Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i Articles i Portrait i Portrait 2017 i Magnus Gissler: Growing international interest for Nordic agreement model
Magnus Gissler: Growing international interest for Nordic agreement model

Magnus Gissler: Growing international interest for Nordic agreement model

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, Photo: Martina Thalwitzer/Fröken Fokus

“In my view the trend has changed, and the interest for and understanding of the Nordic model has grown internationally. This also gives more energy to the Nordic cooperation,” says Magnus Gissler, General Secretary of The Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS).

In February it will be four years since he entered the NFS’s secretariat, situated in Drottninggatan in central Stockholm. The secretariat is small, with only four people, but they work for 16 trade union confederations from five Nordic countries which represent nine million members.

“We are both a large and a small organisation,” says Magnus Gissler.

During these four years he has witnessed a growing interest for the Nordic agreement model. One important factor has been the growing polarisation which has been taking place in many countries. An increasing number of people are falling outside of the labour market, and support for populist right-wing parties is growing.  

Non-existent or poor real-term wage increases create unrest both politically and socially. Many also say the powers that be do not listen, especially in light of the election of President Trump and Brexit. Magnus Gissler also feels he meets distrust in democracy more and more often. Not through his work at the NFS, but in many other settings.

Perhaps this is why a growing number of international players are interested in studying the Nordic countries. They are successful and often top different lists for everything from productivity to happiness.

NFS team

For NFS’s coordinating task, progress is made through cooperation. From left to right: José Pérez Johansson, Eva Carp, Magnus Gissler and Maria Häggman. Photo: Linda My Hagberg

“There are dangers, challenges and tensions in our societies too, but we strongly believe that our models work and that we are better prepared than many other countries to face the problems,” says Magnus Gissler.

Five agreement models

He is at pains to point out that the Nordic model really is five different agreement models. But they all share the same starting point, and this is where the cooperation springs from.

“The models share so much in the way they are constructed. And then you have what is unique from a European perspective – that terms and conditions in the labour market are regulated by the social partners. You also have the Nordic society model with welfare systems, education and the countries’ shared need to be competitive, development and growth. We are all small export-based countries,” says Magnus Gissler. 

When he talks about the Nordic agreement model his eyes sparkle. In light of his current job and also his previous choices of work, it is hardly surprising that Magnus Gissler is a man with his feet firmly planted on trade union ground. He was an active student member of The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, TCO, while reading civil economics in Uppsala. After a while he also became the student ombudsman – a job which is in some sense similar to his current job as General Secretary. Now, as then, much of his work is about listening to the organisations that he works for.

“We are a consensus organisation, and our strongest asset is to listen to our organisations, finding solutions and compromise. We want to find what people have in common, but sometimes we also have to acknowledge that national starting points are so different from each other that there is no basis for agreement. Then it can be better to wait rather than force solutions through,” says Magnus Gissler.

Solidarity gives negotiating strength

His love for Nordic cooperation started before the NFS. Magnus Gissler worked for fifteen years at the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, and then three years at the Nordic Financial Unions, NFU. This was at the time when the finance sector was going through major changes. Many finance institutions went from being national to being Nordic and focussed more and more on the Baltics. This would change the sector’s Nordic trade union cooperation. 

“It went from being mainly a forum for exchanging experiences and building relations, to one where we solved concrete problems between employers and employees during mergers, acquisitions and such,” he says.  

He gets his drive from Nordic cooperation and Nordic trade union cooperation, but also from working in the European and international trade union arena.

“There is a power and a dynamic in coming together over what are shared starting points in trade union work as a whole. Working together and finding the strength together to change things – solidarity, quite simply,” he says.

NFS works according to a strategy which is agreed by the congress every four years. It sets out the direction both for strategies and activities, and the current document covers the period 2015 to 2019. Two areas are priorities – the Nordic agreement model and labour mobility. The strategy covers three focus areas – a sustainable, inclusive working life, sustainable welfare and development and sustainable growth and competitiveness.

“We will prioritise the third part now, sustainable growth and competitiveness. We will identify which factors lead to successful growth and competitiveness, and link work to education, life-long learning, welfare systems and the collective agreement’s importance for social dialogue and democracy in working life,” explains Magnus Gissler.

