Municipal sector unions consider agreement on joint cooperation

The Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees - affiliated to the LO union confederation - and the Norwegian Union of Practical Nurses - affiliated to the competing YS confederation - have concluded an agreement on the possibility of establishing a new organisation for the employees they represent. The agreement, which was made public in August 1998, received criticism from YS, while the leader of LO was positive, arguing that mutual cooperation would help to strengthen the influence of the membership of both unions.

On 11 August 1998, it became public knowledge that the Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees (Norsk Kommuneforbund, NKF) and the Norwegian Union of Practical Nurses (Norsk Helse- og Sosialforbund, NHSF) had entered into an agreement to deliberate "on the basis for establishing a new form of organisation covering employees in the two unions (NO9808184N)". NKF has more than 230,000 members, and is the largest member union of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO). NHSF is the second-largest member organisation within the competing Confederation of Vocational Unions (Yrkesorganisasjonenes Sentralforbund, YS), and has approximately 50,000 members. The two unions are keen to strengthen their influence within the municipal sector. The agreement stipulates a time limit of six years for the issue to be fully considered by the two unions.

Common interests

The two trade unions emphasise that developments in the public sector are putting greater strains on the employee organisations' political influence. Increased demands for public services, combined with limited economic resources have led to difficulties in the public sector carrying out its tasks. In such circumstances, the rights and privileges of employees will be put under pressure, for example where privatisation proposals arise. In addition, NKF and NHSF have stated their intention to further deliberate whether the creation of a new organisation could help to improve pay and working conditions. The potential ability of a new organisation to improve and safeguard the interests of members in terms of occupational skills will be evaluated.

Joint examination and contacts

The basis for a new organisation will be deliberated over by a project group consisting of two officials from each of the unions, along with representatives from research institutes. In addition, a steering committee will be appointed, containing representatives from the executives of both unions. The two unions have emphasised that the existing rivalry and competition between them benefits only the employers. The agreement stipulates the desirability of close contact between NKF and NHSF during the period covered by the agreement, both locally and at central level. The project group, contact liaisons and detailed plans for the deliberation process will be complete by the autumn of 1998.

Mixed reactions from the confederations

It had not been public knowledge that the two unions were working to reach a cooperation agreement. According to NKF and NHSF, their respective parent organisations, YS and LO, were not informed until the agreement was settled. The relationship between LO and YS is marked by the fact that they compete for the same group of members. YS has a profile of being politically "neutral", whilst LO has a long history of cooperation with the Norwegian Labour Party (Det Norske Arbeiderparti, DnA).

In a press release, LO's president, Yngve Hågensen, stated that he regarded the agreement as particularly positive and that such cooperation would strengthen the members' influence. News about the plans for cooperation was, however, met with strong and negative reactions from YS. Randi Bjørgen, the leader of YS, expressed disappointment about not being informed about the plans. The largest trade union in YS, the Norwegian Confederation of Municipal Workers (Kommunalansattes Fellesorganisasjon, KFO) has also expressed disappointment with NHSF's wish to consider the creation of a new organisation with an LO-affiliated union. The executive of YS decided at a meeting on 25 August 1998 that NHSF will not be excluded from the confederation itself, but will be excluded from several central decision-making organs within it. NHSF has also been excluded from the YS central committee, and has on its own initiative withdrawn from its position on the board of the bargaining cartel in the municipal sector. The leaders of NKF and NHSF underlined that the unions will both continue as members of their respective confederations during the evaluation period.

Commentary

The agreement between NKF and NHSF is in many ways surprising since the two trade unions have traditionally been in competition with each other. It reflects, however, the fact that the two unions, through experience, have come to realise their shared interests regarding pay and working conditions. Through cooperation, the two organisations may also be able to exploit each other's strengths. Cooperation will ensure that NHSF will have a greater political influence in pay negotiations, whilst NKF will be able to utilise the bargaining strength of members' skills in the health and social sectors. NKF organises several occupational groups in the public sector, but has made only limited progress in enhancing its members' occupational skills. This is supposed to be the main reason why so many occupational groups within the health and social sector have applied for membership of other union organisations.

One additional explanation of why NHSF is interested in cooperating with the NKF may be the existence of cooperation problems within the municipal sector section of YS itself. In the 1998 pay settlement, NHSF members rejected the initial agreement and took strike action, whilst the other large YS trade union in the municipal sector, KFO, recommended the agreement to its members. The two YS unions have also competed with each other on the question as to which of them should have the right to organise "social care workers", a new occupational group in the municipal sector whose members have three years of upper secondary school education.

Although the issue of the confederations to which the unions are affiliated is not on the agenda, few people believe that NKF will leave LO. Most commentators assume that if the two unions establish a new organisation, it will mean that NHSF will leave YS for LO. Such a solution would considerably weaken the position of YS in the municipal sector. The confederation would lose approximately a fifth of its members. LO, on the other hand, would be strengthened, given that it has experienced several years of sluggish membership growth compared with other union confederations.

The cooperation plans between NKF and NHSF may lead to further changes in the relationship between different union confederations in Norway. In the last year or so, major changes in organisational structure have taken place. In the autumn of 1997, the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations (Akademikernes Fellesorganisasjon, AF) was split after several of its affiliated trade unions broke away in order to establish a new confederation for academically-qualified employees, Akademikerne (NO9711133F). In addition, one of the remaining member unions of AF, the Norwegian Society of Engineers (Norges Ingeniørorganisasjon, NITO) is considering its affiliation to AF, but it is unlikely that this union will consider applying for affiliation to Akademikerne (NO9807174F). (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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