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Welfare state and social partners’ cooperation
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Welfare state and social partners’ cooperation

| Text: Berit Kvam

Cooperation with the social partners is central when politicians in Norway and Denmark sit down to write new political programmes - be it Denmark’s new government programme or the programme for Norway’s 2012 presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

“I am glad that we are focussing on the welfare state and the cooperation with the social partners,” says Norway’s Minister for Cooperation Rigmor Aasrud.

The development of a sustainable welfare state in a Nordic perspective is the main theme for Norway’s presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The main programme points are ”Work and sustainable welfare”, "Green growth, knowledge and innovation” and ”Nordic affinity”. Sustainability is the common denominator.

“Just look around you, we are facing major challenges, the economy is shaky in many countries and state finances are under pressure. Budgets are being cut. We have a welfare model in the Nordic region which we are proud of and which we want to look after. Having a good welfare state is absolutely crucial.”

This is how Norway’s Minister For Cooperation justifies choosing sustainability as the focus of the presidency’s programme. To her, the cooperation with the social partners is an important part of it all.

“The main thing I am focused on, and it is the hallmark of the Nordic welfare state, is the fact that we have a Nordic model where we include the social partners in our work. I will use this as a tool also during the year of our presidency: to include the social partners as serious, good players when we look at the challenges we face together in Europe,” says Rigmor Aasrud.

Trade unions on the defensive?

“Union membership is down. What do you think about that when you say you want unions to be an important partner?”

“It is a challenge for the unions when membership falls. It is important that they work to maintain their good reputation and that they retain a big membership base. If not the Nordic model comes under pressure.”

“What would be your advise to them?”

“I think it would be to listen to your members, and always consider the opinion of the majority. It is often the case that some people speak louder than others. I’m sure that just like in politics, unions need to ask whether what is being debated is what actually concerns the majority, or whether it is special interests which are being addressed.”

“Are there specific areas which will be a focus for the cooperation with the social partners’?”

“It is perhaps more important when it comes to labour and for the slightly larger issues, but the three-party cooperation is important in the Nordic region, and we have to take that into consideration when our theme is the challenges to the welfare state.”

Danish cooperation

The new Danish government’s official common government policy is called ‘A Denmark that stands together’. ‘Cooperation’ is a recurring theme which is mentioned in relation to the Nordic neighbours and in relation to the social partners. In Denmark too unions look to be loosing ground.

“Does that worry the Minster for Economy and Interior Affairs, Margrethe Vestager?”

“In Denmark we have good experiences with high trade union membership numbers. We think this is very important. But it is also important that the unions figure out how to be modern organisations. Some of this is of course about how employers and employees reach an agreement, but some of it is also about how our citizens view community and solidarity and individual rights. No matter how a government views matters, it is important for trade unions to find out how to be unions which can represent young people who have just finished their vocational education, or teachers who have just emerged from their teacher training.”

“Do falling union membership numbers represent a threat to the Danish model?”

“That might be, but I am sure the trade unions will figure out what they need to do to explain to young people the importance of protecting themselves against unemployment, and that it is important to be active in the labour market also when it comes to union membership.”

“Is this something you discuss in government?”

“We have not, but we only just started five weeks ago. But we might well do so in future. After all we have very good experiences with the three-party cooperation where the state and municipalities negotiate with the social partners, so we include  so we include more people who can help solve the issues which need solving.” 

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