The Norwegian Model

The Norwegian Model: It works

A high number of foreign nationals work in Norway; a high number of foreign nationals want to work in Norway. Having been a ‘permanent resident alien’ of the country for more than 20 years, I took a moment the other day to think about what working in this country has meant to me. This was put in motion by my having come across an article appearing on the Net entitled, After I Lived in Norway, America Felt Backward. Here’s Why. The subtitle is ‘A crash course in social democracy’, and author Ann Jones proceeds to give the reader a brief introduction to how the Norwegian welfare state came about during the latter half of the twentieth-century.

Among other things, Jones writes that ‘Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce.’ I found this point thought-provoking, as it made me remember back to the time I first started learning about welfare state benefits associated with what has become known as ‘the Nordic model’. This happened after I started working, discovering that the flat structure allowed me to call my boss by her first name, or if I lost my job I would receive unemployment benefits for a long period of time, or if I had a baby I would receive one year’s maternity leave and 80% of my salary during that period.

A long struggle…

What I quite happily did not know at the time was that it took a ‘long struggle’ at the country’s political level to put in place the goody bag of benefits I was now enjoying. That is, somewhere in my mind the thought had formed that all this had taken place because Norwegians were, quite simply, just ‘nice’ people (to use a favorite Minnesota adjective). I assumed that they were at heart good human beings who wanted to do good works for their fellow man – or in my case, woman – and therefore had completely cooperated in noble solidarity to make sure that every worker in the country would be able to eat the generous fruits of their labor, to paraphrase it biblically.

But when I began bringing up this point in conversations with people here, my naïve confession caused a lot of laughter and headshaking; this response forced me in turn to quickly educate myself through reading up on my new country’s labor history. How could I have been that ignorant to the fact that humans, wherever they are, have a natural tendency to covet what is theirs, including property and wealth? My eyes had been opened to the fact that the rights I enjoyed had been fought over for several years (Jones’ ‘long struggle’) before I came along on the working scene. It’s interesting, though, how through ignorance we form ideas about another country and its culture without even realizing we’re doing so.

What? Engineers in a union?

This same lack of knowledge sometimes hits me full force when I tell people in my own country that I work for a Norwegian trade union. Even more interesting (or peculiar, depending on your viewpoint), its members have to have a Master’s degree in science or technology in order to join. Maybe I was naïve again, assuming that because we all live in the Internet age that Americans would be more enlightened about the Nordic model. Not so – it seems that just saying the term ‘trade union’ triggers a variety of responses in whomever I’m talking with, ranging from from mildly sceptical to outright negative. At the one end, there is an amazing amount of cynicism expressed through people’s first comment being something along the line of ‘You’re joking, right?’ as if unions are inherently immoral and destructive, implying the idea of disgruntled workers rioting in the streets and society disintegrating in a free fall towards anarchy. The conversation usually stops there.
And yet, to be fair, I have to say that on the other end of the response spectrum, the mild sceptics, after a bit of back and forth on this topic, I get questions from them such as ‘Really? How interesting – how does that work, that for example civil engineers can be in a union?’ So I tell them, in the process citing facts like 52% of Norway’s labor force is organized, it’s really no big deal to be a union member– no, management doesn’t see this as an imminent threat to their company’s profit margins, there aren’t constant strikes, the country hasn’t gone broke – on the contrary, worker productivity is high, etc. The conversation usually takes off from there and is usually an interesting one. I like to think that the people I’ve spoken with, while not all having exactly accepted everything I’ve said, have at least gotten something new to think about regarding how ‘work works’ in countries other than their own.

So without exactly meaning to, through talking with people from the US during my visits there, I’ve become an informal educator on the benefits of organized labor in a country where only 11% of the workforce has union membership. What’s the point? They say that ignorance is bliss, and perhaps it is. And yet when my own eyes were opened to the fact that people in Norway are just like people anywhere and that in spite of this they managed to bring amazing work-related benefits to their country’s labor force, including myself, I found myself admiring the result even more. (The system is, according to Jones, ‘not perfect, of course’, a point that could and should be explored in more depth, but that’s another topic for another day.) For us thousands of foreigners, working in Norway gives us a unique opportunity to be part of a labor force whose members belong a working model in progress whose basic framework is the result of a kind of hard labor of its own, one that strives to guarantee good employment conditions and good benefits for everyone. No wonder a high number of foreign nationals work in Norway, and a high number of foreign nationals want to work here as well.

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