Teachers reject new agreement

A new five-year pay agreement for Swedish teachers was rejected by the sector's two main trade unions in April 2000, following majorities opposing the deal in membership ballots. New negotiations will probably not start until late autumn 2000.

On 27 April 2000, the Swedish Teacher's Union (Lärarförbundet, LF) decided to reject a proposal for a new five-year collective agreement for teachers made by the employers' organisation, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities (Svenska Kommunförbundet). The rejection was subsequently repeated by the next largest teachers' trade union, the National Union of Teachers (Lärarnas Riksförbund, LR). Both LF and LR belong to a special cooperation council for teachers' negotiations (Lärarnas Samverkansråd). LF's rejection of the proposed agreement alone was sufficient to scupper the deal, as the cooperation council's statutes require the unions involved to agree among themselves on any new agreement.

LF, an affiliate of the Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemannarörelsens Centralorganisation, TCO) has about 210,000 members, representing 90% of all teachers employed by municipal authorities. LR is affiliated to the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO), and has about 70,000 members, all of whom have a university degree. In Sweden, the municipalities are responsible for providing free education for children and adolescents. The central state contributes economically to the management of schools, establishes curricula and supervises and evaluates educational standards. Within these limits, the 289 municipalities are free to plan education. (Colleges and universities are run by the central state and are thus not included in the collective bargaining conducted by the municipalities.)

The negotiations

In October 1999, LF and LR agreed on their demands for the coming pay negotiations. Over the next five years, the two unions sought a pay increase 15% higher than that awarded to other municipal employees. They also called for a five-year agreement, a 30% increase in pay for teachers during the first year after qualifying and a widening of the gap between the lowest and highest paid teachers to 40%, within each occupational group. The unions also made some general demands for changes in working conditions, such as stricter formulations of the rights of teachers to decide for themselves about their own working hours and other working time issues, plus more resources for further education (SE9910100N)

The municipal employers' final offer was presented to the union cooperation council at the end of March 2000 (the council also includes a third union, the much smaller Skolledarna, representing 6,500 headmasters and other principals within the education system, but it played a very low-key part in the negotiations). The proposal contained a five-year pay deal with a mutual understanding that pay would rise by at least 20% over this period, though with a guaranteed minimum increase of only 10.5%. For newly qualified teachers with one year in the profession, salaries would be increased by 16% from 1 April 2000. The starting salary would be SEK 16,400 to SEK 19,200 per month, compared with the current SEK 14,300 to SEK 16,700. There were several other proposals concerning general working conditions. The employers' proposal would have confirmed the earlier acceptance of individual and differentiated wage setting, in this case without any guarantees for individual teachers to receive more than the "basic" 10.5% over five years.

The boards of the trade unions involved started by recommending that their members accept the proposal. However, as there were signs that the members, especially in LR, were not happy with the situation, it was decided that, before any decision was taken, all the members should be given the chance to vote. This is very unusual in the Swedish trade union tradition. The two ballots were conducted in late April and LR was the first to announce the results. Out of 46,249 members employed in the municipalities, 62% voted in the poll, and 23,722 teachers, or 83% of those voting, opposed the new agreement. Some 4,633 members, or 16% of those voting, wanted to accept the deal. LF presented its results one or two days later, reporting that a very small majority had voted "no" to the employers' proposal, in a low turn-out. Out of 156,510 members, 32,907, or 50.2% of those voting, opposed the proposal, while 32,438 members (49.5%) voted in favour. No more than 21% of the union's members thus voted against the proposed deal.

On 27 April, LF decided to reject the proposed pay agreement, citing members' lack of confidence in the municipalities' wish to allocate more resources not only to salaries but to the whole schools system. On 2 May, the teachers' cooperation council gave a formal rejection of the proposed agreement to Kommunförbundet, which has not officially commented on the situation, stating that the bargaining is not yet finished. On 5 May, LR announced that its chair, Thomas Johansson, was to leave his job almost immediately, together with his two closest colleagues in the negotiations. At its congress on 15-16 May, LR elected a new chair, Metta Fjelkner, hitherto leader of one of the union's southern districts. LR has many internal problems to solve, and the congress did not make any decision as to when negotiations with the employers can start again.

Teachers' position

On 6 May, the outgoing chair of LR, Thomas Johansson, explained the reasons for leaving his post in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, blaming above all the municipalities and their perceived unwillingness to live up to promises. The economic cut-backs in the schools system in the 1990s placed teachers in a very difficult position, he stated. Promises were made in parliament and by the government and political parties to restore the position of schools and to recognise teachers as professionals by giving them more pay, but nothing has happened, he claimed. "The most important explanation for the teachers turning down the pay agreement proposal is the experiences that the teachers have had in their own municipalities during the last five years," Mr Johansson wrote, adding that "the teachers have received more and more work tasks from the municipalities and from school managements, with the stress and poor work environment getting worse all the time". Mr Johansson also pointed at the discrepancy between the positions of the parliament and government on the one hand and of local politicians on the other: "the municipalities still go on with the cut-backs, all they think of is their budgets."

Marianne Hörding, negotiator at Kommunförbundet, stated that it was sad that the parties had not reached a final agreement: "Also, it is hard to know for us what the rejection really means, as there have not been any new contacts with the teachers' cooperation council yet." When asked about the teachers' workplace situation in the municipalities, she answered that "it is true that working conditions for the teachers have become harder in the last 10 years. But that is true for almost any employee in any sector."

Meanwhile, parallel to the negotiations for the teachers, an agreement on a municipal "order of negotiations" was concluded on 14 April 2000 between all the trade unions and employers in the municipal sector. This is a cooperation agreement like that signed in 1997 in the industry sector (SE9703110N), and it will be used for the first time in the 2001 bargaining round.

Commentary

One effect of the teachers' rejection of the employer's proposal may be a less generous new proposal in autumn 2000. The major bargaining round for all other important sectors will be prepared in the autumn and the trade unions concerned will be unlikely to agree that the teachers should have a larger pay rise than other employees. The long-standing goal of upgrading the status of teachers may not be achieved on this occasion either. However, it is a real problem for the municipalities that the shortage of applicants for new teacher jobs is growing worse all the time, with newly-qualified teachers finding better paid jobs in other sectors. LR also has to solve its internal problems and address the distrust shown by its members, which may be directed as much against the trade union itself as against the municipal employers. Kommunförbundet, on the other side, is playing a waiting game, and the next move is not up to the employers. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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