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Gerd Kristiansen: Norwegian LO leader with a backbone

Gerd Kristiansen: Norwegian LO leader with a backbone

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

There is tension in the air. The leader for Norway’s largest labour organisation is incensed with the government’s labour policies and its lack of cooperation on the proposed new work environment act which would grant employers more powers to hire people on temporary contracts. Her determination can be felt across the room.

“This is a central issue for Norwegian workers. What is being presented to us makes me incredibly agitated,” Gerd Kristiansen tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

Two days later she and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) announce a political strike. This has not happened since 2003, when one was held as a protest against the budget of the then centre-right government. This time it is about the present centre-right government’s proposed new work environment act.

The opposition is already evident when we visit Folkets Hus (the People’s House), LO’s headquarters in the middle Oslo. The LO leader’s office offers views over the Youngstorget city square where demonstrators traditionally gather for all kinds of events — including Workers’ Day on 1 May and the International Women’s Day on 8 March. A political strike like the one which has now been announced is very rare. It is the very thing the Norwegian model is supposed to prevent.

Right opposite Folkets Hus sits the headquarters of Norway’s leading social democratic party, the Labour Party; a reminder of the long-running cooperation between the Labour party and LO. 

“I can be part of a tripartite cooperation on isolated issues no matter who holds the political power, but the cooperation between LO and the Labour Party is something no government can take away from us. It is as rock steady as it was in the 1800s when both the LO and the Labour Party were founded in order to promote the rights of workers all the way into the corridors of power.” 

The view from here ought to be splendid, but Gerd Kristiansen has blocked both the sun and the view out. 

“I come from Northern Norway. It’s the Arctic night there now. I don’t like sunshine at this time of year. I like the Arctic night, it is so beautiful.”

When the Nordic Labour Journal meets the LO leader, she is smiling and full of energy and she opens the blinds as soon as we ask.

The cooperation between the social partners, the employers and the workers, and the tripartite cooperation with the authorities are central to the Norwegian and Nordic labour model.

“The tripartite cooperation, salary development and you could also say social development, because we really are part of that through the wage formation,” the LO leader quickly adds.

It is this cooperation between the parties she now feels is under threat from the centre-right government.

The relationship between you and the Minister of Labour Robert Eriksson is very frosty, the tabloid VG wrote the other day — is that the way you see it? 

“Well, yes it is, but this is about the issues, it is not personal. I represent 900,000 workers. I have a plan of action to relate to which looks after the workers’ interests, and this is what I am working to achieve when the relationship between me and the Minister of Labour Robert Eriksson turns frosty. I don’t sit here being obstinate."

Do you think he is being obstinate? 

“Yes I do. Let’s just use temporary employment in the proposed new work environment act as an example. All the main labour organisations, except the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations, are against temporary employment. This is not about me as a person. This is something LO’s members have passed resolutions on.

“I also feel incredibly angry when I hear the Minister of Labour says he wants to move power away from me here in Youngstorget to the individual workers in the workplaces. But LO as an organisation does not want to return to the time when individual workers had to go to their employers’ office, hat in hand, and speak for themselves, we don’t want to go there again.”

Gerd Kristiansen was voted in as LO’s leader during the confederation’s annual congress in May 2013. By then she had been the deputy leader since 2009. At nearly 60, she can look back on a long career as a union representative on all levels. 

You’ve had to face a few fights?

“Yes, I’ve obviously had to take a few hits over the years. When running for a position, my challengers have mainly been men and I have won those fights. It hasn’t always been easy. I guess it goes to prove that as a woman you need quite a strong backbone to advance within a system.”

A strong backbone

“There is plenty of women who choose not to take on those fights.”

She commutes between Oslo and Harstad in the Arctic north of Norway, where the midnight sun shines in summer and the Arctic night rules in winter, like right now — and that is great. 

The centre-right government now wants to change the work environment act to make the labour market more flexible. By allowing employers to hire people on temporary contracts up to one year in length, the government hopes to make the entrance into the labour market easier.

“I don’t believe this will create any more jobs,” says the LO leader.

Are the changes to the rules for hiring on a temporary basis the worst part of the proposed new work environment act?

“Definitely yes, because you will end up with far more short term workers. It has a great impact on the individual worker and his or her rights, but it is also not good for individual businesses not having a stable workforce, and it means a lot for society as a whole. If you are loosely connected to working life, you loose many of your rights. You loose the chance to develop within your job, you loose the right to get a mortgage. It means a lot to the individual person, the business looses its skilled labour with temporary staff and it does something to your work environment. 

“Today’s work environment act has permanent positions at its very core, but the Minister of Labour’s new proposals undermine this. You open up for temporary employment, and we don’t believe this is doing the individual worker any good, nor is it good for individual businesses or for society.”

The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, NHO, wants these changes?

