LO holds four-yearly national congress

The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) held its four-yearly national congress in May 2001. Gerd-Liv Valla was elected as the new president - the first woman to hold the post. Delegates discussed issues such as wage and bargaining policy, working life legislation, basic agreements, working time cuts, pensions and relations with political parties, and it was decided to instigate a process of examining LO's organisational structure.

The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) held its four-yearly national congress on 5–11 May 2001 (the previous congress was in 1997 - NO9705110F). In addition to leadership and executive committee elections, the most important issues on the agenda were a review of LO's organisational structure and its bargaining policy, and the adoption of a programme of action.

Leadership elections

There were significant alterations in the LO leadership group - which consists of eight elected officials - at the congress (NO9912164F). Gerd-Liv Valla was elected as the new president, the first woman to hold this post. Ms Valla had been vice-president for the previous four years, and is a representative of the Norwegian Civil Service Union (Norsk Tjenestemannslag, NTL). Two vice-presidents were also elected, both men from private sector unions: Roar Flåthen (first vice-president) represents LO's largest affiliated union, the Norwegian United Federation of Trade Unions (Fellesforbundet); and Finn Erik Thoresen (second vice-president) has for many years been president of the Norwegian Union of Graphical Workers (Norsk Grafisk Forbund, NGF). Ellen Stensrud of Fellesforbundet and Trine Lise Sundnes from the Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices (Handel og Kontor, HK) were elected as confederal secretaries. Finally, Per Gunnar Olsen (first secretary), Bente Halvorsen (secretary treasurer) andRita Lekang (confederal secretary) were re-elected - producing a leadership group made up of four men and four women. All votes were unanimous.

Organisation and recruitment

In her introductory speech, Ms Valla stressed the challenges that LO is facing in relation to the recruitment of new members. At present, LO organises 28.5% of all Norwegian wage earners, and has for a long time been losing ground, relatively speaking, vis-à-vis the other trade union confederations (NO0008101F). LO has not yet been able to reverse this trend. The immediate goal is to attract new members from the private services sector, in which trade union density in Norway is low, as well as from groups with higher education in the public sector (NO9901110F). A number of other speakers also emphasised the challenges facing LO in relation to the recruitment of younger people.

LO wants to draw attention to the advantages of being a union member. A committee is thus to be established to examine the active use of collective agreements by LO and its member unions to make trade union rights and benefits exclusive to their own members. Among the issues to be considered is the introduction of a so-called "collective bargaining fee" for non-unionised employees (a sum to be paid in return for being covered by the same rights and privileges as unionised employees under collective agreements). This issue, however, is subject to significant disagreement within LO, and Fellesforbundet, its largest affiliate, is opposed to the introduction of such a fee.

A number of proposals for organisational review were raised. Fellesforbundet wants to see a decision made within the next two years on how implementation of a revised organisational structure may take place. It grounds its proposal in the changes taking place in company and business structures, as well as in international developments in general. Furthermore, it stresses the importance of avoiding parallel deliberation processes (separate examinations of the issue by LO and its member unions), and disputes over members. Other unions want to see consideration of doing away with LO's current structure of member unions, while others still want to see an organisation with stronger member unions (without bargaining cartels). The congress decided to deliberate further on the issue in the period leading up to the next congress in 2005.

Following the most recent organisational review, a pilot project was initiated to create so-called LO Centra- service and resource centres for LO's local branches. Such centres so far exist only in a small number of areas, and congress decided that the scheme is to be gradually extended. A number of representatives called for a strengthening of LO's local branches, and emphasised that resources had to be located as close as possible to the members. LO, together with the "owners" of the local centres (ie the local branches), will thus examine the scheme with a view to providing a more stable framework within which these centres may operate.

LO also wants to direct efforts towards the internet and new technology, including help for local branches that wish to establish their own websites. Personal computers and internet access at the workplace for all trade union representatives will be a demand in negotiations over the renewal of the basic agreements with employers' organisations (see below), which will take place in autumn 2001.

