Public committee proposes changes to rules on mediation and strikes

In April 2001, a public committee which had been examining the Norwegian collective bargaining system issued its report. It proposes strengthening the authority of the state mediator in a number of areas. The proposals have met with opposition from several trade unions.

The report of the public committee responsible for examining the Norwegian collective bargaining system was made public on 2 April 2001. The report is to be considered by relevant parties before the government recommends any changes to the Act relating to labour disputes and the Act relating to public service disputes.

Background

The so-called "Stabel committee" was established in spring 1999 with Ingse Stabel as its chair (NO9906135F). The committee had representation from all Norway's major social partner organisations. Apart from Ms Stabel, the other independent representative on the committee was Torgeir A Stokke, a researcher from the Institute of Applied Social Sciences (FAFO). The committee's mandate was to "undertake a wide-ranging analysis of the actual operation of the present bargaining system and the framework within which it operates". The committee was further asked to come up with recommendations for improvements to the present legal framework, insofar as weaknesses were revealed by its examination that needed to be followed up. The establishment of the committee was set partly against the background of concerns about the apparent weaknesses of the bargaining system raised during the 1998 wage settlement (NO9805164F), and questions raised about the ability of the main confederations to pursue moderate wage settlements. Furthermore, the report of the Labour Law Commission, which was made public in 1996, had also recommended a wide range of changes to the present bargaining system (NO9706112F). At the time, the Commission's proposals met with intense opposition from several social partner organisations, and the political authorities chose not to follow up its recommendations.

The proposals

The Stabel committee report provides a broad and thorough deliberation and discussion on the present bargaining system, as well as an analysis of labour law in the other Nordic countries.

Cooperation on incomes policy

The committee endorses some of the recommendations made in 2000 by the "Holden committee" (NO0007198F) in that it recognises the benefits involved in coordinating wage formation through a model whereby the framework for pay bargaining is set by the so-called "trend-setting" sectors (the industries most vulnerable to international competition). The present system is seen as able to support a continuation of the Norway's current cooperative venture on incomes policy. Although the committee recognises the advantages of extending the coordination of wage formation, it is reluctant to see any permanent arrangements imposed on the parties whereby a fixed economic framework for settlements is set prior to negotiations. The committee representatives from the employers' side wanted to see a much stronger commitment in this regard, and have formulated a dissenting opinion in which they argue that the alternative to stronger and more binding coordination is a highly decentralised form of wage formation.

The legal framework

The committee also considered the present legal framework for bargaining, and proposes changes in several areas. The frequency of industrial conflict in Norway is, according to the committee, not at such a level as to necessitate changes with regards the right to strike or conduct a lock-out, or the rules concerning compulsory arbitration (NO9704109N). Furthermore, the regulations concerning the principle that collective agreements cannot be departed from, and those concerning competing collective agreements, should remain unchanged. The committee is also reasonably satisfied with the present arrangements for mediation. However, two questions have been considered in closer detail, and changes are proposed: the extent to which the state mediator may impose a duty to hold membership ballots over proposed collective agreements; and the extent to which the state mediator may require that the votes in several ballots should be counted as one.

It is a tradition in Norwegian industrial relations that proposals for collective agreements are subject to ballots of the employees concerned. However, the Act relating to labour disputes does not contain any provisions imposing a duty to hold a ballot on trade unions, and there is also a tradition in some trade unions not to hold ballots. A majority of the committee's members propose allowing the state mediator the authority to impose such a duty in cases where a mediation proposal has been put forward, presuming that the state mediator "under ordinary circumstances will not impose a duty to hold a ballot against the wishes of a union confederation". This power could thus only be utilised in exceptional circumstances. A minority on the committee, comprising most of the representatives from the employee side, want to see a ballot duty imposed only in the municipal sector, and not in other sectors.

The question of the duty to hold a ballot is closely connected with that of "linkage" - ie the power for the state mediator to consider several ballots collectively and view the results as one. Linkage is not really a viable alternative without first imposing a ballot duty, since organisations may refuse to hold ballots. In Norway, the state mediator does have the authority to impose the principle of linkage, but this has not been done since 1982. A majority of the committee members, including those representing the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO), want to keep the regulations concerning linkage as they are today, while a minority oppose the imposition of a ballot duty against the wishes of a trade union.

Municipal sector

A further area considered by the Stabel committee was the collective bargaining system in the municipal sector. Here there are several identical collective agreements to which individual trade unions are party, which becomes a problem in cases where a majority of unions sign agreements, while a minority fails to do so. There is a general consensus in the committee that the state mediator should be able to impose a duty to hold a ballot on proposed agreements in the municipal sector. The reason why the committee does not recommend more wide-ranging changes to the municipal sector system of negotiations and bargaining may be that the parties in this sector have signalled a wish to enter into a new framework agreement over this system. The committee thus recommends that a new agreement should allow the main confederations a much stronger position than is the case today.

Comments

The Stabel committee recommends a continuation of present arrangements, which means that a wide range of proposals, including those from the earlier Labour Law Commission, have been left out. The committee further agrees with the proposition that cooperation on incomes policy with a view to moderate wage developments requires stronger coordination than is the case at present, but argues that this should be achieved through dialogue rather than stricter legal regulations. Likewise, it also proposes leaving other difficult issues with regard to the bargaining system to the social partners to decide, rather than advocating legal solutions. As for regulations concerning mediation, the committee is cautious in its recommendations, which are first and foremost directed at supporting voluntary coordination. Furthermore, the report is coloured by the fact that the committee has emphasised Norway's commitments under public international law (NO9812104F), an area which have been subject to a thorough analysis in the report. Several proposals for change that might have contributed to increased coordination of wage formation are rejected on the grounds that they may contradict such commitments.

The employers' representatives on the committee wanted to see a stronger commitment to the coordination of bargaining, with social partner organisations pledging their support for the establishment of an economic framework as the basis for wage settlements. The employers' organisations have jointly threatened to withdraw from the cooperative venture on incomes policy if their demand is not met. Although it is now clear that the employers have reservations about the operation of the present model of bargaining, there is little evidence to suggest that there will be an immediate shift in their attitude with regard to the centralised negotiations model.

The fate of the committee's proposal concerning the competence of the state mediator is uncertain. The majority proposals have met with significant opposition from several trade unions, fearing that their ability to strike may be restricted. The conflict of opinions follows very much the same lines as on previous occasions, with a number of trade unions, both within and outside LO, opposed to moderate wage settlements and incomes policy cooperation. To some extent, it also reflects the fear that smaller organisations will be overwhelmed by the larger ones.

The government is unlikely to put forward a proposal for changes to the bargaining system that does not enjoy broad support among the social partners. The composition of the majorities on the committee in favour of the various specific proposals varied, and as such there is no overall majority for the different models proposed. The implication is that there is support only for a solution that imposes a duty to ballot in the municipal sector and for linkage where this takes place on a voluntary basis. In reality, this would mean that the trade unions could go out on strike if their members so wished, but that the state mediator could delay the strike until after a ballot. A more significant change to the bargaining system in the municipal sector may take place if and when the sector's social partners conclude a new and more binding voluntary agreement concerning bargaining cartels. The committee seems to have placed a considerable amount of pressure on the parties in the municipal sector to accept a principle by which the bargaining cartel as a collective entity must either accept or reject a proposal for a new agreement. This will prevent individual unions resorting to strike action, which has been the case on several occasions in recent years. The negotiations over such a new agreement have been initiated, although at the moment there is a break in proceedings, but it is clear that it will lead to intense internal discussions within each bargaining cartel. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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