“Having unionised staff makes us better”

The bipartite cooperation at the National Library of Norway

If Aslak Sira Myhre had his way, the National Library of Norway’s entire workforce would be unionised — it’s not far off, either.

9. desember 2021

“I’m incredibly pleased to be in an organisation that’s almost entirely unionised,” says Aslak Sira Myhre, director of the National Library of Norway.

“Whether or not people unionise is not something we in management can’t decide. If it were up to us, we’d encourage everyone to join a trade union. It makes our institution much better!”

Two-thirds of the National Library of Norway’s employees belong to the Norwegian Association of Researchers or the public service union NTL. The final third belongs to two other trade unions. Sira Myhre believes the level of unionisation is at 95–100 per cent.

“That’s extremely high,” he points out.

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

“Doesn’t decide what we say”

Brynjar Kulset is a senior advisor at the National Library of Norway in Mo i Rana and senior steward for the Norwegian Association of Researchers.

Sira Myhre and Kulset have been invited to discuss how Norway’s model of employer-employee co-operation works in practice at their workplace.

“I think the most important benefit from employer-employee cooperation is knowing more about the institution I’m leading. I learn more about what people are thinking, what is happening and where any problems lie — through both formal meetings and informal discussions,” Sira Myhre explains.

“Employer-employee co-operation also leads to a much stronger and far more unified institution. One that is better able to fulfil its social mission.”

Brynjar Kulset often receives feedback from staff members who say they appreciate having Aslak Sira Myhre as director of the National Library of Norway. With his political background in leftist parties like the Red Electoral Alliance (RV) and the Red Party (Rødt), Sira Myhre understands the union’s situation.

“That doesn’t mean he decides what we say — far from it. It does mean we can trust each other. We can speak our minds without it leading to an altercation,” says Kulset.

Used to a proper debate

Kulset and Sira Myhre both agree that regular dialogue and an understanding of each other makes a good relationship possible. In cases that might otherwise have led to conflict, the parties prefer to work together to find the best solutions.

“The sooner we are informed, the sooner we can start thinking about how to make this happen,” explains Kulset.

The two men are used to a proper debate, and although discussions can occasionally get heated, it never ends in conflict.

“We have had hefty, very vocal arguments,” says Kulset, who adds that there have been times when only the table in between has stopped them getting up in each other’s faces.

“But when it’s all over, we go off and have a coffee together.”

Time to get things done

Sira Myhre is grateful for the union stewards at the National Library of Norway and that it’s easy to engage in dialogue with them. Employer-employee co-operation means that he can concentrate on what he feels is by far the most significant issue — the National Library’s fundamental mission to give people access to our cultural heritage, history and identity.

“Everything we do revolves around that. Whether we are cataloguing items, managing our buildings, working as developers or restoring films. That’s why we’re here, and I think that’s what unites everyone at the National Library of Norway,” says Aslak Sira Myhre.

“Every one of us is extremely competent,” says Brynjar Kulset in closing.

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.