Broad Alliance for the Welfare State

The alliance is no longer limited to the trade union movement.
Among the new affiliates we find user organisations, student
organisations, retired people’s association, farmers’ and
small-holders union etc. In other words, a broad popular movement
is about to be born. While the initiating unions all represented
the public sector, a number of private sector trade unions have
joined force during the first year of the campaign.

In Norway there are three national trade union confederations.
The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) is biggest and has
traditionally worked closely with the Labour party. The
Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS) is its main competitor and
has proclaimed itself independent of political parties, so-called
neutral, but in reality to the right of LO, even if it has been
politicised over the last years and has moved closer to the LO. The
third one is The Confederation of Academic and Professional Unions
in Norway (AF), which has an agreement of co-operation with the LO
on areas other than wage policy[3].

The three confederations, in particular the LO and the YS, have
at times been in harsh competition with each other, even if they
have become less hostile over the last 20 years. The alliance For
the Welfare State involves unions from all the three
confederations, something which makes it historic in the Norwegian

The alliance has developed a joint political platform which is
the basic fundament that all organisations which want to join the
alliance, have to endorse. The steering committee consists of the
presidents of the six founding unions, which also finance a
co-ordinating office that has been set up with a Secretary
responsible for day to day running of the organisation (actually
the author of this article). An advisory Council has been created
in which all affiliates can have a seat. Due to the higher than
expected number of affiliates, the structure of the organisation
and the composition of the steering committee are already being

The welfare state is, like the labour movement, in historical
terms, a relatively young phenomenon. They both evolved with the
capitalist mode of production – when wage labour became the
dominant form of productive activity. The capitalist mode of
production separated the workers from their means of production, so
the only thing they had to sell in order to make a living, was
their labour force. This means that the income was lost for those
who, for different reasons and in different periods of life, were
unable to take part in wage labour.

In response to that, workers started to organise among other
things in order to set up collective funds from which they were
given support when involuntarily out of work. These funds were the
first germs of a welfare system. Welfare arrangements were, in
other words, a response to the social insecurity which followed the
development of wage labour in a labour market. Thus, welfare
arrangements developed in the entire western industrialised world,
although in different forms. Gradually the states involved
themselves, and public welfare schemes were introduced, jointly
financed through taxation. These were mostly in the form of means
tested, minimum benefits and grew side by side with private charity
– both very much influenced by paternalistic ideas.

This started before the labour movement was strong enough to
influence state politics. The first reforms most often were
initiated by social liberal politicians towards the end of the 19th
century – for two reasons. Firstly, because the exploitation of
labour was so harsh, that the introduction of health and safety
regulations and social benefits were necessary purely for the
reproduction of sufficient labour to the rapidly growing industry.
Secondly, the incipient organisation of workers in trade unions and
political organisations caused fear of opposition and revolt, which
the ruling classes wanted to dampen through welfare

The real growth of the welfare state, however, started at the
time when the labour movement gained political influence and social
democratic parties came to political power in a number of countries
– in Norway in 1935, but mainly after World War 2. Then solidarity
and human right-based ideas gradually took over for paternalism and
charity – in particular in the most advanced welfare societies. At
the very most, public share of Gross National Product (GNP) in many
Western European countries was well above 50 percent[4].

The level to which public services and welfare systems have
developed, as well as welfare models, differ considerably between
countries. Roughly, we can differentiate between three welfare

1. The market or the Anglo-Saxon model (USA).

2. The work-related or the Continental European model

3. The universal or the Nordic model (Scandinavia).

In many ways we can say that the level of the welfare state is a
product of the strength which the labour movement is able to
achieve in a capitalist society. The Nordic model is seen by many
as the most advanced form of such a welfare state.

