Norwegian pilots call off strike after company retreats

The bourgeoisie are preparing for an onslaught against working conditions in Norway. As we explained after the last general election, the Norwegian business class got what they desperately wanted: a right-wing government dedicated to the dismantling of the Norwegian welfare state and the weakening of the labour and trade union movement. Since the election, the right wing coalition government has been trying to introduce changes in labour laws that will legalise more flexible working practices: meaning increased exploitation of the Norwegian working class. The response of the labour movement has been immediate and decisive: a massive show of strength in the form of a general strike that also involved rallies in all the major cities of the country.

The strength of the labour movement’s response to this threat was not expected by the bourgeoisie and for a while they seemed to waver. However, without further action, the government once again felt emboldened. The first front was Norwegian Air Shuttle. With a right-wing government loyal to their aims Norwegian big business is becoming increasingly bold. It is with this political safety net in place that the director (and part owner) of Norwegian, Björn Kjos, has mustered the courage to take on the pilots and their unions: PARAT and NPU.

The Strike

The strike began quietly on Saturday 28 February when 70 pilots walked out, but things quickly escalated when a further 650 pilots joined them on the Wednesday. The effect on inland air traffic in Norway, Sweden and Denmark was to cause total paralysis and all flights between the Scandinavian capitals were also halted. The strike affected around 25,000 passengers each day and inflicted heavy losses on Norwegian. According to the media, Björn Kjos was so concerned about the passengers that he couldn’t sleep at night. His concern for other people’s well-being obviously didn't stretch as far as his cabin crews, 800 of whom were sent home without pay due to the stoppage of air traffic.

The strike was solid and support for the strike grew in the other Scandinavian countries: Finland’s aviation unions brought out 3,000 of their members in a 14 hour strike of support on Sunday (8/03/15) and aviation unions in both Sweden and Denmark also promised strike action in support. Last Friday PARAT also explained that the Norwegian Employees Union were willing to call on the helicopter pilots from Bristow AS and Lufttransport AS to join the strike action within 14 days if necessary: thus threatening offshore transport of the oil industry. The Nordic Transport Workers’ Federation also called on its member organisations to plan solidarity actions, threatening action by its 360,000 members.

This suggests that the threat of increased flexibility at the root of this strike is well understood by the Scandinavian workers in general. And why wouldn't it be? The bourgeoisie of Europe have declared war on the working class and the effects of austerity are now becoming increasingly evident everywhere. It particularly affects workers in the airline industry, where low-cost carriers are putting pressure on wages and conditions.

This strike had the potential to become one of the biggest in recent history. The recent general strike in Norway, in response to the bourgeois government’s proposals to legalise all kinds of flexible working practices has awakened the working class. The continuing battles will serve to harden the mood and sharpen the consciousness of the masses.

The strike breaking tactics of the Norwegian bourgeoisie

norwegian-bossBjörn Kjos used the usual dirty tricks in his propaganda against the pilots. But the rapidity with and extent to which he employed strike breakers, including getting competing airlines to transport Norwegian passengers, has surprised and disgusted many people throughout the whole of Scandinavia. When questioned about the extent of this strike breaking tactic of Norwegian Air, the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Lövfen had this to say: “It is completely disgusting to use strike breakers. And don't doubt my meaning even for a second.” Even the Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden is feeling the pressure from the unions.

Halvor Vatner, leader of the NPU, reported that on the Tuesday of the first week of the strike, an agency by the name of OSM Aviation had been ringing pilots of Norwegian Air who are based in both Norway and Denmark. The same thing occurred in Sweden. They were offered, with threats, a choice between accepting the conditions in the contracts or losing their jobs. Reports came in that pilots refused this outrageous blackmail. OSM Aviation has already established a cooperative relation with Norwegian Air in both Spain and the USA. Obviously this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

OSM itself was established in 2014 as a spin off OSM maritime: an agency supplying crews to shipping companies. And it was established by none other than Espen Höiby, the older brother of the Royal Princess: Mette-Marit. Espen Höiby made a most revealing comment in the business newspaper of Norway: Dagens Näringsliv. He said in 2014: “International Aviation will go the same way as shipping. We are speaking of a shift in the paradigm.”

Being a leading member of the Norwegian bourgeoisie, we can be sure that he wants what’s in the best interest of his class: the weakening and watering down of the labour laws in Norway in order to pave the way for a heightened exploitation of the working class.

