New Internationalist

Fight Back! Norse Crossroads

Issue 355

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Norse Crossroads
A nationwide movement to defend the welfare state
is taking off in Norway, reports Asbjørn Wahl.

In 1999 six Norwegian trade unions formed For Velferdsstaten (For the Welfare State), an alliance to combat 'the destructive policies of neo-liberalism, including privatization and deregulation'. Members included municipal employees, teachers, nurses, social workers and civil servants.

Since then the alliance has attracted another 20 national organizations and now represents nearly a million people - almost a quarter of the country's 4.5 million population. More recent members include the Women's Front, the Association of Retired People and the Farmers and Smallholders Union - as well as private-sector trade unions like the Transport Workers Union, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union and the Oil and Petrochemical Workers Union.

Even though Norway is one of the world's wealthiest countries (and wealthier than at any other time in its history) inequality is increasing. Recent figures show 50,000 children living below the poverty line and that number is growing. At the same time, there are 20 new millionaires every day. While average wages increased by 15 per cent from 1995 to 1998, corporate leaders increased their income by some 35 per cent. And the public share of GNP declined from 52 to 43 per cent between 1992 and 1999.

for velferdsstaten For Velferdsstaten believes that both public services and democracy are weakened through deregulation, privatization and competitive tendering. The group warns that market forces have gained ground at the expense of public governance. It believes that this is causing social inequality, attacks on general welfare and public services - not to mention ruthless exploitation of natural resources and the environment.

According to Jan Davidsen, president of the Union of Municipal Employees and one of the founders of the alliance: 'We are now standing at a crossroads. Are we going to continue to develop our welfare state in spite of strong market forces, or are we going to let these forces take over our important public services? The political struggle for the construction of our future society starts now.'

For Velferdsstaten has a national profile which gives it both resources and legitimacy, but it is not yet a grassroots movement. However, that is quickly changing: regional branches have been set up in most of Norway's 19 counties to link municipal campaigns to the national alliance.

'Competitive tendering' is one of the big concerns. It is seen as a back-door route to full-scale privatization and is a major municipal issue. In particular there is political pressure from the private sector to open up garbage collection, public transport and nursing homes.

The coalition ran a strong campaign against a 2001 'reform' which was to transfer county-owned hospitals to the national government. In reality, this was an attempt to open up 'non-core' activities - like cleaning services and food preparation - to private operators. The alliance has also been campaigning against GATS, the services agreement of the World Trade Organization. And against what's been called the 'brutalization of work' - the growing pressure on workers from increased market competition and the push for higher profits.

But For Velferdsstaten is not a mindless defender of the welfare state. The coalition realizes Norway's current system is not perfect. The solution, says Tove Stangnes, President of the Norwegian Association of Health and Social Care Workers, is to strengthen and develop the welfare state, not destroy it. 'We don't want a divided society in which the well-off can buy quality services that ordinary people can't afford.'

Asbjørn Wahl is National Co-ordinator of For Velferdsstaten,
Storgt 23C, 0184 Oslo, Norway.  www.velferdsstaten.no

Privatization
a resource guide

Fat Cats & Running Dogs The big picture...
Neo-liberalism or Democracy? Economic strategy, markets and alternatives for the 21st century, Arthur MacEwan,  Zed Books, London, 2000. A dense, detailed but worthwhile introduction to the workings of the global economy and the democratic alternatives.

Power Politics, Arundhati Roy, South End Press, Boston, 2001. Written with clarity and passion, Indian novelist Roy attacks India's corrupt politics and the rampages of the transnational energy industry.

The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1998. Written 40 years ago by one of America's great liberal economists. Stately, often pedantic, prose mixed with patrician wit combine in a classic indictment of private wealth and public squalor.

Fat Cats & Running Dogs: the Enron stage of capitalism, Vijay Prashad, Zed Books/Common. Courage, London/Monroe, ME 2002. A breathless, angry exposé of corporate crime. Highly readable, indignant and angry.


And on the WTO's General
Agreement on Trade in Services...
Facing the facts: A guide to the GATS debates, Scott Sinclair and Jim Grieshaber-Otto, 2002

And GATS: How the WTO's new service negotiations threaten democracy, Scott Sinclair, Sept 2000. Comprehensive, careful research on the WTO's secretive services agreement. Both from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ottawa. www.policyalternatives.ca

Serving up the nation, World Development Movement, London, 2002. Useful background on Britain's commitments under the GATS including a sector-by-sector check on what's still up for grabs. www.wdm.org.uk

Trading healthcare away, GATS, public services and privatization, Sarah Sexton, Corner House Briefing 23, 2001. www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/ One of a series of consistently intelligent, meticulously researched briefing documents on a range of social issues.

Water justice for all, Friends of the Earth International, Amsterdam, 2003. A colourful new report with basic facts on water privatization and the GATS with case studies from Bolivia, Peru, Sri Lanka, France, Paraguay and elsewhere. www.foei.org


Also recommended...
Public Services International Research Unit, University of Greenwich, Park Row Greenwich, London SE10 9LS. A treasure trove of research and analysis on privatization, public services and globalization, backed by Public Services International (PSI), the global confederation of public service trade unions. www.psiru.org

Multinational Monitor, PO Box 19405, Washington DC 20036. Still the most consistently reliable source of news and muckraking reporting on the nefarious activities of corporate America and beyond. www.multinationalmonitor.org

The Polaris Institute, 312 Cooper Street, Ottawa ON, Canada K2P. Valuable resources on a range of issues related to corporate-led globalization. Includes work on GATS, water privatization, public services, the corporate security state and bio-justice. www.polarisinstitute.org

 

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