National Wage Board rules on pay disputes in state and municipal sectors

In September and October 1998, Norway's National Wage Board ruled on various labour disputes which had gone to compulsory arbitration. Two of the municipal sector trade unions affiliated to the AF confederation received partial support for their claims. Similar rulings were made in other parts of the state and municipal sector.

The 1998 spring pay settlement in the public sector (NO9806170F) led to a series of strikes among public sector employees (NO9806173F). Several of these strikes were referred to compulsory arbitration - ie the industrial action ceased and it was left to the National Wage Board (Rikslønnsnemnda) to rule in the dispute. Conflicts involving several trade unions in the municipal sector were faced with compulsory arbitration, including the strike by auxiliary nurses, as well as disputes involving several health sector associations affiliated to the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations (Akademikernes Fellesorganisasjon, AF). Another AF strike in the state sector was also referred to compulsory arbitration.

During autumn 1998, these organisations had their pay claims settled by the National Wage Board - a permanent body of three independent representatives, together with one representative from each of the parties concerned on the employees' and employers' side. In addition, the Board comprises one representative each from the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) and the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO). In the state sector the latter two are replaced by representatives from LO Stat (a bargaining cartel for all LO unions organising in the state sector) and the Ministry of Labour and Government Administration (AAD- which negotiates on behalf of the employer side in the state sector). The latter representatives do not possess voting rights, and as such the three independent representatives usually form the majority.

Pay negotiations in the Norwegian public sector are coloured by the fact that there is a single joint collective agreement for all employees within each individual bargaining area (the state sector, municipal sector, and municipality of Oslo). At the same time, there are three or four different bargaining cartels on the employee side which cooperate during negotiations in only a limited way. Thus, in most cases there is already an established collective agreement for the relevant bargaining area when the National Wage Board is brought in.

The rulings of the National Wage Board

During September and October 1998, the National Wage Board ruled in those disputes which were referred to compulsory arbitration in the spring.

The Norwegian Union of Practical Nurses (Norsk Helse- og Sosialforbund, NHSF) had its claims rejected. The union claimed automatic promotion for employees with further education, in line with the practice in other occupations within the municipal sector. The union also sought equal pay for nurses, its most important member group, and so-called "social care workers", a new category of post in the municipal sector. A majority of the Board expressed sympathy and understanding with the equal pay claim and indicated that it could well be reconsidered at a future date.

The rulings of the National Wage Board in relation to state-registered nurses and radiographers in the municipal sector gave the organisations partial support for their claim. Some occupational groups, including nurses with special education, were awarded greater pay increases than other groups which fell under the same agreement. This decision was based on the fact that there was an acute shortage of labour and many vacant posts in this area. It was further argued that the present economic situation in general prevented the Board from supporting more claims, although a majority expressed sympathy for the pay claims of ordinary nurses. As a result the employer side, represented by the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (Kommunenes Sentralforbund, KS), did not receive support for its claim that the Board should award similar pay increases for those in the municipal sector.

In the state sector, the pay claim of AF was rejected by the Board.


The National Wage Board has traditionally been cautious in accommodating claims from an organisation, in excess of what the majority of organisations have already approved. The state of the national economy has also traditionally been a concern of the Board, and this has worsened significantly since the strikes of May and June 1998. Interest rates have doubled, the Norwegian currency (NOK) has weakened and several leading economists fear that unemployment may begin to rise in the long run. The spring settlements of 1998, and especially the settlements in the municipal sector, led to higher pay growth than expected. It is therefore surprising that nurses have managed to achieve their special particular claims.

Since the beginning of the 1970s the Board has ruled in approximately 60 disputes. In only a few cases has the Board deviated from already established settlement guidelines. The four most significant departures share two common features. Firstly, they have been concerned with low-paid and female-dominated occupational groups, and secondly, they have involved occupations within the health sector. 1998's ruling concerning nurses thus fits in with the exceptions.

Other groups in the municipal agreement area have attempted to prevent any groups receiving special treatment by the National Wage Board by drawing up renegotiation clauses in which negotiations may be resumed in such cases. The Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees (Norsk Kommuneforbund, NKF), which is the largest union in the municipal sector as well as in the whole of Norway, has warned of its intention to resume negotiations, although a decision to do so has so far not been made at the time of writing (17 October 1998). In Norway it is rare for such renegotiation clauses to be utilised.

Pay distribution in the public sector (ie the gap between low-paid and high-paid employees) has narrowed during the 1990s, which has been an important argument for AF Stat (AF's public sector cartel) during the discussions in the National Wage Board. The Board expressed its worries about the problems of recruiting qualified workers into the public sector, although it has not made any changes to this year's settlement. An increasing militancy among groups in higher education will be carried forward to the 1999 intermediary settlement, which will probably be conducted within tighter economic constraints than this year.

The employers, and especially the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (Kommunenes Sentralforbund, KS), are worried about the implications of the National Wage Board's ruling on the already fragmented negotiating structure in the municipal sector. The Board's special treatment of nurses may tempt more organisations to follow suit. Previously there has been a tendency for surprise rulings to lead, in the short term, to a slight increase in the number of strikes in the public sector. Employers in the state and municipal sectors, together with LO's representatives without voting rights, have also expressed concern that it may make it harder to retain the arrangement for a joint collective agreement for all bargaining cartels within this sector. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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