Relationship with the Labour Party

Although the traditionally close relationship between LO and the Norwegian Labour Party (Det norske Arbeiderparti, DnA) has been toned down in recent years, it is still an important part of LO's political activity (NO9709122F). However, for the first time a second party was invited to participate at the 2001 congress - the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstre Parti, SV), which is located to the left of DnA on the political continuum. One of the big surprises at the congress was the decision to grant money to SV's next election campaign. It was decided to give NOK 500,000 to SV and NOK 2,500,000 to DnA. However, the congress refused to enter into an organised cooperative venture with other political parties, and also rejected abandoning LO's formal cooperation with DnA.

New working life Act

The introduction of a new "Act relating to working life" has been on the agenda within LO for a some time (NO9809188N), mainly reflecting a wish to update and improve the current Act relating to worker protection and the working environment (Arbeidsmiljøloven), dating from 1977, in order to adapt it better to contemporary realities. Another aim is to gather all rules and regulations concerning employees' individual rights into a single piece of legislation. LO also want to see the introduction of new and better regulations on new issues in working life, such as telework/home-based work, new forms of workplace surveillance of employees and harassment at work. LO is also of the opinion that the legal framework must be strengthened in areas such as co-determination in multinational enterprises, and that there is a need for a new definition of the term "employer" in order to accommodate new forms of organising work such as outsourcing and the hiring in/out of labour. It is also suggested that several areas that at present are regulated through collective agreements should be incorporated into the legal framework.

The idea of the working life Act was one of the most controversial issues at the 2001 congress. Many delegates agreed that the present legal framework needs to be brought up to date, and thus favoured a revision of the legal framework and the possible introduction of a new Act. There was, however, significant reluctance towards the proposal. Some representatives argued that it was not concrete or far-reaching enough, while others regarded initiating a process to develop a new law as hazardous, in the light of: the fact that several public committees have called for a relaxation of the present regulations concerning employment conditions and working time; and the present revision of the legal framework on the issue of the hiring in/out of labour (NO9912168F).

The Minister of Labour and Government Administration, Jørgen Kosmo, was given the opportunity at the congress to express the government's views on the issue. He argued that a new working life Act should be in place before LO's next congress, and stated that a public committee will be established to examine the issue. Mr Kosmo promised that the committee will have significant representation from LO. The congress decided to give the LO executive committee the responsibility of further developing a strategy with regard to new working life legislation, a strategy which must be established in the light of the general election in autumn 2001.

Pensions and welfare issues

LO has drawn up its own proposal on pensions (NO0103125F), which includes a call for new funding in order to secure the national insurance pension scheme in the years to come, with the national oil fund being used to this end. LO has also decided further to develop existing supplementary pensions schemes through collective agreements. However, no specific decisions at the congress were made that will affect the formation of demands prior to the next wage settlement.

Proposals for reduced working hours (35 hours a week to begin with) and a flexible retirement age (from the age of 60 to 70) were also adopted at the congress. The demand for reduced working hours has been met with significant criticism from the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO).

Wage and bargaining policy and basic agreements

In his speech to the congress, the outgoing vice-president, Jan Balstad, stated that LO's wage policy during the 1990s had contributed to real wage growth while at the same time generating job creation. Mr Balstad also addressed the challenges facing LO in the international arena, with the main focus on European cooperation. The congress decided that LO, in collaboration with its member unions, will participate in the process towards closer coordination of bargaining policy at the European level, and in European-level negotiations over future EU legislation.

LO's executive committee put forward a proposal for a wage and bargaining policy statement pledging LO to continuing the so-called "solidarity alternative" of moderate wage growth combined with measures to safeguard high employment and social reforms (NO0012117F). Several delegates were unhappy about this, and wanted to see a slightly different formulation. However, the sceptics were in a minority and the formulation was maintained, but with an emphasis on the responsibility of employers and others to make sure that management pay growth does not exceed that of ordinary workers (NO0104127N). The congress also approved a proposal for a "just wage for those with higher education". This implies that LO will give priority in wage settlements to groups that on previous occasions have not received a fair compensation for their cost of education.

