Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions holds congress
The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), the largest employee confederation in Norway, held its four-yearly congress on 10-16 May 1997. The most important issues were the question of continuing with the "Solidarity Alternative", and the adoption of the Action Programme for the period 1997-2001. A discussion also took place between LO unions regarding the confederation's policy towards the privatisation of public activities (services), while the vice-presidency election received considerable attention.
The largest union confederation in Norway, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) held its 29th ordinary congress on 10-16 May 1997. The congress is held every fourth year and is LO's highest decision-making body. A total of 315 delegates from 28 LO-affiliated unions and 19 counties make up the congress. At the congress the vice-presidency election, questions regarding the privatisation of public services and the question of wage policy and the continuation of the so-called "Solidarity Alternative", attracted most interest.
The election for the presidency, the most central position in LO, was decided on before the congress met, after speculations over a long period of time in the Norwegian media. LO practises a system whereby the retirement age for elected representatives is 60 years. However, after a committee - on which the leaders of some of the main unions in LO were represented - recommended that the rules should be interpreted in such a way that the current LO president, Yngve Hågensen, could be re-elected, the question of the presidency was no longer controversial.
In the run-up to the congress, uncertainty was greatest with regard to who would be elected as vice-president. It was already clear that a woman was to have one of the central positions in the leadership of LO, and that the same applied to a representative from the public sector. For many, the vice-presidency election was important since the sitting vice-president will play an important role when the next congress elects a new president. The congress decided on a system with two vice-presidents with equal powers - Gerd Liv Valla (a woman with a public sector background) and Jan Balstad (a man with a private sector background). As a result of the election, LO is now headed by eight elected representatives (the president and two vice-presidents, plus the secretary treasurer, first secretary and three other secretaries), of whom five are women. A proposal to introduce an affirmative action clause for LO's central bodies did not win sufficient support.
Continuation of the Solidarity Alternative
The LO congress adopted a resolution to continue to support the main objectives behind the so-called "Solidarity Alternative" (NO9702104F) - ie, moderate wage settlements combined with an active employment policy. In its decision further to support the Solidarity Alternative, LO emphasises the need for social reforms - amongst others the right to further training and education for all employees. In addition, LO is demanding that other employee organisations have to adapt to (in other words, accept) the framework of the Solidarity Alternative. This demand is closely connected with the current proposed amendments to the Labour Disputes Act, which has met strong opposition amongst many employee organisations not affiliated to LO.
Working hours and working time arrangements
LO is calling for a wider debate regarding working hours and working time arrangements. In LO's new Action Programme support is given to a shorter working week, lower retirement age and longer annual leave. However, LO does not stipulate which of the measures should be given highest priority. Instead it emphasises that each individual employee has different needs during his or her lifespan, and that LO will strive for collectively-based schemes which will enable working hours which are in accordance with individual wishes and needs. LO will look into the possibility of establishing a "time account", a scheme which will make it possible to choose different working time arrangements during different phases of a lifespan and career.
Privatisation: a controversial issue
An issue which caused a considerable amount of controversy between the different unions at the congress, was the question of privatisation of public services. One of the most controversial themes in the discussion was the question of which unions should be responsible for wage bargaining within the independent or privatised enterprises. The Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees, which is LO's largest union, proposed that the municipal authorities should keep an employer's responsibility for privatised services where they still have major influence through ownership or public tendering. It further proposed that LO's bargaining cartel for the municipal sector should have the responsibility of reaching agreements which regulate this employer's responsibility. The majority on LO's executive committee wanted the unions organising within the municipal sector to retain the right to organise employees within the sectors of health, education and power supply, when privatisation takes place. In the other sectors, the right to organise should be transferred to the appropriate federation in the private sector. The private sector unions opposed the proposal from Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees. The congress adopted a compromise resolution, which stated that the proposal should be looked at more closely.
There were no great surprises during this year's congress, and LO's executive committee won support on all the major issues. Since the question of the presidency was settled before the start of the congress, it was also relatively clear that the current political line would be continued. The present favourable economic climate in Norway, with significant growth in employment, contributed to the broad support for the current incomes and wages policy. Surveys conducted prior to the congress also indicate that LO has wide support amongst the population at large when it wants to give social reforms greater priority than higher nominal wage increases. The fact that five out of the eight top representatives of LO are women, has been positively received in an organisation which has been criticised for being male-dominated, particularly with regard to its elected bodies.
Important issues for LO in the coming years include the implementation of a reform providing the right to further training and education, and possible working time reforms. These are issues which will have an impact on future wage settlements and government policy, and which also interest the employer side. More flexible working hours is a major aim for which the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (NHO), the central employers' organisation in the private sector, will work. However, the question remains as to whether the employer side and employee organisations can find practical solutions to which both parties can agree. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science).