Class compromise

In Norway, as in many other countries, the labour movement
struck an accord with capital forces – a sort of peaceful
cohabitation between labour and capital. The compromise rested on a
strong labour movement on the one hand and a capitalism in stable
and strong economic growth on the other hand. As the British
historian Eric Habsbawm[5] has pointed out, the existence of a
competing economic system in Eastern Europe, also was instrumental
in making the capitalists accept a compromise. It was on the basis
of this compromise that the most important welfare reforms and
institutions were developed during three decades after WW2.

The participation of the trade union movement in the compromise
was in reality to accept the capitalist organisation of production,
the private ownership of the means of production and the employers’
right to lead the labour process[6]. At the same time, the trade
union confederation guaranteed industrial peace and restraint in
wage negotiations. Simplistically, the welfare state and the
gradually improved living conditions were what the rather peaceful
trade union movement achieved in exchange for giving up its
socialist project. Today we can conclude that it was a short-term
achievement in a very specific historical context.

One important part of the class compromise was a stronger
division of work within the labour movement. The conditions for
buying and selling of labour would be regulated by the trade union
movement through negotiations, while social security when out of
work would be dealt with by the party in parliament. This laid the
foundation for a more narrowly economistic development in the trade
union movement, something which weakens trade unions today, as
social democratic parties more or less have deviated from even
their former reformist politics.

The class compromise, however, was a fragile construction. As
part of its fundament was a stable capitalist economy with high
growth, the compromise became gradually undermined as soon as deep
economic crises again started to ride western capitalism as from
the early 1970s. The crises resulted in increased market
competition, neoliberalism gained ground at the political level and
capitalist forces went on the offensive, among other things in
order to reduce costs – by attacking trade union rights, keeping
wages down and reducing public expenditure, i.e. the economy of the
welfare state.

With the breakdown of the command economies of the eastern
Europe around 1990, the only alternative to western capitalism
disappeared. Capitalism had triumphed on all fronts, and the
compromise with labour was no longer necessary. Capitalist forces
could pursue their narrow economic and political interests in a
more uninhibited way than they had been able to for decades. That
is why the class compromise (or the consensus model) already has
broken or is on the verge of breaking down all over Western Europe.
The historic and economic preconditions for such a compromise are
no longer there, and the most important product of this compromise,
the welfare state, is being put under increasing pressure, although
Norway’s relatively high oil revenue has contributed to dampening
or delaying the pressure on the welfare state as well as on the
trade unions and the workers directly – compared to the situation
in many neighbouring countries.

Shaky foundations

Under the pressure of the current globalising economy, in
particular the multinational companies, the financial institutions
and the free movement of capital, public sector and welfare
services are being attacked all over the world. Even though Norway
today is richer than ever before in history, and is lucky enough to
have an unemployment rate lower than most countries, social and
economic inequalities are increasing in society. Public as well as
private poverty is growing side by side with an ever more visible
private abundance of wealth among the élite.

Recent research has found that 70,000 children are living under
the poverty line in Norway – and the number is increasing. At the
same time 20 new millionaires are produced every day. While average
wages increase by 15 percent from 1995 to 1998, the corporate fat
cats increased their income by about 35 percent. While public
consumption increased by 2 percent per year in the period from 1993
to 1999, private consumption increased by an annual 3.6 percent.
The public share of GNP was reduced from 52 to 43 percent between
1992 and 1999. 

This considerable redistribution of wealth causes, of course,
financial problems in the public sector. All such problems,
however, are referred to the public sector itself by the neo
liberalists; to its lack of productivity and efficiency, including
trade union opposition – and with privatisation as the one and only

This impoverishment of the public sector creates dissatisfaction
among people and consequently weakens the basis for and
possibilities to maintain universal public services. In a society
with increasing inequalities the rich gradually will establish
private services to avoid public queues and deficiencies. In the
long run this will threaten the legitimacy and the existence of the
universal welfare state. That is one of the reasons why the
Norwegian unions, and other popular organisations, have joined
forces in order to defend the principles of the welfare state and
improve its services.