The congress also considered issues related to LO's basic agreements with employers' organisations, which lay down the framework for relations between the parties (NO9711134F). No decisions were made in this regard, and (as usual) all proposals were referred to the executive committee for further consideration. Mr Balstad stated that there are an increasing number of cases of "collective agreement dumping" - ie where enterprises change employers' association in order to fall under a "cheaper" collective agreement. He thus called for a coordination of the various basic agreements to counter this phenomenon. Other issues considered in relation to the revision of the basic agreements included stronger sanctions for breaches of their provisions concerning information and consultation, and improved working conditions for shop stewards.

Commentary

The LO 2001 congress considered a range of issues that concern LO, its affiliated unions and individual members. Much media attention was given to the change in leadership, which is regarded by many as a symbolic shift which may generate a shift in LO's policy. The outgoing president,Yngve Hågensen, is regarded as an archetypal representative of manufacturing industries. Ms Valla is the first female LO president, the first LO president with higher education, and the first elected LO president from the public sector. She thus represents a growing segment of contemporary employment, which as a group has on the whole chosen to unionise outside LO. The change in leadership is also interesting given that Mr Hågensen is regarded as the architect and guarantor of LO's wage policy during the 1990s, a period with strong coordination of wage formation and cooperation on incomes policy. In the past few years, it has been hard to maintain this strong coordination and cooperation. Hence, it will be interesting to see the extent to which a new leadership is able to continue the approach of pay moderation, and whether the individual trade unions will in future play a more significant role at the expense of the central organisation of LO.

The other issue which received significant attention at the congress was the decision to allocate election funds to SV. Previously, such funds had been given only to DnA. The decision was made despite an almost unanimous recommendation by the executive committee opposing it. This may partly be explained by the dissatisfaction felt by many trade unions with regard to the present Labour government's public sector policies. Many unions oppose the tightening of public sector spending, as well as the government's plans for health and social reform and restructuring. The proposed hospital reform has caused particular controversy within LO (NO0101120F). The decision may also be seen as an expression of a significant degree of reluctance towards the close relationship between LO and DnA. The relationship is regarded by a minority of LO's member unions and representatives as a major impediment to increased recruitment.

The congress discussed a wide range of challenges facing LO and its member unions in the years to come. However, the most interesting features of the congress were not the concrete decisions made, but rather those issues where commitments were made to continue deliberations.

The new president was very explicit on the need for, and importance of, improving recruitment. LO has set itself a difficult target; to improve recruitment among low-wage groups in the private service sector as well as among groups with higher education in the public sector. Not only are these groups totally different with regard to their wage profile and interests in general, but LO has also not been successful in recruiting them in the past.

It will also be interesting to follow the discussions within LO on organisational structure in the months and years to come. Several unions have signalled that the present structure is not satisfactory, and a review of the cartel structure has been on the agenda for a long time. However, many unions want to see a much broader evaluation. Previous experiences of organisational deliberations suggest that it will be difficult to achieve major alterations to LO's organisation, especially if it entails changes to its member unions' areas of responsibility, or in their "catchment area" in terms of employees and industries. However, the chances of success may be greater this time around, since there were a significant number of delegates at the congress who wanted to see a much broader process of deliberation.

A third issue on which congress initiated further deliberation rather than making any decisions concerned more basic aspects of bargaining, including the relationship between unionised and non-unionised employees, and the possibility of limiting certain rights to unionised employees. These are issues that have been put on the agenda on several occasions in recent times, including by Ms Valla herself. It is also evident that outsourcing and privatisation of public services places significant pressures on the collective bargaining structure and on unity within LO. The question of the unions to which groups of employees affected by outsourcing and privatisation should belong and, consequently, the unions which should be allowed to enter into agreements on behalf of these groups, are especially important. This issue will be considered further during the period up until the next congress in 2005.

A final issue worth commenting on is an anticipated conflict between private and public sector unions (NO9911163F), and the fact that it was less marked than expected during the congress. All elections were by unanimous vote and, despite early signs of disagreement over LO's stance on privatisation and competitive tendering, there was ultimately full support for the main principle previously agreed upon. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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