May Day or mayday? Miners protest government labor law proposals eight days after getting lifesaving bailout

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They were willing to help the company get through a crisis, agreeing to wage and pension adjustments to prevent more layoffs – or outright bankruptcy. But they’re far from willing – indeed they’re angry – about doing the same thing on a national level, even though the government doing the asking just assisted them in a huge way.

A few dozen Longyearbyen residents, including many working at the crisis-hit Store Norske, participated in a traditional series of May Day events that were as much a protest as a celebration. While honoring past workers and fallen soldiers for their achievements and sacrifices, participants also expressed fears about a future with harsher work requirements and less job security.

“The reality these days is people are working and living longer, and having fewer children,” said Arild Olsen, the union steward for Store Norske. As a result, there are only two options as the government tries to cope with a severe budget crisis brought on by low prices – earning less or paying more taxes.

“I think I would pay more taxes,” he said. “I think I would like to spend more time with my family.”

The Conservative-led government is instead proposing changes to Norway’s Working Environment Act that critics say will result in more temporary employees working longer hours, more mandatory hours for permanent workers and more work on Sundays.

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Tove Karoline Knutsen, a Labor Party member of Parliament from the Troms region, performs a Latin song during a May Day gala at Kulturhuset. She also delivered the keynote speech during the evening, where she pledged the Labor Party would vote to support a 500-million-kroner government bailout package for Store Norske. Photo by Mark Sabbatini

But the government also showed its support for Store Norske’s workers last month when it recommended a $500-million-kroner bailout plan to save the nearly bankrupt coal mining company. The assistance package, 50 million kroner more than Store Norske requested after a record loss of 537 million kroner in 2014 due primarily to low coal prices, combines an unspecified loan amount and the government’s acquisition of Storer Norske properties.

Store Norske also laid off about 100 of its 340 employees earlier this year, is refinancing bank debts and obtained compensation concessions from workers as part of its restructuring plan. The miners, already in the fourth and final year of a no-cost-of-living-adjustment, agreed to accept a restructured pension plan that Olsen said should save the company a significant amount of money without imposing serious hardships on workers.

But Olsen said while he supported employee concessions to help the company with its cash crisis, the government’s request for concessions is a “same, but different” situation.

“When you’re inside a company you can make solutions to make your situation comfortable,” he said.

Furthermore, Olsen noted “the government didn’t give us any money. They’re buying properties.”

The relief of receiving the bailout package – which much still be approved by Parliament, although a majority of parties have indicated they will support it – was also tempered by the government’s long delay in making the recommendation. Store Norske made its loan request in January and expected a reply by Easter, but instead it didn’t come until nearly a month later – after DnB bank announced it was cutting off the company’s line of credit.

“We were thinking about stopping production last week,” Olsen said. “The problem is they took a long time to make a decision,” he said.

Olsen, during a speech at an evening Gala that concluded the local May Day celebration, emphasized the crucial role coal mining played in helping Norway secure its sovereignty  in Svalbard: He noted aggressive efforts to halt the industry here are continuing nationally and internationally by those who consider mining environmentally and economically unsound. But he also read a passage from a 1916 mining newspaper that declared Store Norske’s future might be in providing coal for northern Norway’s metals industry.

“That great idea is now not so far out of reach,” he said, referring to Store Norske’s discovery of higher-quality, industrial-grade coal at the Lunckefjell mine that opened last year.

Diversifying Svalbard’s economy is vital since mining will represent a smaller portion of it over time, but so is helping Store Norske continue its operations now and helping them be a part of that diversification, said Tove Karoline Knutsen, a Labor Party member of Parliament from the Troms region who delivered the keynote speech during the gala.

“We must maintain the settlement and strengthen a multitude of activities on Svalbard, and ensure good and clear management of the archipelago, in line with the Svalbard Treaty,” she said.