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Nordic trade unions: climate action must be fair
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Nordic trade unions: climate action must be fair

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

”There are no jobs on a dead planet” was the most cited slogan at the Nordic trade unions’ congress in Malmö from 3 - 5 September. The climate issue is at the forefront of the trade union movement’s mind too.

Once every four years, the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) gathers the Nordic trade union confederations at a joint congress. The NFS’ 15 member organisations represent 8.5 million workers.

The relationship between the Nordic trade unions and Europe has always been a key issue for the organisation. The congress’ more traditional title ‘Building Bridges’ reflected this. The aim is to build bridges between the different Nordic central organisations, and to colleagues in Europe who sometimes have different views on trade union issues. 

The Öresund Bridge could be seen from the hotel windows in the Hyllie neighbourhood where the congress was held – a reminder that infrastructure can actually erase borders. It only takes 15 minutes to get to Kastrup in Denmark.

The border is also about political decisions – when the Öresund train arrives from Denmark, the platform in Hyllie is closed to allow for passport controls, which were introduced in the wake of the migrant crisis 2015.

Two of the Nordic countries – Norway and Iceland – are not EU members, even though they are members of the EEA. This is also the case for the autonomous areas of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. 

Norway can afford to send lobbyist to Brussels, but in Iceland it is trade unions that play an important role in promoting Icelandic points of view – through organisations like NFS and the European Trade Union Confederation, says Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, who is the NFS President this year.

That means Nordic trade union cooperation is particularly important. The first keynote speaker, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, even turned down a visit from US Vice President Mike Pence in order to participate at the congress (Pence did reschedule his visit to Iceland, however).

Katrin Jakobsdottir

Katrín Jakobsdóttir fired up the delegates with a speech focusing on climate change:

“There are strong forces in the USA and in Europe that refuse to accept that we are in a crisis. They have no scientific support and it is all glued together with populism. But I think we have been focusing too much on what individuals do to limit climate gas emissions. 

“Everyone must recycle, stop flying, change their car, eat organic food, buy the right clothes and so on. I can see this in my three sons, who are 8, 11 and 13. They all have a lot of 'flight shame' and are thinking about what they can do as individuals. But it is governments, the authorities, trade unions and not least the big companies that must take responsibility for this. 

“As governments and trade unions, we must make sure that what we do about climate change does not lead to lower living standards for normal people. We cannot increase petrol prices until only the richest people continue to pollute while poorer people cannot afford to get to work,” said Katrín Jakobsdóttir to applause from the audience.

The trade unions’ take is that the climate issue must be linked to “climate justice” in order to achieve a just transition to a fossil-free society. People who work in fossil fuel-dependent sectors that are disappearing must be given a chance to develop their skills in order to get by in the new economy. 

Magnus Gissler

"It was clear from the group discussions that we need even more gender equality focus when working with climate change," says Magnus Gissler, the NFS General Secretary. 

"It is still too early to present new demands. We now have the material from 50 different discussion groups which we will address during the NFS' next board meeting in November. Only then can we agree on the strategy for the next four years," he says.

The Danish delegation did, however, present the congress with a concrete proposal: Nordic trade unions should push for the creation of a separate EU directive about the psychosocial work environment.

Other discussions focused a lot on the rise of populism in Europe. Sweden’s Minister for EU Affairs Hans Dahlgren was also one of the keynote speakers. The best thing about the EU, he felt, was the values which were already there in the very first Treaty of Rome:

“Freedom, democracy, equality, respect for the rule of law, tolerance, solidarity – it sounds like poetry but it is politics! When someone asks me where the EU is heading, I answer that there is no better compass than these values,” said Hans Dahlgren. 

Hans Dahlgren

“But in our midsts we now see states that do not accept these values. Sure, nationalists and populists and the extreme right is nothing new in Europe. But what is new, is that these powers have gained real political influence. They even sit in government coalitions in several countries.

“The rule of law is important to the economy too. If that does not work, we risk the erosion of the inner market. That is why the Swedish government has pushed for what is known as the Article 7 procedure, which can highlight and finally suspend a country’s rights within the EU if the country is in breach with the rule of law. So far such procedures have been initiated against Poland and Hungary.

“We also have demands when it comes to the European budget. It cannot be right that countries that fail to live up to the rule of law are allowed to keep receiving the same amount of money from EU development funds. It must be made expensive not to do the right thing.”

Fears about populism within the EU is just one part of the relationship to the Continent. Nordic trade unions also fear the Commission, and not least the EU Court, will interfere in the Nordic agreement model, where the social partners do their own negotiation about wage and working conditions. 

Photo: Björn Lindahl

Luca Visentini from the European Trade Union Congress ETUC, tried to reassure his Nordic colleagues.

We will never accept legislation on minimum wages without a guarantee that countries who want collective agreements can keep these,” said Luca Visentini.

Stefan Olsson, director at the EU Commission’s Directorate for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, warned that the compromise reach on the right to collective agreements in relation to legislation was fragile, however.

“There is knowledge about collective negotiations and the Nordics within the Commission, but negotiations between the Council and the Parliament can get brutal – especially as the negotiations go on until 5am. You then often have some politician from Southern Europe saying ‘but it is only you Nordic people who want to keep your competitive advantages and who don’t allow us anything’.   

“In the wake of the crisis, there are many misunderstandings and a lot of bad faith. You have to remember that in these countries there have been enormous developments when it comes to social rights. This has created deep wounds. So when the Commission finally come up with relatively humble rights and Sweden and Denmark in particular say we don’t like this at all, things get very brutal. You get reactions like: ‘how can you say that, you who are so well off? Won’t you even allow us this much?’ 

“The formulations around collective negotiations in the employment directive were among the last things we agreed on. I think we spent three hours arguing over one single word between 3 and 6am,” said Stefan Olsson.

“In a hypothetical situation, the EU Court can test this. If we say we flatly refuse the Commission’s proposals, we put ourselves outside of the system,” he warned.

Close cooperation with the European trade unions

Luca Visentini, General Secretary at the ETUC, applauding during the NFS congress. Next to him is Liina Carr, Confederal Secretary at ETUC. Between them, Marko Piiranen who is a member of the board and the executive committee at SAK. In the background, President of Swedish LO Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson and Sonja Yr Thorbergsdóttir who heads BSRB in Iceland, and who is also the current NFS President. 

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