Norse crossroads

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_ 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.

New Internationalist issue 355 magazine cover This article is from the April 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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