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Will the climate issue rejuvenate Nordic trade unions?

Will the climate issue rejuvenate Nordic trade unions?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

What signals were the most important to come out of the NFS congress in Oslo? We asked Ragnhild Lied, President of the Union confederation, to sum up her impressions. “What is clear now is that we are experiencing so many crises at once,” she says.

Ragnhild Lied attended her first Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) congress in Ålesund in 2012 and served as its President in 2017.

“Before, there was a lot of focus on progress and our own fights in the labour market. We were already aware of the climate challenge in 2012 but it is so much more obvious and common now. Then there is the war in Ukraine and what follows in its wake. We have seen how democracy is being challenged in different ways, which is what we discussed for much of the first day. 

“My impression is that we agree on what the crises are but struggle a little to identify the most important things the trade unions can do to solve the problems. There are not so many concrete answers. We need to discuss this further, but also make sure that young people get organised and join the trade union movement."

On that last point – during the congress, I noticed one of the younger delegates talked about “adult unions”?

“Yes, it is thought-provoking when we see that the elected representatives are around 60. We might have expected that those working around us were younger than us, but they are also 50 plus. Getting younger people involved is a big challenge.” 

Did you make any decisions that you want to highlight?

“The NFS is more about cooperation, we do not decide on a binding protocol. It is more about agreeing on a common platform within the European Trade Union Congress, ETUC. Sometimes we disagree on certain issues, but that is OK too. What’s important is that we understand each other and agree on the overall picture.” 

But you are very different – some confederations have more than a million members while others have fewer than 10,000? 

“Yes, we are different. But we all share the same challenges in our meetings with governments, the EU and so on. This is true also for the Nordic unions in relation to the Nordic Council of Ministers. We see that the ministers talk with each other and exchange experiences – we need to stand together not only in the face of European policies.

But then there is a missing part. There is no employers’ organisation on a Nordic level. During the congress, Iceland’s Prime Minister announced a tripartite meeting on green change next year. Perhaps that can be treated as an opportunity to create a body on the employers’ side? And, in your view, why has this not happened?

“I have been wondering about the same thing. We have tried to get employers involved on a Nordic level. Could it be because they are organised in different ways? On the employee side, things are more universal. 

But the employers are organised, too. In Norway, most of the large private enterprises are part of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, NHO. There are similar organisations in the other countries although the differences are somewhat bigger within the public sector.

“We have asked to have joint meetings and we have also sometimes written joint letters to the employers about different challenges, but for some reason, they do not want to commit to something Nordic. 

“The Icelandic Prime Minister’s invite was actually a surprise. But it is a very clever thing to make it about the climate and green change since there is so much common interest there. We must solve the climate challenge together because there are no borders. So that is very positive.”

When you contemplate your own confederation Unio, whose members are trade unions representing university and college-educated employees – that is perhaps not the group that is hardest hit by climate change? Who among your members are worst affected?

“There might not be many occupations within Unio that will disappear, but the way people work will change. People who teach have experienced a very high degree of digitalisation without having had much training themselves. They have often been forced to develop their own skills. We try to be humble when it comes to fair change. Some occupations will disappear, but it then becomes our job to find new jobs for people who have lost theirs.

 “We can offer a lot of knowledge and competence; we have teachers from kindergartens all the way up to college and university levels. We are in a slightly different situation than those who work in companies that are disappearing. What is important is to not only support people who become unemployed but to find them new jobs – the most important thing for a good life.

“But then we have groups like machine operators. Unio also represents the Norwegian Union of Marine Engineers, a union that is seeing enormous changes both at sea and onshore. The green change means vessels are moving onto battery technology or hydrogen as fuel, which means an increased risk of fire. An explosion would hit them badly.”

The congress pointed out that certain occupations have lost status and need to be reappraised. This concerns teachers I suppose? They are no longer the only source of knowledge, and their knowledge is now more about how to teach?

“One of the teachers’ challenges today is that democracy is being challenged because of things like fake news. They must teach young people how to find information they can trust, and learn how to trust each other as well as trusting the main social institutions and research. This is what has changed teachers’ situation so much, while their own education has not changed that much at all.

“Teachers have to a large degree had to learn all this on their own. Look at how they teach students critical thinking, freedom of expression and what it means to live in a democracy. That involves accepting hearing something you disagree with.” 

Norway recently saw a major teachers’ strike which the government and parliament ended by law. Did that help improve teachers’ status? 

“It does feel like a setback, but at the same time, it was argued that the strike had to end because it represented a danger to people’s lives and health. Using such an argument has never happened before. It says something about how crucial it is to have large social institutions that can offer security and help you think differently when you sit alone at home in your room and picture yourself in the world out there. 

“I think we need to use what happened to build and strengthen the value of teachers’ work – and how it is being valued by others.”


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