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TCO's Eva Nordmark: unions must be relevant to our time

"The union's role is to be relevant in today's working life, which is considerably different from the time when my parents started working. Yet the basic values remain the same. As always the union is about the dream of freedom, development and having the chance to live a good life," says Eva Nordmark, newly elected chairperson for one of the world's largest organisations representing professional employees, TCO. It comprises 15 trade unions with 1.2 million members.

Jun 16, 2011 | Text: Gunhild Wallin, Photo: Jann Lipka

It took a while to set a time for the interview. The newly elected chairperson was on a family holiday abroad and the interview request had to wait until she got back home. But then things happened fast and when we meet, Eva Nordmark is remarkably present in the conversation. We also get an explanation for why we had to wait for an answer to our interview request. Not to give an immediate answer regardless of time, place and time off is an informed choice, and an important work environment issue.

The constant accessibility allowed by modern technology and it's impact on work environments was one of the themes during TCO's May congress. Several of TCO's 15 member trade unions are worried about the increasing demand for more and more employees to be accessible irrespective of whether it is in the evening, the weekend, during someone's holiday or someone's sick leave. The trade union Unionen even wants the right to uninterrupted spare time to be written into the collective agreement. Many of TCO's members are happy in their jobs which makes it particularly difficult to turn down job requests. The problem is often left to the individual, so it is important to bring this issue up in conversation in the work place and that management demonstrates good judgement. The use of overtime has increased in Sweden to represent 125,000 new jobs in 2010.

"New technology can help free you up, but it also makes it more difficult to draw the line and you reduce that freedom. That's why the question of accessibility is one of the most important topics of conversation in every workplace. We need to start thinking 'what is OK in this particular workplace?' or 'how do we want accessibility to work in our municipality?'. We got a lot of feedback on these questions during the congress," says Eva Nordmark.

She is very aware of how she uses her own time. She does not allow her mobile telephone or email to trespass unhindered on her precious time with her family, and she has found solutions which allow her to find the right balance between work and spare time. With an active husband and two children aged 13 and 15 even a union chairperson must find time for sports, homework, trips to the recycling centre and other everyday activities. Days are stretched and she always tries to leave five to ten minutes between meetings to catch her breath. If she does not allow work to take up every little corner of her life, she feels she increases her chance to be present in what she does. 

"I have to be accessible in this job, but I also have various limits to my accessibility. It could be opening emails and listening to voice messages at set times. Sometimes I even leave my phone behind. Then only my secretary can get hold of me if something urgent should happen. In this kind of job you can work as much as you want, and it is easy to hit a wall," she says. 

Eva Nordmark is from Luleå in northern Sweden. She is now 40 and she has long experience both in politics and trade union activity. Her interest started early, she says. Her favourite subject at school by far was social science, and out of sheer curiosity she would visit the municipal council to see how they worked - not your average teenage spare time activity. Good teachers encouraged her interest and at 20 she became a municipal council member, representing the Social Democratic Party. She worked at her home town's branch of the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, but more and more of her time was spent working politically and with trade unions. She has been a member of many committees and boards. At 24 she was elected to parliament. She then became operations manager at the Swedish Union of Local Government Officers, SKTF, at their regional centre in Luleå. In 2004 she was elected chairperson for SKTF, a position she now leaves to become one of Sweden's union heavyweights.

As SKTF chairperson she made herself known as a union moderniser. One of her goals was for 30 percent of all union trustees to be under 35, and another was that nobody should spend more than 80 percent of their working time working with union matters, a policy which comes into effect from 2012. 

"The key to progress is to be present where people are and not to shut yourself in the office. That would be disastrous. In a time where working life changes so rapidly it can be difficult to return to your job if you have lost your contacts. Recruiting younger, competent trustees is also a strategic question for the unions. All unions are working on that," she says.

She returns time and again to the importance of unions being relevant to the time we're living in. This means being present in workplaces and to see and understand what unions can bring to today's jobs. The conditions are not the same as they once were.

"We need to realise that conditions are completely different for young people entering working life today, compared to for instance my own parents. This is what we build our Nordic model on - daring to change," says Eva Nordmark.

