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Christina Colclough is fascinated by the Nordic cooperation model

After living in the Nordic countries for nearly 30 years, British-Danish Christina Colclough, the new Secretary General at the Council of Nordic Trade Unions, NFS, is still fascinated by the Nordic welfare and labour market model. It fuels innovation, competitiveness and productivity, she says.

Sep 09, 2013 | Text and photo: Gunhild Wallin

“The welfare state’s universialism is the ultimate, biggest and most beautiful. It creates equal opportunities and cohesion which also has an impact on working life,” says Christina Colclough.

The fact that all children get free education regardless of their parents’ earnings, that universities are in principle open to anyone, that everyone has equal rights to healthcare - all this has contributed to make the Nordic countries among the most competitive in the world, says Christina Colclough. Our Nordic welfare state creates equal opportunities to all regardless of education or how much money you have in the bank. This system is also reflected in the workplace. In Nordic countries workers dare to take part in the workplace’s development. Even the newly hired worker or the one without further education feel they can make their voices heard, suggest ways of improving things and they expect to be listened to. The gap between top bosses and people on the floor has traditionally never been very large. This is the strength of the Nordic countries, she feels.

“Nordic trade union representatives say ‘us’ about their companies, while in most other countries they say ‘it’ or ‘they’. The ‘us’ is a sign of a culture of cooperation and consensus which is deeply central to innovative thinking,” says Christina Colclough.  

Treasuring the moment

Her claim has scientific backing. Last December she gained a PhD from the University of Copenhagen looking at the importance of social capital for innovation and learning. The fact that her thesis was finished is a story in itself. Some years back Christina Colclough became seriously ill. She had a brain tumour removed followed by a long and difficult convalescence. Her academic work was put on the back burner. But when the tumour showed signs of returning in 2011, she made her mind up – she would finish her thesis. She spent the summer of 2012 at the University of Copenhagen, putting in 16 hour days. She finished her thesis and the signs of the tumour returning turned out to be wrong - today she is healthy. 

“The illness changed me. Today I don’t take anything for granted. I believe you should live your life and do what you can and not postpone doing things you want to do. The danger of being ideological is that you live and work for the future. I have learned to appreciate the here and now, and that is a fantastic feeling,” says Christina Colclough.

The red thread

Participation, justice, social safety and opportunities for all regardless of background and parents’ income - these are all issues that become clearer during our conversation about the red thread in Christina Colclough’s life. 

As she vividly describes her background it is as if the pieces in a jigsaw fall into place. Each experience made her believe even more strongly in the welfare state and the Nordic consensus model. 

Her childhood years in England is one of those jigsaw pieces. She has a Danish mother and English father. Both were teachers and shared a deep social conscience. Evening meals were sacred; conversation time. That’s when the family gathered, and Christina and her brother were encouraged and challenged to have views on most things. Her father was the headmaster of a school in a poor area. He set up a ‘community centre‘ to give the children more fun and better alternatives. But then came Thatcher. Public spending was cut and the school was threatened with closure. Her parents disliked the way things were going, to put it mildly, and decided to leave England for Denmark. 

“We use to say we became political refugees, as we didn’t want to live in Thatcher’s Britain,” says Christina Colclough..

She laughs as she says it, but there is a seriousness behind her smile. Under the Conservative Thatcher regime, her country of birth, Great Britain, developed in a way which she dislikes to this day and which went contrary to her family’s values. 

“If anyone believes in the benefits of a class society I would very much like to take that person by the hand and organise a move to one of London’s poorer areas,” she says. 

A different kind of school

Age eleven, speaking not a word of Danish, she came from a school built on discipline and elitist ideas to a completely different kind of school in Svendborg on Fyn.

“The Danish school was a fairytale and completely different from the English one. In Denmark pupils and teachers were on first name terms, the school days were short and conversation and dialogue was appreciated. The teacher could suddenly ask ‘what do you think?‘ I was really not used to that, she says. 

