Norway: One and a half million workers involved in political strike

"We must fight entire right-wing politics"

The general strike on January 28 against the proposed new labour laws in Norway was historic. The Social Democratic newspaper Dagsavisen says that the trade union movement never before had so much support in a fight against a proposal from a government.

It is the first time that the three union confederations – LO, Unio and YS – have conducted a strike together (blue and white collar workers plus academics respectively). It is also the first political strike since 1998. One and a half million workers participated in the strike and there were demonstrations in 200 places around the country. 20,000 participated in Oslo, 15,000 in Trondheim and 10,000 in Bergen.

20,000 people demonstrated in Olso

Even in Svalbard there was a demonstration in minus 20 degrees Celsius. For example, in Verdal, a municipality of 15,000 inhabitants, several thousands of people met up at the town square, "Together against power", as the local newspaper Trønder-Avisa wrote.

Large parts of Norway stood still in the two hours that the strike lasted. The action closed kindergartens, public transport, aviation, factories and government offices. In Oslo, there were so many at the demonstration in front of the Stortinget (parliament) that many of the strikers who came from work had trouble getting near to the stage where speeches were being made.

The chairperson of LO, Gerd Kristiansen, pointed to how the changes in the Working Environment Act will hit young people and women in particular. In these groups there are already many temporary jobs and many more women are at risk of losing pension points. She also said that the new Act will weaken the unions and lead to poorer working conditions. But she said nothing about what plans LO has to lead the fight further.

Minister of Labour, Robert Eriksson (Progress Party), was booed until he left the scene when he attempted to defend the ‘dark-blue’ Conservative and Progress Party government’s new labour laws. There were also banners and flags from SYRIZA and Podemos in the demonstration, which linked the strike to the left winds that are sweeping across Europe now.

Very little was reported about the strike in the media, only small pieces from the demonstrations. Several newspapers wrote that the minister was booed, but reported no facts and figures. The bosses’media were most concerned about how the strike had "hit" individuals.

Dagsavisen (the Social Democrats’ daily newspaper) wrote that it is now up to the parliament to decide the matter, which is probably the union leadership’s position, instead of taking advantage of the fighting spirit that exists to intensify the fight.

The employers’ organisation, NHO, wrote nothing about the strike on their website. They only had an article on how more casual labour leads to more jobs! But international examples show that this is incorrect; it will only lead to more permanent positions becoming temporary. One in four workers now risks being employed on a temporary basis. The principle of permanent jobs is regarded by many as one of the most important achievements of the labour movement historically and something worth fighting for.

The strike could easily have been even bigger! LO chairperson Gerd Kristiansen confirmed this in her speech when she said: "Send a special message to those who were left alone in their workplaces to strike!". This proves that the mobilisation was inadequate. Unions should have organised meetings before the strike in all workplaces, not only given out information about what the strike was about but also stating that not striking meant supporting the proposal. Many more would then have turned out. Now the impression has been given by the employers that the strike was simply "voluntary".

After the strike there is a need for meetings and information on how the fight will continue. The only thing now planned is a protest on the day that parliament will vote in March. With the fighting spirit that exists now, all unions should come out on a 24-hour strike against the new Working Environment Act and the ‘dark blue’ government’s policy of cuts in services, privatisation and large tax concessions for the rich.

Voices of the strikers

Members of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) and supporters in Norway took part in the demonstrations in Oslo, Trondheim and Narvik for interviews, solidarity and dialogue. The reception was very good, with a number of workers wanting to keep in touch. Close to 200 Swedish papers, with one article in Norwegian, were sold and 600 leaflets were distributed.

Oslo: LO chairman Gerd Kristiansen described today’s protests in 200 cities and towns around the country as a "marker". Most of the protesters, however, seemed to want to continue the fight to win and to extend the protest to a criticism of the government as a whole. Many pointed out that it is women who are consistently hit hardest by the ‘dark blue’ government’s policy.

Per-Erik Eriksson, trade union activist in NNN, Food Workers’ Union:

"Sixty workers will strike at the dairy where I am active in the union. Within NNN, the strike will be total at Ringnes brewery and Coca Cola".

Per-Erik Eriksson

Tore Eide Svenning, integration specialist at the Employment Service:

"We must fight against the entire right-wing politics. There is really little difference between this right-wing government and the previous one, which was led by the Labour Party. The asylum policy was not better before. And it was the red-green government that privatised parts of Telenor and Statoil."

