May 27, 2006

On strike - me?

In the US, I'd probably be a Republican (I was, back when). Here in Norway, I've joined a labor union, partly because my union is non-political, and partly because labor unions in Norway are the rule, not the exception, and even encouraged by employers. Labor unions in Norway nowadays tend to work in concert with the government and employers organizations, but still have their watchdog function. It was union efforts in the 1930's that paved the way for federal laws governing vacation time and vacation pay, sick leave, maternity leave, and overtime regulations. This is the road most union work took in most of Europe. In the US, the labor movement shot itself in the foot (and I am so sorry it did).

I have to go back in a week to pick up my US passport, and have mused on whether or not to take a vacation day for that. I have 25 to choose from, thanks to my union, which has added another 4 days to the federal vacation law's 21. And then it occurred to me: We could be on strike that day and getting the day off would be a moot point.

I'm a member of a union that organizes people in the finance, banking and insurance industries. Our union hasn't been on strike in 30 years, and so this time around is a bit giddy. I'm not alone in feeling that way. The negotiations came to a complete halt on May 9, and our union (and many other unions this year) are adamant about getting the issue around pension plans cleared up. A recent change in Norwegian law now makes pension plans mandatory even in small businesses, but can ruin better plans already in existence. We want the right to vote on schemes proposed by our employers. It's a principle important enough to strike for.

Since so many unions are discussing the same principle this spring, it's a long wait to get a government-appointed mediator, whose job is to break deadlocks. My labor union and our employers organization are scheduled to meet with a mediator on May 30 and by the end of May 31 must have reached some sort of agreement or we go on strike on June 1. And that might mean being on strike for a couple of weeks, and so time off (which will be spent outside my place of work with a sign, most likely). The employers have threatened a lock-out as of June 12, meaning union members not put on strike, will not be allowed to work, so effectively keeping all union members from their jobs. These are the rules of the game.

It's all rather fascinating because I've never really bothered to get into the terminology nor have I ever experienced a strike first-hand, and yet I've heard enough to be a bit excited. And so we all wait and wonder what will happen as of May 31.

Typically, in Norway, labor agreements are renegotiated by May 1, and any disagreements can lead to mediation or strike, and so another sure sign of spring here (besides motorcycles, lambs, and that peculiarly Norwegian version of a high school graduate, the "rødruss") are all the labor disputes and (threats of) strikes. Due to one on-going strike right now, hundreds of tourists are without boat access to our beautiful fjords, but it does finally answer one common question heard at our tourist information office:

"When do the fjords close?"

"When the ferrymen strike."

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