Building Unions in Norway
Alison McGarry interviewed Terje Fenn-Samuelsen, the elected First Vice-President of the Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union (NTF), which represents transport and logistics workers.
MY CONVERSATION WITH TERJE highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the Norwegian trade union movement - and the great opportunities we have as trade unionists to extend our power if we work together internationally.
Norwegian workers face challenges in common with European comrades of increasing wealth inequality, rising poverty rates and insecure, casualised employment. A changing labour market disadvantages young people, workers over 50 and women who are all overrepresented in part-time positions and low-paid jobs. Employers increasingly circumvent pay scales and collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).
Despite its internationally lauded welfare state, the Norwegian public sector faces the growing prevalence of business management models that undermine political governance and workers’ influence. Norwegian unions face the same challenges as UK unions of declining union density and influence. Without strong active unions, workers see their rights and capacity to negotiate collectively infringed.
Although trade union density is 52.5% (OECD data), unions are struggling to recruit young and precarious workers. In response, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) are currently developing youth organising campaigns reaching out to young workers. Around 15% of Norwegian workers are selfemployed so Norwegian unions are now recruiting them too.
Terje is convinced unions will face defeats and decline unless they work together to build workers’ power through strategic campaigning. An example is the Holship case. In 2013 dockworkers of the local Mosjøen Industry Terminal had identified a Danish owned company Holship which regularly used seafarers on lashing gangs in European ports doing dockers’ traditional work. It is a ‘cheap labour’ strategy that reduces labour costs and the power of the dockworkers’ union.
“Lashing and unlashing are an integral part of dock work, and this is because these are extremely dangerous operations which have to be performed by trained dockers,” said Terje. “We see a growing number of cases, especially on feeder ships and ferries, where seafarers lash and unlash cargo. By doing operations for which they are not trained, their safety is at serious risk”.
The Norwegian dockers responded by leading a spontaneous two-day blockade and NTF asked twice to negotiate a collective agreement in the context of the dockers’ framework agreement which dates back to 1976. Holship refused to negotiate and the dispute went to court.
The Norwegian lower court initially found in the dockers’ favour, but Holship appealed to the Norwegian supreme court. As Holship was a Danish company, that court turned for advice to the European Free Trade Association Court, which covers non-EU members in the European Economic Area (EEA). The supreme court accepted the advice that the dockers’ boycott was illegal under EEA law because the collective agreement covering workers in 13 of the largest ports restricted “freedom of establishment”.
The ruling put an end to the dockers’ boycott, as well as to several solidarity strikes in other Norwegian ports.
Additionally, the supreme court ruled that the EEA agreement took precedence over International Labour Organisation Convention 137 on dock work, which states that no worker other than a trained, professional docker can carry out loading and unloading work in ports. This judgement set a dangerous precedent emboldening those international employers seeking to destroy dockers’ jobs and unions.
After the Holship judgement, the NTF reviewed its organising strategy. When negotiating new CBAs they sought to ensure coverage of all port workers directly involved in cargo handling, as well as workers indirectly involved in cargo activities such as drivers and IT workers. This has increased port workers’ rights to trade union representation, raised pay and improved health and safety conditions. Terje expressed hope for building on the “amazing solidarity” NTF were shown by the European Transport Federation (ETF) dockers’ unions throughout the four year dispute.
As chair of the ETF dockers’ section, Terje cited other examples of recent ETF actions, such as helping secure union recognition for Solidarnosc dockworkers in Poland and stopping the Spanish government liberalising Spanish ports.
The ETF also benefits from belonging to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) with 221 affiliated unions representing 350,000 port workers worldwide.
ITF enables the sharing of union intelligence, research and campaign planning necessary for the delivery of strategic organising campaigns on a global scale. Four global network terminals now control more than half of the ports and terminals on the planet, but trade unions are recognised in less than half of those.
The NTF belongs to the LO federation, which is linked closely to the Norwegian Socialist Democratic Party, but Terje emphasised some of the NTF members are ‘blue-blue’ and are looking to right wing parties for answers. He felt that more political education needed to be undertaken by unions to counteract the rightwards swing of some workers.
Terje shared his enthusiasm for the election of Jeremy Corbyn and sent solidarity greetings to Jeremy’s supporters.