Two-Hour Strike Protests Austerity

By Dag TirsÚn, Militant, Vol.62 no.39, 2 November 1998

OSLO, Norway—Some 1.2 million unionists brought this country to a standstill for two hours the afternoon of October 15. The work stoppage, called to protest a proposed government austerity budget, stopped air, train, and bus traffic. Schools, day-care centers, and hospitals closed, and industrial production was halted.

Workers held more than 100 strike rallies and demonstrations across the country. In Oslo, the capital, tens of thousands of strikers rallied outside the Norwegian parliament.

All my co-workers are striking, said Vidar Eve, who works at a day-care center, at the rally here. Eve said he was glad that the four main union organizations had called a joint demonstration, something that had not happened before.

The strike is a powerful show of force, but it should have been longer, commented 33-year-old Stein Olof Ringen, a municipal worker. He didn't put much stock in the wrangling by the political parties in parliament over the budget. What is important happens outside parliament, Ringen said.

The strike was called by the four national union federations—LO (unskilled workers), YS (skilled workers), AF ( Academics union), and NL (Teachers union)—to protest a proposal by the Norwegian government to change the number of legal holidays from 21 to 20 days a year. This is part of an austerity package totaling 9 billion Norwegian kronor ($1.2 billion) that the minority government, headed by Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian People's Party, is trying to get through parliament.

Although it became clear in the days before the protest action that the proposal to cut the holiday will be defeated in parliament, the unions did not back down from their strike call. Union workers worry that the austerity package will include lowering sick pay and making the first day of sick leave unpaid. At the rally in Oslo the Transport Workers Union brought a large banner demanding vacation be extended to five weeks. Bus and truck drivers in that union recently won a strike that resulted in wage increases of more than $1 per hour.

Their fight was a part of a strike wave in May and June this year involving tens of thousands of workers. Hospital workers and other public employees took strike actions, and the government eventually intervened to settle these strikes with wage raises of more than $1 per hour. Strikes by telephone workers, air traffic controllers, and later pilots at Braathen Airlines followed.

Another banner from a Transport Union local demanded the ouster of the Bondevik government.

Drop in oil prices shakes economy

Norway is a weak imperialist country dependent on exports of aluminum, fish, and in recent decades oil. Prices on these commodities have plummeted recently, as deflationary pressures have gripped the capitalist world economy. In 1997 as much as 45 percent of the Norwegian state income came from oil, and Norway was the second biggest oil exporter in the world, after Saudi Arabia. Norway was seen as an exception in Europe, with unemployment still under 3 percent, although rising.

But in 1998 oil prices have almost dropped 50 percent and the Norwegian government income from the oil is dramatically reduced. This has put downward pressures on the Norwegian currency the krona. Since March of this year, the Norwegian central bank has raised interest rates in steps from 3.5 percent to 8 percent, attempting to defend the value of the krona. On August 24, the central bank declared that the currency would be allowed to float without further intervention. Interest rates in Norway are now the highest in Europe. The day of the general strike, October 15, the krona again dipped to one of its lowest levels this year.

The lower Norwegian krona and drop in oil income have sharpened trade conflict among the ruling classes in Scandinavia. The Swedish krona is also floating, and following the Norwegian krona downward. The Finnish markka, however, is locked into the European Monetary Union and has to follow the relatively stronger German mark, which means its exports are less competitive than those from Sweden and Norway. For both Finnish and Swedish capitalists, export of paper and pulp is very important. Both are hit by the drop in prices for these commodities, but Finnish capitalists are also losing market shares to their Swedish competitors.