In short, we can summarise that the development of the welfare
state has rested on three main pillars: the social state thinking
of the social liberal politicians, the struggle of the labour
movement (at the particular time expressed through its strength in
the class compromise) and the existence of a competing system in
eastern Europe. The latter has broken down. The relatively stable
class compromise is breaking down. This means that if the working
class is going to maintain what it has achieved, and not fall back
to minimum, paternalistic and means tested benefits of the social
liberal type, it will increasingly depend on the strength it still
represents and is able to mobilise in today’s society – in
confrontation with offensive capitalist forces.

The platform

In this context, six of the biggest trade unions in the public
sector joined forces towards the end of 1999. A political platform
was developed, in which the struggle for the welfare state is seen
in a wide and global perspective. It states that, over the last
years, «we have experienced that neoliberal politics have
gained ground nationally as well as internationally. Through
deregulation, privatisation and competitive tendering, public
services, democratic governance and control are being weakened.
Internationally, financial speculation has made national economies
tremble. Market forces have gained ground at the expense of public
governance. This has caused the development of increased
inequalities in society, attacks on welfare and public services and
ruthless exploitation of resources and the environment.»

The alliance underlines that it is not defending every aspect of
the current welfare state, particularly as it does not serve its
inhabitants in the way it should. There are many deficiencies,
«difficult accessible public services, imperfect care and
welfare services which do not reach everybody. It is therefore
necessary to strengthen and further develop the welfare
state.»[7] This is the reason why the alliance emphasises the
need to ally with the users of public services. This also
represents the answer to right wing political forces which are
continuously trying to divide and rule between producers and users
of public services, describing every trade union struggle in
defence of public services as «a fight for their own narrow
interests at the expense of the users».  

The platform further states that «we (…) face a decisive
struggle for public services and the democratic governance of our
society. The struggle is all about protecting a strong public
sector and creating a society which take the environmental
challenges seriously. We experience a redistribution of wealth from
public to private, and public budgets are being put under increased
pressure. The fight is about what kind of society we are going to
build in the future. The struggle against privatisation and
competitive tendering is a defense for the welfare state, for a
just and equal distribution.»

The platform summarises its political position in the following
eight points:

  1. «We support the restructuring of the public sector, based
    on security for and motivation of the employees, while making use
    of their experience, their creativity and their knowledge of the
    needs of the users.
  2. We stand up for the principles of the welfare state, while
    rejecting a return to means testing and the undermining of acquired
    rights. We will therefore fight against the development of
    inequality and rising poverty in society.
  3. We support the democratically elected management of public
    resources, while fighting decisions transferring important public
    assignments to the market forces.
  4. We reject the current globalisation of the economy which is
    based on liberalisation, deregulation and free flow of capital. We
    are demanding action against financial speculation and limitation
    of the enormous power of multinational corporations.
  5. We support the struggle for a just distribution of the
    resources of the world.
  6. We oppose the trend of turning public sector monopolies into
    private sector monopolies with the assistance of multinational
  7. We reject tendering of public services, which is also used as a
    means to undermine wages and working conditions of the
  8. We fight for adequate funding for public services. It is
    unacceptable that private riches and public poverty develop side by
    side in a society which is richer than ever before.»

Based on this platform, the campaign aims at building an
alliance sufficiently strong to be able to carry forward an
alternative policy. It realises that only a broad popular alliance
will be able to confront the current offensive of market forces.
The perspective has to be internationalist, but the main task of
the Norwegian unions is to organise the struggle at the national

Future plans

The first year of the welfare campaign has mainly been used to
build and consolidate the alliance. The response has been
overwhelming, far above even the most optimistic expectations of
the founders. The alliance has, however, also been met with
opposition and criticism within the Norwegian Confederation of
Trade Unions (LO), both for building alliances with non-LO trade
unions and for «not having sufficient understanding of the
important role of the private sector» as some private sector
trade union bosses have put it. This criticism, however, has calmed
down as a number of private sector trade unions have joined the
alliance[8]. They have realised that the fight for the welfare
state is not a case for public sector workers only, but in the
interest of all workers.