Becoming Danish went incredibly fast and she stayed in Denmark until she finished upper secondary education. Then the world was waiting, and she travelled and worked her way around the world for several years. The travel created a new piece to the jigsaw puzzle – insight into people’s different circumstances and how unequally wealth is divided. Why is it like this? That’s the question Christina Colclough brought with her to the University of Copenhagen. What should she study in order to find an answer? In the end it was cultural geography and a growing interest in Europe. One year at Lancaster University in England led to a master of political economy and a reward trip to Cuba. She stayed several months in Havana, danced the salsa and sold cigars. It became a journey of change, an insight into what freedom means and led to the revelation that she as a tourist could never share the circumstances of the people she learned to know and became friends with.

“We couldn’t be completely equal because I could of course leave the place and they could not. This also meant that they wanted something from me. I was idealistic and this hurt. When I returned home I had very mixed feelings,” says Christina Colclough. 

Once back home – after quite a lot of ups and downs – she began researching unions and the Nordic model. When she was encouraged to apply for the position as General Secretary at the Nordic Financial Unions (NFU) in 2007 she was in the middle of her PhD. She got the job and moved to Stockholm with an urge to professionalise the unions. The thesis could wait. 

“It was wonderful. I could combine my knowledge of the labour market and allow my ideology to enter into things. I was free from the researcher’s objectivity and could let myself be driven by what felt to be the right thing,” she says.

Devil’s advocate

After five years with the NFU she wanted to move on and the position at the NFS presented a new challenge. She has many ideas but is somewhat careful to put them into action. First she will travel around the Nordic region to meet all the organisations and listen to what it is they want. Yet she believes with nine million members the NFS does have a future where it will be seen as a centre of expertise for Nordic trade unions, an organisation which works hard for a sustainable and competitive Nordic labour market. This is where people can come if they want to find out about or get reports on the Nordic model and the Nordic labour market.        

“We need to start with how we want the outside world to see us. That will guide what we need to do. Today the NFS has a grand vision and because I often take on the role as the Devil’s advocate I would like to ask – what is the NFS not doing? Is it possible to try to change the entire world? Perhaps we should focus on fewer issues and become known as the organisation which knows a lot about fewer things. So what the board wants us to be will determine what we will be doing,” says Christina Colclough.

She points out that work which doesn’t show doesn’t exist. What works is to talk to the Nordic ministers of labour, to remind them about the workplace’s important ‘us’. What works is for instance to also publish an opinion piece, even if it only changes the point of view of one single person. It is crucial, she says, to always be aware whatever the NFS does, it should create value. 

She is concerned that there is a kind of crisis of self confidence in the Nordic region. In the wake of the economic downturn many companies make sure they get rid of many employees, despite doing well financially. This creates uncertainty in the workplaces and it is a threat to the ‘us‘ which Christina Colclough believes to be so central to innovation, competitiveness and progress.   

“We have to hold on to what is unique to the Nordic labour market; the cooperation model and the social partners’ central role. This has proven to be so successful,” says Christina Colclough. The Nordic region will no longer have some of the most competitive countries in the world if we begin to mimic what other countries do. We must dare to hold on to and develop our Nordic model.

Facts:

NFS is a trade union confederation for 16 Nordic national trade union confederations representing nearly 9 million members from blue collar, white collar and academic sectors. One of NFS’ priorities is to remove border obstacles in the Nordic labour market. Other focus areas include promoting the Nordic collective agreement model and working towards a sustainable, inclusive and just life.

Christina Jayne Colclough became General Secretary at the Council of Nordic Trade Unions in August 2013. Christina Colclough is 39 and has a PhD from the University of Copenhagen on the importance of social capital for both innovation and learning. She came from a position at the Nordic Financial Unions, the Nordic union for employees in the Nordic financial sectors, where she has also been the General Secretary. She takes over from Loa Brynjulfdottir, who takes on the job as International Secretary at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. 

Read more about NFS’ work at nfs.net.