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Workplace Representation

Union representatives provide the most important element of workplace representation in Norway and play the main role in information and consultation, employee representation and local negotiations.

The arrangements for workplace representation in Norway flow primarily from the basic agreements (hovedavtalene) between the union confederations and the national employers’ association, although legislation plays some role. The Work Environment Act, (known by its Norwegian initials as AML), which was first passed in 1977 and has been subsequently substantially amended, deals with a range of issues including health and safety representation (see below) and arrangements in cases of large-scale redundancies and transfers. However, in the general area of information and consultation, it specifically permits collective agreements to take precedence over its terms, so its impact here is effectively limited to non-unionised companies. In addition, amendments to the AML, which came into effect at the start of 2006, were used to implement the EU’s 2002 information and consultation directive (2002/14/EC) and so provide basic information and consultation rights in companies with 50 or more employees.

The most important of the basic agreements providing the framework for employee representation is that between Norway’s largest union confederation, LO, and its largest employers’ association, NHO. The other basic agreements are similar, although there are some differences. For example, the ratio of union representatives to union members varies slightly between the agreements with NHO and those with the employers’ association for private services Virke. There are particularly important differences between the basic agreements for the private and public sectors (see below).

In private sector companies covered by the basic agreement, the employees are represented by their union representatives (tillitsvalgte), elected by the union members. These are the key figures in employee representation in Norway.

In addition and of much less importance, a works council (bedriftsutvalg), elected by all employees, should be set up in companies with 100 or more employees. There is also the possibility of setting up departmental councils (avdelingsutvalg ) in larger companies – those with more than 200 employees – where there are separate departments, or in companies with between 100 and 200 where departments are clearly separate because of their geography or in some other way. However, it is important to recognise that these arrangements, which are set out in Part B of the agreement (the main rights are in Part A), originally grew out of the production committees set up after World War II and their key role is to improve the efficiency and competiveness of companies through increased cooperation between the employees and their representatives and the employer, rather than being the main channel for employee representation.

In the public sector, the works council structure does not exist – the agreements for the sector do not provide for it, and clearly state that the right to participation is “best exercised” by union representatives. However, the Local Government Act provides for a joint committee (administrasjonsutvalget) composed of elected political representatives of the municipality and representatives elected from among the employees. There are also other differences in the public sector in the way that unions are able to influence employers’ plans (see section on tasks and rights).

In non-unionised companies the only rights are those which come from the 2006 legislation (AML) which states only that employers with 50 or more employees must inform and consult with employee representatives without providing any detail on their election or rights.

In addition, in companies with at least 50 employees (or with between 20 and 50 if the union or the employer wishes or the labour inspector considers it necessary – in which case there is no lower limit), a working environment committee should be set up to deal with health and safety issues. (This is a legal requirement under the AML legislation.) This is in addition to the right under the AML legislation that safety representatives should be elected in all undertakings, although in those with fewer than 10 employees the two sides may reach a written agreement not to have safety representatives. Where safety representatives are present, they have the right to halt work if they consider “that the life or health of employees is in immediate danger and such danger cannot be averted by other means.”

Numbers and structure

The number of union representatives is linked directly to the number of union members in the company who belong to each union confederation. In the basic agreements of both LO and YS with the NHO the number ranges from two to 12. In theory there is no minimum number of union members required before there is a right to have union representatives (see table).

Number of union members

Number of union representatives

Up to 25

2

26 to 50

3

51 to 150

4

151 to 300

6

301 to 500

8

501 to 750

10

More than 750

12

The fact that the entitlement is per confederation, means that a company with 40 LO members and 10 YS members could in theory have three LO union representatives and two YS representatives. The basic agreement also states individual companies can agree to have a higher number of union representatives if appropriate, and that this should definitely happen if there are more separate working groups in the company than the number of union representatives in the table (see section on election and term of office).

The union representatives should elect a chair, vice-chair and secretary, who form the executive committee.

In addition to these specific provisions set out in the basic agreement, there is also a recommendation that the union and the employer at each company should reach their own agreement to find “practical forms” which allow them to work together. A study undertaken by Fafo in 2009, which looked at all forms of the union/employer relationship at company level found that the parties generally did find their own ‘practical forms’ and that the formal rules and regulations were of less importance. However, it also found that where relationships were difficult or hostile the trade union representatives fell back on the precise provisions of the basic agreement.1

Works councils, whose main task is to improve efficiency and productivity (see section on tasks and rights), should be set up in unionised companies with at least 100 employees, and they can be set up in companies with fewer than 100 employees provided either the union or the employer requests it and the union confederation and the nation employers’ association agree. Companies without unions, which are therefore not covered by the basic agreement, do not have a works council structure.

