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"Yellow" trade union struggles to gain foothold in Norway

| Text: Bjørn Lønnnum Andreassen

Krifa claims to be a good alternative to traditional trade unions in Norway, especially as union membership is up among employers but down among employees. Traditional unions feel Krifa is too close to employers and disagree with their anti-strike policy.

The Krifa trade union was established in Denmark in 1899. Krifa’s Norwegian chapter opened in 2007. Its leader, Kristin Fjellman, believes people get the best possible working environment when the parties support each other.  

Kristin Fjellman“We feel Krifa is a good alternative in a time when union membership is rising among employers and falling among employees. We have to try to create the best possible work environment together. Both the parties in the labour market need support in order to create good job satisfaction,” she says. 

Helping companies

Fjellman explains that Krifa works together with companies to improve job satisfaction. 

“We can help companies improve job satisfaction among employees. Krifa helps, assists and supports workers. This summer we published a report in cooperation with small and medium-sized enterprises – SMEs – which maps Norwegian workers’ job satisfaction,” she says.

“When we participate in debates, it turns out that we actually agree with politicians from different parties, the employers represented by SMEs and the workers represented by Krifa. We agree that job satisfaction is a good thing. The question is how to improve it.” 

Fjellman studied job satisfaction in Århus and Copenhagen in Denmark, where Krifa offers training that leads to university credits.   

“For me, visiting companies is both rewarding and fun. We assess where the land lies, we measure the effect of various changes and provide help through workshops,” she explains.

“We currently work with measuring job satisfaction at around 10 companies that employ between 10 and 300 people. We look at what is needed to have satisfied staff,” explains Fjellman, and points out that fair pay is one of the things that is of most importance to workers.

Krifa works with lowering the threshold for workers to speak up if there is something they need. 

“This kind of focus leads to less hierarchy and a team working closer together. We focus on developing what leaders can do to make employees feel happy at work. That leads to improved results, lower sick leave levels, increased productivity and more.” 

Fjellman uses the term “livslykke” – happiness in life – when talking about employees. 

“Employees who enjoy work experience improved livslykke. This is of socio-economical importance because it leads to lower levels of sick leave,” says Fjellman. 

A test for everyone

Krifa recommends its members to test their own job satisfaction.

“When we visit workplaces, I first send out a survey to all employees. This gives us an anonymised report which lets employees and leaders see where the land lies. Everything is anonymous. These are good tools for good employee performance reviews. The dynamics are absolutely fabulous when you have fun at work,” she says.

“We do a lot of research on good job satisfaction in Denmark. We want to promote job satisfaction, motivation and security in working life. We also employ legal experts. But at Krifa we like to say that we think differently and want to be more than a trade union.” 

What do you mean by that?

“Everyone is seen and heard and everyone is equal,” she says.

Krifa Norwegian membership has hovered around 2 000 members for a long time but is slowly growing, according to Fjellman. 

Why should someone join?

“We focus on employees and job satisfaction and provide legal aid from day one. We are cheaper and you get direct help without having to go via employee representatives. We help employees with their issues, but also want them to be motivated and enjoy work. We want to give them more than what traditional trade unions do. Members pay 239 kroner (€23) a month,” she explains. 

Krifa has more than 200 000 members in Denmark, and the Norwegian chapter works closely with the Danish one.

What do you feel you are achieving right now?

“On a legal level, we help people to move on and provide security and assistance. Some people get help to get out of difficult situations or to move forward in the workplace. We are driven by helping people and workplaces,” she says. 

“Sick leave and stress are not sustainable for companies. We want to help lower sick leave levels in Norway. It is normal to have difficult days at work now and again, but over time this wears people down both at work and at home,” explains Fjellman. 

“We want to help create job satisfaction because people spend so much of their time at work. When employees are successful in the workplace, their private lives improve too. In order to succeed in the workplace in the long run, you have to be in a situation where you want to go to work,” she says. 

Krifa has four permanent staff and five consultants.

Very content with the union

Neda Maria Kaizumi works with quality for renewable energy company Scatec. She has experience working in various countries and has been a member of Krifa since the union started up in Norway. She is very content.