Trondheim: All parts of the labour movement were there – construction workers, nurses and civil servants – a total of 15,000 demonstrators. For us socialists from Sweden it was apparent how many were aware of how damaging neo-liberalism has been in Sweden and also the pride of workers’ traditions in Trondheim.

Synnøve Torgesen:

"There has never been so large a demonstration in Trondheim. It’s bigger than May 1. March 8 last year meant a feminist awakening across the country in response to the government’s attempts to restrict abortion rights by allowing doctors the right of reservation. There were large demonstrations over that as well and we won. The fight about the Working Environment Act should be associated with a general struggle against the right-wing government. Now they want to sell off state enterprises and property like forestry and fisheries.

Arne Amdal and Per Gunnar Österlie, teachers, members of the Education Association:

"We teachers went on strike already last year over the distribution of working hours. It was worth going on strike; we won!".

Ingunn Beach Johansen, coordinator in the trade union for social workers, early childhood educators and others:

"For us in the public sector, this is really important. It’s about working hours, longer shifts, weekend working. If they are to introduce Sunday working, they must see that child care etc. is arranged, otherwise it means discrimination. The government aims to weaken unions and introduce a more confrontational line. The Progress Party is so aggressive. But the fight is not over. We in Trondheim will not be satisfied with this."

Narvik: Around a thousand people gathered at Rådhusplassen during the strike, in a city with 18-19,000 inhabitants.

Sissel-Anne Clausen, local president of the Fagforbundet (Council Workers Union):

"More temporary jobs, working 13 hours without overtime, work every Sunday, more issues to be decided locally without the right to strike. There are things that the new law opens up. It has gone to hell in Sweden, why try it here? We see many Swedes who come here to Norway to work who are not able to establish themselves in the labour market in Sweden."

Fred Roger Sivertsen, chief safety steward at the railway workers’ union:

"We notice that all negotiations are much tougher than before. The ‘blue-blue’ government is not for the workers".

Comment: The need for fighting trade unions

It is no coincidence that average Norwegian wages are 55 percent higher than Swedish. The labour movement in Norway answers attacks with more powerful action. Last year alone, dockworkers, teachers and shop workers were on strike.

Collective bargaining is still the rule, which means Norwegian workers’ wages will be gradually increased according to the number of years of work. It demonstrably leads to higher average wages than the individual pay systems increasingly used in Sweden.

It’s not just a question of pure union struggle, but they are to a great extent politicised. Trondheim is the centre for radical trade unionists and each year they organise a conference the last weekend of January. This year there were 619 trade union activists attending. The main resolution they agreed states right at the beginning that the present crisis in Europe is a crisis of capitalism. They warn that both the Norwegian employers, the NHO, and the ‘dark blue’ government are on the offensive against the working class. "If the Norwegian trade union movement can not defend the country-wide collective wage agreements as the norm in Norwegian working life, then we will not be able to defend the welfare state”.

The Trondheim resolution demands continued struggle with more militant methods such as strikes, sympathy strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, go-slows and so on. Concretely, the resolution calls for LO and the Transport Workers Union to immediately increase solidarity strikes to support the dockers’ struggle.

Also it stresses the need for continued protests on the issue of the Work Environment Law. The conference document raises that unions can fight to get councils and regions not to implement the attacks from the government, as well as asking for pledges from the ’red-green’ parties to reverse the current decisions of parliament.

But that is not until after the next election, in 2017. Better would have been to step up the struggle with a 24-hour strike in an attempt to stop the attack now.

Although the conclusions do not point to the need to connect to other major strike movements such as the 24-hour general strike in Belgium and its continuation, or to the need to join forces with the new left parties in Greece and Spain to shake capitalism, the Trondheim Conference still works as an inspiration for activists in Sweden. It calls for the trade unions to seriously demand a six-hour working day, demand an end to the privatisation of schools and that market governance in the public sector should be replaced by democratic control from below. And in contrast to Sweden, it is well-established for unions in Norway to carry out membership votes on the negotiated key agreements before they are signed.

CWI members in the protest in Olso

Now Norway is entering tougher economic times with the fall in oil prices. This will increasingly impose tougher confrontations between the workers and capital, and bring closer the cruel experience that much of the welfare reforms achieved can be lost. More workers will then conclude that we need to build an entirely new system, on a real socialist basis.

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February 2015