Another battle fought and lost

 Labour Day, 2010 (Oslo): Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices of Norway with a banner for equal payment
Labour Day, 2010 (Oslo): Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices of Norway with a banner for equal payment
Photo: GAD (Wikimedia Commons)

The Norwegian society was paralyzed by a strike this spring/early summer, and naturally there were quite a few reactions. There are some people that bring up the old accusation that “they always strike”. There are some groups of professions I don’t have that much sympathy for either, but as a well educated teacher I do have some for all people with a university degree. The question is whether it’s a good idea to demand more money when large parts of the European population are struggling financially.

 I am aware that there will be no victory without a union, but I probably have a more ambivalent and sometimes strained relationship with the organization than many other members. That tends to be the case when principals hire unskilled teaching staff in order to cut expenses, while the union accepts it.

But back to the strike. I remember when I went to high school in the small industrial town of Sauda in the 80s. After a two year course I couldn’t take the final exams in 1986 because of the teachers’ strike that year, but it had no consequences for me as I was admitted to the final year anyway. The situation back then was that a student could get a job at the local iron works and earn the same as a teacher. There was actually a boy in my class who did it, as far as I remember. Another friend from junior high school took a year in a vocational school, then a year as welding apprentice and has worked at the shipyard in Haugesund ever since. He made well above a teacher salary from the beginning because he could have as much overtime as he wanted. In other words he started his adult life with a high income and no debt.

Most people who get an education do so because they think the job is rewarding, and that is a form of currency as well. However, I find it strange that the government is dependent on many choosing to go to university while they at the same time don’t encourage and reward this.

 My wife grew up in the U.S.A. and she told me once about an incident from her childhood that illustrates how important it is to fight for your rights, and not give up, because the opposition won’t give anything away voluntarily. Her parents were factory workers and once they went on strike in the mid 1970s. The strike lasted for 5 months. The main demands were to increase the holiday from 1 to 2 weeks, and the right to keep their health insurance after they retired. I do not think these sound like unreasonable demands, and it turns out that her father made good use of this victory. His retirement was in fact not what he had hoped for. He suffered serious health problems and would probably have died much sooner without the health insurance that he was allowed to keep after he retired because he and the other union members held their ground.

In Norway we are not literally fighting for our lives, but the danger is more that we will lose what we have. I guess the tactic is an old one, demand something which seems very unreasonable. Then, when the parties go back to the negotiating table again, the union can suggest something that is far more reasonable. Thus, unions and management are far more likely to come to an agreement.


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