One of the causes closest to her heart is the fight for equal conditions. People should be given a fair chance, the chance to start again and the chance to develop for the duration of their working lives. There are four million innovators in working life and the challenge is to look after the power inherent in all people. This happens by influencing them, by looking after their drive and knowledge and by linking businesses and research to offer good workplace training. Good working life conditions is not only about rights, but also about opportunities for businesses and for people. This was also central to her acceptance speech as the new chairperson at the TCO congress. She used the word  'arbetslinjen'/'the employment line' - a political term in Sweden central to the centre-right coalition's labour policies, meaning the need for able people to actively seek work or education before they apply for state benefits. But she said she wanted to fill the word with new meaning.

"Today's employment line is old-fashioned and one-sided. It completely lacks focus on the individual's possibilities for further education and is a blunt instrument for matching the right person to the right job. It also fails to take into account the way in which bad work environments, bad health and a lack of education force people out of working life," she said.  

She drew up some points to illustrate the employment line she wanted to take. They included more and better jobs, more commitment to education and research and the importance of nurturing every employee's creativity and commitment - but also the creativity and commitment of each individual person irrespective of employment status. 

The right employment line to follow should be one with focus on education and competence. A successful working life must allow people several new chances. Today a lack of education represents an obstacle to mobility and surveys show 30 percent of TCO's members wish to change their job but can't. A mobile labour market would also make it easier for young people to find work. This, together with education for young people, is crucial to reduce the number of people ending up as outsiders. 

"Young people with problems today are those who did not finish their education. They're falling behind and we suggest a training guarantee for all under 25s. The Government focuses on how people become outsiders, but I want to focus instead on how to make them 'insiders'," says Eva Nordmark.

The balance between work and spare time is also a priority question. Eva Nordmark wants to draw lines for how accessible you have to be, while also making it easier to combine career and family life through the much debated RUT allowance - an acronym covering domestic jobs like cleaning, maintenance and clothes washing. It allows certain tax credits for domestic work, and has been criticised not least by the political opposition for being a tax break for high earners. Yet Eva Nordmark feels the allowance should be developed to allow even households with normal incomes to use it. She reckons it is a question of equality and redistribution.

Job safety is also part of the good employment line. Today many have temporary jobs. Within some trades and occupations one short-term contract follows the other, and TCO has reported the government to the EU for not protecting part-timers. 

Eva Nordmark has been active in the Social Democratic Party. She no longer is. TCO is an independent union organisation and this, she feels, guarantees long-term work. The centre-right government has been criticised for making trade unions' conditions worse. Early on in it's term in government it increased unemployment benefit fund fees which led to 200,000 members leaving their unions. 

"It was an important alarm call, and kick-started the work for union change. We can't blame the government if we loose members, because we're the only ones who can do something about it. Unions must not remain passive and become victims," she says. 

She describes herself as having a winning mentality and says she loves a challenge. Her driving force is to make a difference.

"For that you need to be brave. You can't be afraid of failure in roles like this one," she says.

 

Eva Nordmark

Age: 40

Family: Married with two children, a son (15) and a daughter (13)

Lives: In Nacka near Stockholm

Career: Eva Nordmark was born in Luleå in northern Sweden and started working at her home town's branch of the Swedish Social Insurance Agency in 1990. Between 1995 and 1998 she represented the Social Democratic Party in the Swedish parliament before becoming operations manager at the trade union SKTF's regional centre in Luleå. In 2004 she was elected SKTF chairperson. The union represents 160,000 municipal professional employees. 

Education: Eva Nordmark studied political science at the Luleå University of Technology.

Facts about TCO

The Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees, TCO, was formed in 1944. TCO is now one of the world's largest organisations for professional employees representing 15 unions with 1.2 million members.

The member unions represent occupational groups like teachers, nursers, journalists, police and economist. 60 percent are women and members work in municipalities, county councils, state authorities, banks and insurance companies. They are divided approximately half and half between the public and private sectors.

TCO's main decision making body is the Congress which meets every four years. Eva Nordmark was elected TCO chairperson in May this year and became the confederation's eighth chairperson.

TCO webpage