“Yes, and it is my firm belief that this is about businesses that see the short term gains and not the long term company development, which should be their focus, and which LO definitely is focused on in order to develop Norwegian businesses. I think many will wake up and see that this was not such a smart move.

“It angers me, of course it does. Rather than supporting Norwegian businesses and Norwegian society you begin by demolishing something which took centuries to build, and that is infuriating for an LO leader.” 

She wants more cooperation with the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Robert Eriksson. I can feel the tension in the air as she goes on.

“We see no reason why we should sit at the Minister’s table and simply be informed [of what he intends to do]. We feel the tripartite cooperation is close to being non-existent today. He says he wants to revitalise the Labour and Pension Policy Council as a forum. Right now I see it as nothing but an information channel where we can sit and inform each other about where we stand, and then the Minister of Labour returns to his office and makes a decision based on a program he agreed with government partner the Conservatives just over a year ago. This is what counts now, not what the social partners think.

“We want to help influence the future Norwegian labour market. This is part of the Norwegian model which we like to talk about when we travel abroad. That’s what cooperation is. The alternative is being dictated to.

“You no longer have a Nordic model if you don’t have a trade union which is actively involved in the development of our society. The wage formation is part of that development. We have played our part and taken responsibility for this during good economic times and bad. So the Norwegian government will always need us if it wants to keep society’s wheels turning. This was one of the things I talked about to most of the government ministers as they took up their positions. I felt it was important to tell them about our role in society. We only have to look at countries which lack a strong trade union movement like the one we have in Norway.”

I am fascinated by her busily gesticulating hands, and her nails in white, French manicure. She does not look like the tough trade union leader at all. 

Norway’s two largest trade unions have female leaders, and women also lead the two largest employee organisations. The country’s three main think tanks are led by women, we have a female prime minister and finance minister and half of the government is made up of women — a fact which we now take for granted. What do you think about this?  

“I think women have been fighting for a long time to gain the positions they have today. But nobody must think that the fight for gender equality in Norwegian society is over. We cannot sit back and declare that yes! we have now achieved this because we see so many women in leading positions. I believe that gender equality must remain on our agenda for a very long time to come. It takes a very long time to change gender roles. It is after all something we have inherited. My generation at least has been breastfed how gender roles should function both at home and at work. So we need to keep gender roles very high on our agenda for a long time to come.”

What is the most pressing gender equality issue today?

“The most important gender equality issue today is that it should be natural to have full-time positions for women and that when they need to they should be able to reduce their hours. Yet today the trend is the opposite. I find it quite horrendous that women are being offered 10 to 20 percent positions in Norwegian working life in 2014.”

Recently, the leaders of the Nordic social democratic parties and trade union confederations met in SAMAK, the Joint Committee of the Nordic Social Democratic Labour Movement. This is where NORMOD was presented, a joint Nordic research project looking at the Nordic model’s challenges in the years leading up to 2030.

“We have now documented that the Nordic model is doing well,” says Gerd Kristiansen.

What are the challenges leading up to 2030 as you see it?

“The greatest challenge is to maintain union membership in Norwegian society, both among employers and employees. Current membership stands at more than 50 percent, but in certain sectors of working life numbers are far lower. This is a challenge for us. Because if we cannot maintain union membership, the entire Nordic model will be weakened.”

The Minister of Labour doesn't listen, you say? Can that be the reason?

“He is the best membership recruitment officer we have these days. We are gaining more members than we have been doing in a long time. I believe this is because of the proposed changes to the labour environment act. This, I feel, is also a very strong signal.

“So when the day comes that we are no longer representative, he can go out and listen to individual workers in the unorganised working life, but as long as we are the ones who represents Norwegian working life, it is us he should be listening to.”

One minute interview

Which book are you currently reading?

Right now I'm reading two books; Swedish Sara Gunnerud’s book about “The Power of Words in Politics”, and Samuel Massie’s "Hold fast!” (“Hold On!”).

What is your favourite tool in the office? 

That’s Mona (her secretary).

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

An air hostess, like all girls from Northern Norway.

What is your hidden talent? 

I am good with flowers, for the time being a very well hidden talent.

How do you share work at home? 

When I am at home we have it like most people. We share. 

NorMod 2030

Which challenges does the Nordic model face in the years leading up to 2030?

This is the main question for NorMod 2030, a research project commissioned by SAMAK (the Joint Committee of the Nordic Social Democratic Labour Movement).

The project ended in November 2014.

Read more:
More about the LO-leader
  • was elected leader of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions on 6 May 2013
  • is a trained healthcare assistant 
  • used to work at the University Hospital of North Norway
  • spent ten years as the main representative for the Norwegian Union for Health and Social Workers in Troms county (now part of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees)
  • has since then held a range of union representation positions, including first deputy leader at the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees, before becoming deputy leader at the LO

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