New public sector pay systems lead to individualised strikes

In April 2000, four highly-qualified employees of Denmark's National Working Environment Authority had been on strike for three months in a dispute over pay supplements. Since the introduction of a new public sector pay system in 1998, there have been scattered strikes across the country due to disputes concerning the amount and duration of special allowances under the new system. Unusually, the strikes have lasted for up to six months and been confined to groups of two to four people, and even individuals, as a consequence of the individualised pay negotiations introduced by the new system.

The traditional picture of strikes involving large numbers of manual workers is being challenged at present in Denmark by a tendency for strikes by individual highly-qualified workers, or small groups of them. It seems that individual pay negotiations are preparing the way for individual strikes. At the beginning of April 2000, four members of the academic staff in the National Working Environment Authority (Arbejdstilsynet) had been striking for three months, while two employees of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (Miljøstyrelsen) took strike action throughout the winter of 1998/9, and a single employee in the county administration of Northern Jutland went on strike for nearly six months in 1999.

The causes for this state of affairs are to be found in the recent introduction of a new pay system in the public sector, called "new pay" (Ny Løn). This new system - which is broadly similar to the pay systems based on performance and results found in the private sector - was introduced in 1998 (DK9705110F), but it is only now that the full impact can be seen. Basically, the new pay system is individualised and this gives the individual a right to strike; under the old system, a strike would normally comprise larger groups of employees.

"New pay" consists of basic pay and special supplements and allowances based on special qualifications and work functions. The dispute concerns the qualification supplement, which is given on the basis of professional and personal qualifications. The point of contention concerns both the amount of the supplements and, not least, whether they should be permanent or temporary. According to the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (Dansk Magisterforening, DM) qualification supplements are permanent and it is therefore a matter of fixing the general level in the first set of negotiations, as the qualification supplement will not increase. In the present case, where DM supports the four strikers at the National Working Environment Authority, the two sides disagree about the amount and duration of the supplement. The offer from the Authority is a little lower that that paid to similar groups of DM members at other workplaces in the state sector, and the Authority finds it difficult to accept that the supplement should be permanent because the persons concerned could at some point of time be transferred to other work functions. DM argues that in this case a different special allowance paid for performance of special functions, which is a temporary allowance, would come into play. DM states that a qualification allowance is a permanent allowance because qualifications do not disappear over time. A temporary supplement may be given to an employee who is, for instance, responsible for a special project for a period of time (such as being posted abroad by a Ministry). In such cases, the supplement would be specifically attached to the project and would lapse on completion of the project.

The collective agreement concluded between the state employers' body and the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikernes Centralorganisation, AC) - of which DM is a member organisation - states that "qualification supplements are mainly to be given in the form of permanent supplements". DM is ready to fight for this principle and the current four-person strike is unlikely to be the last.

The present strike shows that no customary practice has yet been built up in this area. According to the Ministry of Finance, it is not yet possible to draw up actual pay statistics, but the figures available show that there has been a marked increase in pay during the first year or two of application of the new system. From the second quarter of 1998 to the second quarter of 1999, the pay of employees covered by the "new pay" system increased by an average of 8.6%, compared with only 4.7% for employees covered by the old pay system. A survey conducted in 1 February 2000 shows that 26,000 employees in the state sector are working under the new pay system, along with nearly all employees in the county and municipal administrations.

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