YS want closer cooperation among trade union confederations

Norway's Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS) held its national conference in June 1999. The proposal to merge with the Confederation of Academic and Professional Associations (AF) in order to create a new trade union confederation received unanimous support at the conference, and it was also decided to seek closer cooperation with the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO).

The Confederation of Vocational Unions (Yrkesorganisasjonenes Sentralforbund, YS) held its eighth national conference on 15-16 June 1999. The YS chair, Randi Bjørgen was re-elected for a second period, and at the top of the agenda was the proposed creation of a new trade union confederation with the Confederation of Academic and Professional Associations (Akademikernes Fellesorganisasjon, AF). In her opening speech, Ms Bjørgen also announced willingness for closer cooperation with the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO). The Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) was heavily criticised for allegedly undermining the legitimacy of the national system of collective bargaining.

The Confederation of Vocational Unions

YS, established in 1977 as a politically independent trade union organisation, groups 20 unions in both the private and public sectors with a total of around 240,000 members. Its membership base is in many ways similar to that of LO, involving blue- and white-collar workers and "semi-professionals" at low or medium wage levels. In certain sectors, there is significant competition over employees between the various unions affiliated to the two confederations. A large majority of YS's members are public sector employees, and two out of three are women. Employees in the banking and insurance sector constitute the largest group in private sector. Overall coordination at the confederal level is much less important in YS than in LO, which means that individual member unions have more independence.

New union confederation

At the top of the agenda during the June conference was the proposal to create a new trade union confederation by a merger between YS and AF. The leaders of the two organisations, Ms Bjørgen and Aud Blankholm of AF, had taken a joint initiative on 20 May 1999 to examine the basis for a possible merger and the creation of a new union confederation (NO9905132N). The proposal received unanimous support at the YS conference. The executive committee of AF also approved the proposal to consider a new confederation in June 1999. The new confederation would at the time of creation comprise union member unions of YS and AF, but would be open for independent union organisations to join. At the YS conference, it was stressed that a pooling of resources of this kind will make YS a lot more influential vis-à-vis the employers and the government, and will at the same time help to restore order and clarity in a fragmented Norwegian industrial relations system.

YS to improve relations with LO

In her opening speech, Ms Bjørgen also touched upon the relationship between YS and LO. This has traditionally been a relationship marked by competition, and has at times been filled with considerable tension. She argued, however, that the relationship is now better than ever, that the two confederations have shared interests on many issues, and that one of her ambitions is to contribute to improving YS's relationship with LO. This means seeking cooperation instead of competition. It was, however, emphasised that the invitation to closer cooperation not was a formal invitation to join in the plans to create a new confederation.

Attack on employers

The YS leader also raised concerns about the present collective bargaining system and especially the role of NHO. NHO was criticised for what YS regards as its monopoly in the national bargaining system. In the current so-called "Aukrust model" of bargaining in Norway, "competitive industry" in the private sector, , most of which falls within the NHO area, sets the precedent during wage settlements. Ms Bjørgen called for changes to the present system to take into account today's much more complex and comprehensive labour market. YS wants to see the present model reconsidered, and at least the introduction of a much wider definition of the term "competitive industry", which may also include some parts of the public sector. M. Bjørgen emphasised that a re-evaluation of the present model must be at the top of the agenda, when the social partners, in the years to come, meet to deliberate over a future national bargaining system (NO9906135F).

NHO commented that it is not opposed to a re-evaluation of the definition of competitive industry, but still believe that Norwegian industry competing abroad must lead the way during wage settlements. There is nothing stopping public sector enterprises from being defined as competitive industry, according to NHO, but a precondition is that public sector employees accept wage moderation.

YS also attacked the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (Kommunenes Sentralforbund, KS) for being a weak and politically fragmented organisation. YS believes that internal tensions within KS are preventing it from carrying out its role as a responsible employers' organisation.

Commentary

The YS national conference generated broad support in favour of a merger between YS and AF, a proposal which also received support from several of the more important YS-affiliated unions. This, however, is not to say that there will be no controversy with regards to the future organisational model of the new body. If the leaderships of the two confederations want to see a more centralised model, giving more power to the main confederation, they will doubtless meet opposition. The organisational models of both AF and YS are relatively decentralised, with member unions exerting great influence. The possibility of preserving a relatively independent role may be a reason for many of the unions having joined the two confederations. At the same time it may be argued that a more centralised model would allow the merged confederation to achieve greater political influence, and a stronger position during wage negotiations in the public sector.

It is also significant that the YS leader expressed a wish to further YS's relationship with LO. The invitation must be seen in light of a number of important factors. First of all, the call is a recognition that the once controversial relationship between YS and LO is cooling down, and that the two organisations have cooperated well on some issues recently - as with the joint strike action in October 1998 against the government's 1999 Budget proposals (NO9810192N). Second, LO has indicated willingness to engage in closer cooperation with YS and AF. Prior to the YS national conference, LO's deputy leader, Gerd Liv Valla, in an interview with the Dagsavisen newspaper, expressed a wish to see a future merger of the three confederations in order to "de-fragment" and strengthen employee representation in Norway. Furthermore, AF and LO already have a joint cooperation agreement, and it is very likely that the ambition is to retain this cooperative venture after the merger. This will include cooperation in international organisations such as the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (Nordens Faglige Samorganisasjon, NFS). (Haavard Lismoen, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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