Background to the Strike

In line with the Norwegian bourgeoisie's attempt to increase competitiveness in the world market, Björn Kjos has revealed his plans for cutting costs. According to Norwegian Air’s communications director, Anne-Sissel Sknvik, NAS's problem just before the strike began was that they were not competitive enough because of the high cost levels they are incurring in Scandinavia and had been discussing ways of reducing these costs with the pilots and PARAT. The pilots understood clearly that in order to reduce the high cost levels, the Scandinavian pilots’ wages and conditions were under attack. The leader of the Norwegian Pilots Union (NPU, part of PARAT) put it this way:

“The main point is that the costs of pilots in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are too high. This demands that our conditions be worsened dramatically in order for us to be included in the adventure that Norwegian is pursuing.” Aftenposten (06/03/ 2015)

The directors of NAS demand cuts, a wage freeze and more flexibility in working agreements. The pilots oppose this. Norwegian is attempting to replace secure long term employment contracts with temporary contracts and a transfer of pilots over to subsidiaries. These subsidiaries are essentially no more than agencies supplying pilots to the mother company which is Norwegian Air Shuttle. These are the main reasons for the pilots going on strike.

Norwegian’s adventure

Since establishing NAS in 2002, Björn Kjos has taken Norwegian Air to the limits in Europe such that they are now one of the top three low price air companies alongside Ryanair and EasyJet. And they are the only one of the three that flies intercontinental. The purchase of a number of advanced Dreamliner planes from Boeing testifies to Kjos's desire to expand along the intercontinental route. This is the adventure that Kjos is currently attempting. But he has over-stretched his resources. In 2012 he placed orders with Boeing and Airbus for a total of 222 airplanes at a price of over 11 billion pounds sterling. And in so doing made the largest ever investment of any Norwegian business concern outside the Norwegian oil industry.

According to some analysts Norwegian Air now has almost 10 times as much debt as it has capital at its disposal. Much of the cost of this adventure has been paid for by loans from what many consider to be dodgy creditors. The fact that the company lost 1.6 Billion NOK last year won't impress any of their creditors too much. Neither will the severe drops in the company’s shares either before or after the strike began. Since January the price of their shares has plummeted 34.5%. The company bosses claimed that the strike would lead to bankruptcy in order to intimidate the pilots. Not the main company Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS), but the daughter company that the Norwegian pilots have their employment contracts with: Norwegian Air Norway (NAN).

The whole gamble of Norwegian has been, just like Ryanair before them, to expand massively at the expense of the workers in the industry. It aims to become competitive on the basis of increasing the scale of their operations as well as cutting costs of staff by introducing non-unionised workers.

Emboldened by both pressure from the creditors and by the green light given by the right-wing government’s policy on flexible working, NAS has given the pilots an offer they could only refuse: accept cuts in wages and working conditions in order to keep your job. This is the reality, though much of the media are doing their best, as always, to cloud the issue and bend public opinion in the opposite direction as to who is the guilty party in the strike.

The Norwegian bourgeoisie, because of its oil wealth and the resulting national affluence, were insulated to a certain extent from previous slumps. But capitalism is now in its most serious crisis in history. Norwegian capitalism, because of the relatively high wages and good living conditions of the proletariat, are finding it increasingly difficult to compete on the diminishing world market. On a world scale there is an overabundance of products of all sorts. Those countries and businesses that cannot compete will go under. This is the main reason why the bourgeoisie in general are determined to launch a general attack on the wages and conditions of the Norwegian working class. The most advanced layers of the workers are perfectly aware of this, as are the pilots of Norwegian:

“If Björn Kjos succeeds in defeating the pilots, this will be the start of a total collapse in the working conditions of the Norwegian workers.” Jan Levi Skogvang ( PARAT): My Translation

The Norwegian labour and trade union movement also know this, as evidenced by the recent general strike against the government’s attempt to legalise more flexible working practices. The working class as a whole is becoming increasingly aware of this. If the pilots of Norwegian are to win this strike they will require the mobilisation of all the major trade unions. Support for the struggle is increasing particularly among the Scandinavian transport unions as a whole. But much more is required. Other sectors will have to lend support.

A temporary ceasefire

The deal that was reached on the 11th was a major concession by Norwegian, but it falls short of what the pilots wanted. Norwegian is still going to employ the pilots through a subsidiary but agreed to a collective bargaining agreement. As such it is only a temporary settlement. Already there is friction after the union proceeded with their legal challenge against Norwegian.

Signing the agreement at this particular junction was a mistake and will force the union to take further action in the near future. It is hard to see this agreement lasting its three year term. Legal action is not going to solve the problems either. If Norwegian’s lawyers can’t wrangle their way through court and their actions are declared illegal, the company’s friends in government will undoubtedly change the law.

Already the day after the agreement, the government (which is becoming ever more unpopular) announced that it will proceed with its attack on labour rights. They clearly waited to make that announcement until after the end of the Norwegian dispute to ensure that the struggles against these two things weren’t given an opportunity to link up.

The Norwegian and Scandinavian trade union leaders need to heed this warning. The bosses are on the offensive. If the unions do not organise a decisive response, the bosses will be emboldened, not just in Norwegian or Norway but in the whole of Scandinavia. The rank-and-file of the unions are clearly prepared to take action in defence of their own conditions and those of their comrades in other companies and industries. The trade unions in Scandinavia are strong with militant traditions, but they are now facing their most serious threat in decades and only determined and sustained action will ward off the impending attacks.