Most employees are not covered by works councils. The Fafo study referred to above found that only one third of private sector employees worked in companies with a works council, and only one third of employees in companies with more than 200 employees – the threshold – reported that a departmental council had been set up.However, this does not necessarily mean that cooperation does not take place, only that other forms, and possibly other terms, are used.

Works councils are joint bodies and consist of equal number of employee and management representatives. The number of employee members varies according to the size of the company (see table).

Number of employees

Number of employee members

Fewer than 100 (not obligatory)

3

100 to 400

5

More than 400

7

Although all employees can vote for members of the works council, including non-unionised employees (see below), unions are guaranteed a role in the composition of works councils: the leading union representatives are automatically present. Where the works council has three or five employee members, one of them must be the chair of the union representatives; where the works council has seven members, one must be the chair and another the vice-chair or another member of the union executive committee. The basic agreement also provides for guaranteed representation for specific groups of employees. In works councils with three employee members, one must be elected jointly by the supervisory, technical and sales staff; in works councils with five employee members, one must be elected by supervisory staff and one jointly by the technical and sales staff; and in works councils with seven employee members, one each is elected by the supervisory staff, the technical staff and the sales staff.

The chair of the works council alternates on an annual basis between the employees’ and the management side, and the side which does not provide the chair provides the secretary.

The works council should normally meet at least once a month.

Where there are department councils (normally only possible where a company has at least 200 employees), the unions and management at company level decide on their composition. However, they must include the senior union representative in the department on the employee side.

Where there is a working environment committee covering health and safety issues (normally possible where a company has at least 50 employees), there should be an equal number of employee and management representatives. In addition, those responsible for health and safety in the company should also be on the committee, but with no vote.

Tasks and rights

Union representatives play the key role in representing employees in the organisations in which they work. They are the main recipients of information provided by the employer; they must be consulted by the employer before major changes can be made; they are involved in disputes between management and individual employees; and they also negotiate on terms and conditions at the company within the framework of the industry-level agreement. This is in addition to their role on behalf of the union in recruiting new members.

Although they represent their members, the basic agreement emphasises the need for “good and trusting relationships between the employees, their union representatives and the enterprise”. It also states that “the management of the enterprise, the employees and their union representatives have a common duty to take the initiative and actively support and contribute towards cooperation.”

The tasks and rights of the union representatives are set out in a number of different chapters of and annexes to the basic agreement, reflecting the fact that they have been negotiated over time.

In the area of information and consultation, the management should have discussions with the union representatives on at least a monthly basis on the following topics: the financial position of the company, its production and development, workplace issues, ongoing operations and pay and working conditions, with particular attention being paid to any use of contract employees. Accounts should be provided if requested and the annual financial statement should be given to the union representatives as soon as it has been adopted.

In addition, the basic agreement makes specific reference to two types of change, which it says should be discussed with the union representatives as soon as possible. The first covers changes in working conditions, the reorganisation of production systems and plans to increase or reduce the number of employees. The second is where a company plans to merge with another business, dispose of parts of its operations, close down completely or change its legal form. In both cases management must give the reasons for its actions and set out their legal and employment consequences. Where employees are being transferred, the union representatives have the right to meet the new owner, and where a company is being closed down, the union representatives must have the opportunity of discussing whether the employees wish to take over the business.

Where a company plans to take decisions that affect employees’ jobs and working conditions, union representatives should have an opportunity to present their views, and where their views are not accepted, the company must explain its reasons, which should be recorded in the minutes.

In the specific area of lay-offs, which cannot last for longer than six months, union representatives must be consulted in advance.

The basic agreement and its annexes also include a number of references to specific issues where information should be provided. These include: lists of new employees; details of share transactions when a new buyer acquires more than 10% of the shares or increases his or her holding to more than a third of the shares; information on the introduction of new technology and on surveillance methods; company objectives for future training; and progress towards gender equality.

Union representatives are entitled to see in advance all briefing materials that the management intends to present to employees and there should be at least an annual meeting with all employees where management provides a briefing on the company’s position and prospects.

Union representatives also have the right to meet the directors of the company, where either side requests this. These “contact meetings” are intended to allow union representatives to “present their views to the owner’s representatives on the board of directors”.

These are all rights as set out in the basic agreement. In addition the AML legislation contains the requirement for management to consult with employees’ representatives “at the earliest opportunity” on large-scale redundancies and “as early as possible”, where employees are being transferred to a new company.

As well as their role in information and consultation, union representatives under the basic agreement have a personal representation role, in that they “have the right to deal with and to try to settle amicably any grievance individual employees may have against the enterprise or the enterprise may have against individual employees.” They must also be consulted before any individual is dismissed, provided the individual employees have no objection.

Union representatives also have a negotiating role under the basic agreement, which states that they “have the right to commit the employees in matters that concern the entire workforce or groups of employees”, provided that this is within the terms of the industry agreement and that they have consulted the employees on the issue, where necessary. The negotiations should be with the appropriate level of management.

