and the level of privatisation in the sector. A large number of rail lines have been offered for competitive tendering, and NSB might become a minor player in the network if large international companies decide to participate.
The union did not approve of the ‘company model’ of training in which all companies are able to provide training. It was concerned that the time needed for the thorough training of drivers might end up being seen as a cost burden when rail operating companies had to compete with each other. This might ultimately imply less spending and thus less time for training, and therefore less emphasis on the quality of the training. If the government’s agency for railway services (subject to the Ministry of Transport) was authorised to confirm and certify the quality of the company training, unions are concerned that safety might suffer.
The distinctively Norwegian requirements on qualifications for train drivers are complex and make it harder for foreign companies to participate in the upcoming privatisation of the railway system. Including qualification requirements in the sector’s collective agreement might make the Norwegian companies more vulnerable and increase the cost of their tender. Lack of conformity between Norwegian practice and EU rules has created a new situation where companies might be able choose between different ways of certifying the drivers.
While only NSB and its subsidiaries and the State-owned Flytoget were the major players in the railway sector and the only companies offering training for the certificate, this had only minor consequences. Impending railway reform and increased competition creates a whole new situation and the unions want to secure their position before new companies, and particularly foreign companies, enter the market. On the employer side, there is opposition to regulation or new and expensive collective agreements that might decrease the competitiveness of their members.