The alliance was initiated and has first and foremost been
established at the top national level. This is at the same time the
strength and the weakness of the alliance. The strength because it
reflects a strong and wide-reaching dissatisfaction with the
current economic and political development in Norway (and
internationally) and legitimates local and co-ordinated resistance.
The weakness because it has not arisen from real movement at the
grassroots, and a great part of the members are still not
mobilised. It can, in other words, be in danger of developing into
a top-down bureaucratic creature.

In order to make it a real nation-wide movement, the setting up
of regional and local branches of the campaign therefore has been a
priority. In most of the counties and in a number of municipalities
such branches have already been established – in a flexible way,
where people are urged to focus more on activities than on formal
meetings and minutes. Apart from supporting the political platform
of the campaign, there are no formal requirements. Local branches
are, for example, free to organise the way they like.

An electronic newsletter is being distributed to everybody who
likes to receive it, and a web site is being planned. A document
called «We demand a redistribution of wealth in favour of the
welfare state» has been developed and distributed to the
members of government as well as to the political parties in the
parliament. The «brutalisation of work» has become an area of
priority in which the campaign tries to politicise the fact that
sick leave and early retirement have been growing considerably over
the last years due to the increased exploitation of labour and the
rapid and unsocial restructuring of private companies as well as
public undertakings.

The alliance was established under a minority center coalition
government. Some months later, however, a minority social
democratic government came to power. This could create problems as
quite a few of the leaders of the trade unions as well as of other
organisations involved in the alliance are members – even
high-ranking representatives – of the Labour party. They are now
being put under pressure from both sides. The Labour party,
however, is in the process of being polarised between a new
generation of so-called «modernisers», who have few
principles against privatisation, and people with a more critical
view of the privatised, free-market economy. As the trade union
movement has not yet been defeated in Norway as was the case of the
British unions under Thatcher, the Norwegian modernisers will have
a lot more problems in moving the party to the right than Tony
Blair had in Britain. The new alliance For the Welfare State could
actually make a difference.

Exciting times that is in Norway these days. There are problems
ahead, but there is also a lot of enthusiasm, people calling to
offer their services, local branches being set up, signatures being
collected in support of the campaign in academia, initiatives of
Youth For the Welfare State being prepared and so on. If
successful, it could develop to a real and influential popular
front. Time is ripe for resistance!


[1] «For velferdsstaten» in Norwegian.

[2] The unions were, in order of size: Norwegian Union of
Municipal Employees, Norwegian Union of Teachers, Norwegian Nurses
Association, Norwegian Association of Health and Social Care
Personnel, Norwegian Civil Service Union and Norwegian Union of
Social Educators and Social Workers.

[3] The Confederation of Academic and Professional Unions (AF)
has recently split. The most high-ranking professional academics
broke out to set up the Federation of Norwegian Professional
Associations and the remaining unions (of which the great majority
consisted of nurces and teachers) have decided to abolish the AF
all together.

[4] Sweden even passed 70 percent during a period in the

[5] See Eric Habsbawm, Age of Extremes, The Short Twentieth
Century 1914 – 1991, London 1994

[6] This was, of cause, only seldom, half way and indirectly
expressed by leaders of the labour movement. Socialist rhetoric was
regularly used, especially during the first years of class
co-operation, although more in the trade unions than in the Labour
Party, since socialist sentiments were still strong at the
grassroots. The main lasting consequence of the policy of the class
compromise, however, was the de-politisation and the
de-radicalisation of the working class.

[7] Quoted from the political platform of the campaign.

[8] These are: Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union, Hotel and
Restaurant Workers’ Union in Norway, Norwegian Oil and
Petrochemical Workers’ Union, Electricians’ and IT Workers’ Union
in Norway, Norwegian Commercial and Office Employees’ Union and
Association of Oil Workers in Norway.

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Forfatter: For Velferdsstaten

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