As well as the structure of union representatives, there is also a joint employee-management works council in larger unionised companies – normally those with more than 100 employees. As already noted, this is not the main channel for employee representation. Instead its main role is to improve efficiency and competitiveness. As the basic agreement states, “the main task of the works council is, through cooperation, to work for the most efficient production possible and for maximum wellbeing of all who work” at the company. It should receive regular reports on the financial situation of the company and management plans in a range of areas, such as investment and restructuring. Its views should be presented to the board of directors or the shareholders and it has the authority to set general guidelines in the area of training and education. Management may also give it authority for implementing social welfare measures, within a set budget.

However, the works council may not deal with questions relating to pay or working hours or questions relating to the interpretation of collective agreements. These are the exclusive responsibility of the union representatives, who are much more important in the Norwegian system.

The situation is different in the public sector, where, among other things, there is no provision for works councils. However, as well as providing union representatives with extensive information and consultation rights, the basic agreement for the state sector (largely central government), for example, gives them the right to negotiate certain organisational changes, provided the changes are not of a political nature. Changes made to the basic agreement, to adjust it to the specific circumstances of a particular state agency must also be negotiated. In both cases, if the two sides do not agree the issue is referred to a tribunal made up of representatives of the employer and the relevant union confederation, with a neutral chair.

In non-union companies, employee representatives, where they exist have, under the AML legislation, the right to be informed about the company’s activities and economic situation, and to be informed and consulted about both the employment situation in the company, including any planned cutbacks, and any decisions that might result in significant changes in work organisation or conditions of employment. This is in addition to the right to be informed and consulted about large-scale redundancies and business transfers.

Election and term of office

Union representatives are elected by the union members in the company. The precise arrangements for the election are to be determined at company level but the basic agreement states that the election of union representatives can be arranged by groups and that any working group that has at least 25 employees is entitled to a separate union representative, even if this takes the total over the normal limits. The basic agreement states that union representatives should be elected from among “workers of recognised ability, with experience of and insight into working conditions” at the company, and if possible they should have been employed for at least two years.

Under the terms of the basic agreement, the term of office for union representatives is one year, although the key union representatives – chair, secretary and vice-chair – can be elected to their positions for two years.

Employee members of the works council, other than the senior union representatives who have an automatic seat (see section on numbers and structure), are elected by written secret ballot. All employees have a vote, whether or not they are union members. The election is organised within the different groups of the company by the appropriate union representatives, who should confer together if several unions are involved. The candidates should be over 20 and recognised to be competent and, if possible, they should have worked in the company for at least two years.

The term of office for the elected members is two years.

Protection against dismissal

The basic agreement states that where union representatives are dismissed “due regard should be given to the special position” they have in the company. They should have at least three months’ notice, unless the cause of the dismissal relates to the individual’s own conduct. Management should discuss the planned dismissal of a union representative with the union executive committee in the organisation (chair, secretary and vice-chair) and if the union confederation nationally considers the dismissal was not justified the individual cannot be dismissed until a labour court has heard the case.

Employee members of the works council have exactly the same protection.

Time-off and other resources

Under the terms of the basic agreement, union representatives must be allowed the time they need to perform their duties, and a local agreement may set out the precise terms of the arrangements. They can hold their meetings during working hours without loss of wages, provided management agrees, and they must be paid for the time they spend in negotiations with management and in meetings of the works council, if one exists. In practice, union representatives will be entirely freed from their normal duties in larger organisations, with their wages continuing to be paid by the employer.

The basic agreement suggests that there should be local discussions to decide on the extent of the material support they are given but it indicates that, where it is practicable and can be agreed, they should have access to the office equipment used in the company. In any case they should have access to a telephone, a locker and a fax, where this is present.

They can also use external experts, although management must be informed in advance. The question of who bears the costs of these external experts is determined by local agreement, although in the case of large scale redundancies, the AML legislation states that the company must pay.

There are no specific arrangements for time off or other resources for works council members.

Representation at group level

The basic agreement provides for the establishment of a group committee of union representatives in groups of companies and suggests three ways of doing this. Where all parts of the group are covered by the same collective agreement, a coordinating committee of union representatives, made up of the chairs of the union committees from the different parts of the group, can be formed. Another possibility is a committee made up of union representatives from different parts of the group plus other employee representatives from the works council who meet senior management to discuss developments at least once a year. Finally, other non-specified forms of cooperation can be used.

In addition, the basic agreement also provides for the possibility that, where the group of companies has more than 200 employees, a group union representative can be elected. As with the group committee, the group union representative can be elected in different ways: for example, there can be a single group union representative representing all the union confederations in the company, or group union representatives from each of the confederations. A number of studies have shown that these individuals are often the most important union figures in the group. In particular they play an important role in restructuring and organisational change.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.