Between 2 and 12 March 2010, I carried out 20 semi-structured interviews with representatives of Norwegian political parties, government ministries, employers’ associations and trade unions in Oslo. My main focus was on the continuity and change in the Norwegian political economy in times of global restructuring. The key result of this field research trip was astonishing: trade unions are in charge!
On numerous occasions, representatives from centre-right parties and the employers’ associations stated that in principle they would like to get rid off the rule that sick leave pay is 100 per cent from day one. They would also prefer a more decentralised collective bargaining system. Nevertheless, they all agreed that as long as this was opposed by the trade unions and here in particular by LO and its affiliated federations, these changes were simply not possible. Any attempt to push these changes through would result in large-scale strikes and drastic damage to the Norwegian economy.
A large presence at the workplace with a unionisation degree of ca. 56 per cent of the work force and wider society more generally ensures that LO enjoys a direct input into policy-making. The current Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg from the Norwegian Social Democratic Party, who leads a coalition government of the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Centre Party, comes every fortnight to the LO headquarters for a discussion of policies. When the presence of large numbers of foreign workers as a result of the 2004 enlargement of the European Union towards Eastern Europe increased the danger of social dumping, the Ministry of Labour co-operated closely with trade union representatives in the drawing-up of anti – social dumping legislation. Tripartite institutions, including also representatives of the employers’ associations, were bypassed. In relation to collective bargaining with employers’ associations, it is LO, which decides the format. If LO prefers multi-sector bargaining across all industrial sectors, the employers have to accept it. If LO decides that bargaining is preferable at the sectoral level in a particular year, employers’ associations have to go along too.
Why have Norwegian trade unions achieved something, of which trade unions elsewhere in Europe can only dream? There are, of course, a whole range of reasons for this. Nevertheless, to me it appears decisive that trade unions first took a more independent position from the Social Democratic Party in 2001, when the party had slumped to its worst electoral result since 1924 with 24.3 per cent of the vote. Rather than supporting the party unconditionally hoping for better times in case of its return to power, trade unions adopted their own policy programme and presented all parties with their questions prior to the 2005 elections. On the basis of the answers by the parties, the trade unions then recommended to the electorate to vote for one of the parties of the centre-left alliance. It was this focus on policies, rather than an unquestioning support to trade unions’ traditional political ally the Social Democratic Party, which made clear to the latter that it first needed trade union support, if it wanted to return to power and second, that it cannot take this support for granted, but needed to earn it with pro-labour policies.
Importantly, the policy programme by the trade unions rejected any kind of ‘third way’ policies. Unhappy with the Social Democratic government in 2000 and 2001, which amongst other measures had partially privatised companies such as Statoil and Telenor, trade unions made clear that only parties, which opposed any further privatisations or the outsourcing of public services to private sector providers, would receive their endorsement. While accepting that reform of the public sector was needed, unions put forward the Quality Municipality Project as their alternative, which focuses on reform through changes within the public sector including the incorporation of the expertise of the workforce (see also Wahl 2010). Interviewees across the political spectrum confirmed that trade unions, with the public sector union and LO-affiliate Fagforbundet playing a leading role, had been able to move the Social Democratic Party to the left again.
In short, it was a more independent position from the Social Democratic Party by the trade unions and a focus on policies rather than which party is in government, which gave Norwegian unions leverage over the Social Democratic Party and, with the party’s return to power at the head of a centre-left alliance in 2005, over government policy.
Wahl, A. (2010) ‘How new social alliances changed politics in Norway’, in A. Bieler and I. Lindberg (eds) Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity (London: Routledge), forthcoming.
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab
29 March, 2010