Neda Maria Kaizumi“In Norway, it is important to be a trade union member. LO (the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions) is often in conflicts that only make things worse for society, in my opinion. Krifa does not share that philosophy. Strike action is very negative for society. Employers lose a lot from strikes. I call it ‘mafia business’. That is why I chose to join Krifa, because everything can be solved through dialogue. We are all adults,” says Kaizumi.

“We have to talk together and solve problems rather than go on strike. A strike is just making a point,” she says. 

Kaizumi has worked across many trades and feels a good dialogue with the employer is the solution. 

“Dialogue is appreciated. It brings to the fore knowledge and values, and you look after everyone’s interests. 

“Strike action only creates a bad atmosphere. Take the recent teachers’ strike in Norway. Krifa would have solved the conflict without a strike. It could have been solved with dialogue and no strike action,” says Kaizumi. 

“Trade unions take strike action too easily, rather than choosing dialogue. This creates unnecessary tension.”

Traditional unions sceptical

Kristine Nergaard is a researcher with the independent social science research foundation FAFO, set up by LO in Norway in 1982.  

“We make reports on trade union membership numbers in Norway. They show that Krifa has not gained a substantial foothold here.” 

Both Sweden, Finland and Denmark have higher levels of trade union membership than Norway, where just under 70 % of workers are organised. The figure for Norway is 50 %. 

“Krifa was originally Danish and the Danish organisation initially financed the Norwegian chapter that was set up in 2008. This might have become more costly than they thought it would be. They have not managed to get many members in Norway and perhaps have not had the impact they had hoped for,” says Nergaard.

Some 1.3 million workers are trade union members in Norway.

“We know that at least one workers union in one of the Christian organisations have joined Krifa. But by and large, it does not look like Krifa has made much of an impact in competition with traditional trade unions.”

Bigger in Denmark

Trade unions that are not involved in negotiating settlements with employers have more members in Denmark than in Norway.

“These so-called yellow unions, or company unions, have emerged in Denmark first and foremost due to regulatory changes that opened up for establishing “a-kasser” (unemployment insurance) serving different trades. This allows Krifa – that does not organise workers according to trade or occupation – to compete with traditional trade unions,” explains Nergaard.

“An a-kasse in Denmark pays out unemployment benefits to those who need it, while in Norway this is the job of the Labour and Welfare Administration NAV. Workers must sign up for an a-kasse and pay a fee to be covered. The Danish benefit system is administered by a-kasser which are closely linked to the trade unions. This is also the case in Sweden and Finland.” 

Norway had a-kasser until the 1930s, but the state took over when these went bust.

“Krifa and some other Danish organisations have not had ambitions to negotiate collective agreements or to have employee representatives in workplaces. They would rather organise widely, offer individual benefits for members and offer a-kasser,” says Nergaard.

“Company unions are big and growing in Denmark, partly to the detriment of Danish LO. This is not the case in Sweden and Finland,” she says. These kinds of unions do not exist there.

“The debate now is whether a new trade union confederation should be established and if this type of trade union should become part of the tripartite cooperation,” she says.

Krifa in Denmark has already become part of some collective agreements. The traditional trade union movement has been critical to several of these agreements, arguing they are worse than their own – meaning Krifa gives employers collective agreements that cost them less.”

Alternative trade union strongest in Denmark

In 2002, Denmark's centre-right government decided to allow interdisciplinary unemployment benefit schemes. This allowed alternative – or "yellow" – trade unions to establish themselves, which weakened traditional trade unions and the unemployment benefit schemes, especially where LO was concerned.

The alternative trade unions' membership numbers on 31 December 2021: 

  • Kristelig Fagforening /Krifa 114.596
  • Bedst tog Billigst (2B) – Det Faglige Hus 77.879
  • ASE Lønmodtagere (fd JOBtryghet) 62.370
  • Funktionærkartellet /Teknikerssammenslutningen – Det Faglige Hus 19.629
  • Frie Funktionærer 18.536
  • Fagforeningen Danmark – Det Faglige Hus 57.295
  • Total 350.305

Source: Anders Kjellberg: Facklig organisationsgrad ur ett nordiskt perspektiv


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