Flexibility in the Nordic cooperation

There is no set way for how the work will be carried out. New knowledge and the sharing of experiences can happen at seminars, through reports or via cooperation with researchers. Magnus Gissler also feels it is important not to force the Nordic cooperation into a set shape which must always remain the same. Sometimes it is important to leave space for national overtones in for instance a report or at a seminar. That does not have to mean that there is no exchange of information or knowledge to be had.”

He also feels the same about language skills. If someone finds something difficult to understand, this can be fixed. A recent seminar on digitalisation and the future of work was held in English, because Friedrich Ebert Stiftung from Germany was there. Sometimes simultaneous interpreters are used. 

“It is important that the Nordic cooperation doesn’t get hung up on language knowledge. If there are linguistic challenges, we can solve it. We have to be practical,” he says.

Magnus Gissler participates when the Council of Ministers for Labour meets. He is very positive to the issues that are raised and that highlight current challenges – lately they have included migration, working environments and getting into the labour market. It has proven that the issues raised in Poul Nielson’s report ‘Nordic Working Life’ are taken seriously. He is also happy that the council of ministers has initiated the comprehensive research project ‘The Future of Work’, which highlights challenges in the labour market like globalisation and digitalisation – very topical issues also for the NFS. The research project will be headed by Fafo in Norway, in cooperation with researchers from across the Nordics.

As a rule, the NFS does not initiate new areas for debate, unless member organisations raise questions beyond the strategy and action plan. But sometimes real life dictates action outside of earlier laid plans, for instance the highly topical #Metoo campaign. The NFS is planning several activities and a seminar on the issue for early next year. Magnus Gissler is shocked over what he has been reading and hearing, and over the scale of the thing.

“These have been the scariest stories, and they are often linked to areas where permanent employment is unusual. Instead, people are arbitrarily judged by individuals who have a lot of power. The entire debate shows that we must regulate power and influence, and we need to shine new light no how people with power use that power,” he says.

Time for soul-searching

Trade unions must also look at the way they work, sexual harassment happens there as much as in other sectors. He believes this issue should be a priority at seminars, but that it also is important to actively push for and support the International Trade Union Confederation’s demand for a new ILO convention against gender-based violence and harassment. 

“Even if a convention doesn’t solve the problem in a day, it would be a very important tool for gender equality.”

At the same time, every boss should reflect over his or her own responsibility and do a bit of soul-searching.

“This also goes for me. When am I weak and vague? When have I accepted someone’s improper joke which I should not have accepted? #Metoo creates awareness and thoughtfulness,” says Magnus Gissler.

After four years as General Secretary, he is content and happy to just have been given a new mandate. No day is the same, and he can never predict what will happen at the start of the day. His 20 year-old son Gustaf has a neuromuscular disability which has given him a different attitude to life.

“Gustaf has taught me not to take anything in life for granted, and to live in the present. I have also learnt to accept things as they are. I can influence many things, but not everything,” says Magnus Gissler.

On our way out we walk past his office. The unmistakable sound of a young boys’ choir reaches us.

“Choir music is similar to my work here. Many voices together create a fantastically beautiful musical experience, greater and more beautiful than if the individual sang on their own. If I were to travel in the Nordic region and around Europe and say that I burn for Nordic cooperation, nobody would listen. But I represent nine million trade union members who have come together, so my engagement is something that is larger than myself, and that is why it is powerful,” says Magnus Gissler.

One minute interview

What are you reading?

Jonas Moström "Dominodöden" 

What is your favourite tool in the office?

The PC

What did you want to be when you were a child?

A policeman

What is your hidden talent?

Tuning church organs


The Council of Nordic Trade Unions, NFS, is a confederation of 16 central trade unions from the Nordic countries. Together they represent nine million academics, civil servants and workers.

The NFS was founded in 1972, with the aim of creating closer cooperation between Nordic trade unions. The NFS leadership meets twice a year and has a rotating presidency which is held by a representative from the country that holds the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. At the moment that representative is Ragnhild Lied from Norwegian Unio. From 2018, when Sweden takes over the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson from Swedish LO will be President of the NFS.

The NFS also works internationally within four areas: The Nordics, Baltic cooperation, European cooperation and globally, including on issues relating to the International Trade Union Confederation, the ILO and the OECD.



Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment