Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

A Historical Legacy Untouched by Time and Space?: The Hollowing-Out of the Norwegian Model of Industrial Relations

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

A Historical Legacy Untouched by Time and Space?: The Hollowing-Out of the Norwegian Model of Industrial Relations

Article excerpt


In Norway, there exists a strong notion, or even a dogma, on the existence of a uniquely Norwegian model of industrial relations, despite there being many similarities to the other Nordic countries, especially Sweden (see for instance Sandberg, 2013), a similarity we will not be able to analyze in this article. The establishment of the Norwegian model is often dated to the signing of the Basic Agreement by the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Norwegian Employers' Confederation (NAF) in 1935, and we would, on the occasion of the 80-year-anniversary of this agreement, like to take a retrospective view on the development of this so-called "model" of industrial relations.

In our view, there are at least three ways of looking at this model. First, as a socially constructed discourse or dogma, which implies that it, in theory, can come to denote a wide range of praxes, changing over time and space, that is, its meaning is "whatever we need it to be" and that, as a result, the model is, by definition, highly adaptable or capable of mutating. Second, it can be understood as a set of institutionalized procedures and understandings, more or less detached from, and thus resistant to, social change, that is, resilient and, by extension, conservative. However, this aspect is more fragile, being susceptible to change and/or decay. This leads us to the third aspect. The Norwegian model can also be understood as a result of social power relations and a strategy in the class struggle, and thus as a process. In this reading, however, it is important to emphasize that it originates in a particular time and space, although its deployment may be extensive in both time and space. This third reading leads us back to the two former senses, since the model, as a discourse and institutionalized praxis, may be employed in the ongoing struggle. We will argue that the Norwegian model of industrial relations, as such, may be self-defeating.

According to Heiret (2007:120, our translation), in Norway, there "exists a normative adherence to complicity and co-determination [...] and to the national bargaining system as a means to secure competitive and efficient enterprises" including among researchers. This consensus is so strong and encompassing that it "threatens to overshadow the conflicts of interest and the (asymmetrical) power relations that form the basis even under organized capitalism."

This article progresses in the following manner. First, we seek an understanding of the historical circumstances in which the Norwegian model arose with a view to analyze the preconditions for its further existence. We will argue that the model must be understood as comprising shifting historical subjects, and this calls for an analysis of concrete interactions, in time and space, between various agents. We will combine a historical account with theories developed within the social sciences, with a view to explaining the dynamics of these interactions. Hence, our point of departure is creating a theoretical and conceptual framework for understanding and explaining the emergence of a Norwegian model of industrial relations and its functioning in an interdisciplinary manner. We then move on to employ these theories and concepts in an analysis of the historical circumstances under which it was established.

Furthermore, we will employ Hernes' distinction between a macro and micro model in our discussion of the preconditions for the existence of the model, and also the praxis aspect of it with a view to analyzing the challenges it faces (Hernes, 2006). In studying the latter, the article draws on case studies of restructuring in the postal services and the hotel sector, the former being publicly owned and the latter private. We will argue that the contemporary notion of a Norwegian model of industrial relations, and the accompanying praise referred to above, is based on an ahistorical conceptualization verging on a dogma, and that profound reconfigurations of power relations between the agents of labor and capital need to be taken into account. …

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