Musketeers Oath

Denmark is proud of the work-life balance of its people. The generous parental leave, sick pay,  good pensions,  decent working hours are part of the advertising copy for Denmark. Explanations of how they get to be the “happiest” people often centre around how good they have it here.

And yet, Danes did not get all these workers’ rights and perks just because they are more compassionate or more generous. Paid leave for childcare did not fall out of the sky onto Danish heads on an Estonian battleground. Danish workers fought for these rights.

In the 1800s, there were running battles between employers and employees. There were strikes (where employees do not work) and lockouts (where employers prevent workers from working) over and over, after each other. The eventual solution to this deadlock came to be known as The Danish Model.

All the good stuff that you see in the Guardian came from regular negotiations between employee organisations (unions) and the employers. It is a source of national pride but it sort of goes on in the background. There are negotiations every few years and everyone just lets their union get on with it and then there is incremental change. Sometimes to the favour of one side or the other, but usually a bit of give and take from both. These negotiations are called “OK” and then the year they take place. They usually take place every 2-3 years. OK stands for overenskomst, a peculiarly Danish word meaning “terms and conditions”. Whatever is agreed applies to everyone, union or not, in the sector. Union members can vote on whether they agree with the new agreement, or not. If they do not agree, then it can mean strike action. Individual workplaces can agree “local” solutions with union reps if the national terms and conditions do not work in their context but employers cannot otherwise change the agreements in place. If they work outside of the “overenskomst” they can be taken to employment tribunals.

Except in OK-13, the administration did not follow this model. They wanted to press ahead with school reform in the “folkeskole” sector and could not pay for it without changing the terms and conditions of teachers. They knew teachers would not agree to the changes. Incremental change would be too slow.

The “employers” in this case are a group of “kommune” borough council representatives called KL. This is because “folkeskoler” are managed by the “kommuner”, rather than the central government. The government has nothing to do with the negotiations. Or at least, they are not supposed to. Except, in this case, they stage managed the entire thing.

(Point of order: Also involved were workers under the same heading, for example, teachers in the independent sector, teachers of adult learners and those working at language schools. Their employer is the “state” and the employers organisation is called “Centralorganisationernes Fællesudvalg”, or CFU for short. This means that workplaces in different sectors can have tailor-made terms and conditions relevant to their working conditions.)

In 2013, teacher unions met with employers and almost immediately it was called a deadlock by the employers. Teacher representatives at the negotiations reported being blindsided by how quick the employers were to call off the talks and threaten a lockout. The press went a bit overboard to appear balanced so the impression was given that there was fault on both sides.  The Finance Ministry put a lot of pressure on the media to do this. No matter how much teacher organisations tried to get the message out that the Danish Model was being ignored and that the government had prevented the employers from compromising, it was not until 2017 that it was officially confirmed that the negotiations were not performed in good faith.

If there is going to be conflict (either a strike or a lockout), the relevant side needs to give four weeks warning. The terms and conditions tend to “run out” on 1st April, so if nothing has been agreed to, that is when the conflict starts. A conflict means that union members cannot come to work and they get no pay, (even those on parental or sick leave). The unions give out “conflict support”, either as salary or as a loan. This puts unions in precarious positions because they only have access to so much cash. Non-union members can still come to work but they cannot do the work of union members.

In April 2013, the employers had a lockout. It lasted almost a month. There were three ways it could have ended: teacher organisations agreeing to everything suggested by the employers without reservation, employer organisations compromising on some aspects or the government, as an independent party, stepping in and making a new law which would be fair to both sides.

As the government was not independent of the negotiations, as they should have been, this was not fair for both sides. Law 409 is rather technical but what it meant in essence was that teachers were now expected to perform all the work in working hours, at school, and there was no limit on how many lessons they could have a week. Then the “folkeskole” reform was introduced which increased contact hours, amongst other changes. Law 409 had to apply to all teaching sectors, even independent schools who were not party to the changes from the “folkeskole” reform.

At the next OK round, (OK-15) working time was off the table, and there was no appetite for conflict, so Law 409 carried on. As in: working time for teachers is not part of a negotiated “overenskomst”, it is decided by law.

Then the news came out that the government had not been independent of the negotiations and the whole chaotic mess had been planned to happen so that working time negotiations could be bypassed.

So, this year, the entire public sector who should be negotiating in their OK-18, (that is anyone who works for the “kommune”, the region or the state; not just teachers), have said that they will not start negotiations for their terms and conditions until the question of working time and Law 409 is addressed properly. Their demand is that teacher organisations be allowed to negotiate their working time and drop the law entirely. If these sectors do not get anything in place by 1st April 2018, then it could be, in effect, a general strike or a lockout that impacts the entire public sector.

They call this the “Musketeer Oath”, as in one-for-all-and-all-for-one.

The employers have so far refused to address teacher working time properly. Negotiations were halted for “thinking time” in mid-February as the representatives for public employees felt that the employers were not negotiating in good faith. The negotiations are due to restart today (Saturday 17th) and the deadline to agree something is the end of February.

With any luck, the employers will negotiate in good faith and they will be able to sort something out. Keep your fingers crossed.