“Encourage everyone to become unionised”

The bipartite cooperation at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences

The bipartite cooperation is under pressure, and the number of trade unions is declining. That worries Peer Jacob Svenkerud, Rector of Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. In a conversation with a local branch leader of the Norwegian Association of Researchers at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bente Oveide Skogvang, he discusses how we should protect the best aspects of Norwegian working life.

2. november 2021

“When I moved back to Norway, the first thing my mother said to me was: ‘Join a union!’ That sounded unusual for someone who was so accustomed to American working life, where unions were viewed quite negatively.”

The newly appointed rector at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Peer Jacob Svenkerud, is asked to give his thoughts on unions, and he reminisces about his time as a university student.

The topic rests on the future of bipartite cooperation – a mainstay of the Norwegian model and an important part of Norwegian working life.

Read more about the Norwegian model in the fact box at the bottom of the article.

On this occasion, he is flanked by local union leader Bente Ovedie Skogvang. She points to several things that must be upheld for the Norwegian model to continue to be strong into the future.

“One of the big challenges is maintaining the rate of unionisation. The number of trade unions is steadily declining,” she notes.

Svenkerud shares some concerns about the declining degree of unionisation. He believes that having unionised employees is a good thing for both employees and employers.

Svenkerud was a member of the Norwegian Association of Researchers long before he was appointed rector, and “still happily pays his membership fees”.

“I would actually encourage everyone to join a union. I think all people benefit from feeling the support network of something bigger than themselves.”

Hear the whole conversation (in Norwegian) on “Hjernekraft”, a podcast by the Norwegian Association of Researchers

More than a compulsory exercise

Bente Ovedie Skogvang believes another challenge is ensuring everyone feels comfortable participating in a union.

Over the past year, most union meetings have taken place online. Previously, being an employee representative meant commuting for long periods and she believes this could deter some people from participating. However, everyone must feel secure enough to raise their voice, and that is still the most important thing to consider:

“Transparency and openness are incredibly important for people to be able to freely express themselves. Nobody should feel the need to keep their opinions bottled up,” says local union leader Bente Ovedie Skogvang.

Skogvang says the right of the employee to participate in influencing their own working life is a crucial part of the bipartite cooperation. Therefore, maintaining a healthy environment for negotiation is vital to future cooperation between all parties.

Rector Svenkerud agrees.

“You need to nurture an equal environment where everyone feels change is really possible, and that cross-party negotiations are not just a compulsory exercise. Equality between the parties is fundamental, and I think that can be easy for some managers to forget,” he says.

Protect the principles

Skogvang says that while Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences is a large institution spread over six locations, they have succeeded in acquiring employee representatives across all faculties. She admits that it has not been easy:

“It is no secret that it can be challenging to recruit employee representatives.”

So how can you ensure the future of bipartite cooperation?

“Protect the principles”, says Rector Peer Jacob Svenkerud, and continues:

“I don’t think the criteria for cooperation will change significantly, even as technology evolves. It will be based on the same fundamental principles that are important for the cooperation to succeed”.

The Norwegian Model

The Nordic countries’ welfare and employment models have similar characteristics that distinguish them from those in other countries. These characteristics include regulated working times, a relatively large public sector and few social class differences. High employment rates are matched by impressive figures in gender equality, universal welfare benefits, free education opportunities and public health services.

Measurements of these unique societal features form what is known as ‘the Nordic model’.

The Norwegian model is just one part of the overall Nordic model.

An important element of how the model works so effectively is the ‘tripartite cooperation’ and ‘bipartite cooperation’. In this three-party alliance, the trade unions represent the employees and make up an important part of both the bipartite cooperation and the Norwegian model.

The Norwegian model refers to how these three parties – the employer, the employee and the government – cooperate to maintain and improve working life for all. Each takes a seat at the negotiating table as equals, with all final decisions being made fairly and democratically.

The Norwegian model emphasises the right for all parties to be able to participate and collaborate with one another. In short, employees must have the opportunity to influence their working conditions and contribute to the continued development of their working lives and of society. At the company level, the employer and employee negotiate through elected employee representatives. Both parties are important to keeping the Norwegian working life model working.

By encouraging participation and the opportunity to have a real influence on change employees feel heard, which has been crucial to developing society and working lives in a fair way. Strong and responsible employee union representatives contribute to discussions with professional insight, knowledge of company values and a true understanding of union members. They have helped to reduce levels of conflict in the Nordic countries, which is great on a societal, company, employer and employee level.