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Herøya Arbeiderforening stronger than ever

John Øivind Selmer to the left and Thor Morten Thorsen to the right. Out doors.

To the left, John Øivind Selmer, secretary, and Tor Morten Thorsen, manager at the Herøya Arbeiderforening, HAF.

‘Work for Everyone is Job Number One’. This old slogan is just as relevant as ever, summarising as it does the values underlying the foundations Tor Morten Thorsen and John Øivind Selmer have laid down in the Herøya Arbeiderforening (Herøya Workers’ Association), (HAF).

Tor Morten is the head of the HAF and John Øivind the secretary. They know each other well after years of working together to strengthen the terms and rights of the association’s members. We asked them to comment on the HAF’s role today.

The HAF’s beginnings go back to 1929, the year when Hydro established itself in the area outside Porsgrunn. The HAF has played a leading role in the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). Until 2004, it represented Hydro’s employees. Nowadays, the HAF is an association bringing together eight workers’ clubs from across different businesses dotted around the Frierfjord.

The HAF – a long history and modern working methods

"What is the HAF’s role today?"

"I’d say we’re stronger than ever, but in the words of Tor Morten: ‘The way we run the HAF today is different from the 1930s, when Berby led it’. We’re running the HAF with a clear political aspiration to find people work and ensure they keep their jobs", says John Øivind.

portrait photo of Thorsen

"In the old days, you had to be tough and show resilience by making threats and going on strike. Today, we do the same job, only in a different way, adds Tor Morten. "It all started with Per Wold, who was our teacher. We could have stood at the checkout and shouted. Instead, we continue to pursue a strategy whereby we talk to those who manage the money, rather than wage war on them. We achieve our goals without strikes or conflict. That’s the way we work here at Herøya. I don’t see much of that way of working out there. That’s why I believe that many union representatives in the LO feel that we are different and special."

Modern way of working

"We want growth, we want to keep the benefits we have gained, and we want to keep jobs. Take the eight clubs in the HAF", says John Øivind. "We work for companies that are giants. INOVYN is one, Yara another, Bilfinger yet another one. The companies differ in terms of pay scale, but we’re nonetheless united. That’s a strength and it’s down to union representatives agreeing that what matters most is jobs. In many ways, we provide a model for interaction in practice."

portrait photo of  John Øivind Selmer

Tor Morten agrees. "To secure jobs and protect our members, I depend on my company making money. Despite the occasional disagreement, we stand for the views we believe will serve us best in the long run. However, we now face a situation where we may have to waive our rights to bridge the corona crisis. It’s a lot more difficult to say ‘yes!’ and stand up for that than just saying: ‘no way!’. Today, we need union representatives to show courage. We’ve developed this model at Herøya, and it makes us stronger than ever. The HAF manages strength through collaboration."

"While we use new working methods, our platform has remained the same. And that’s what I’d call ‘the HAF School of Thought’. There, we learn things that aren’t taught at ordinary trade union courses. There are many people in our own movement who don’t understand us at the HAF, but I think we have a modern way of working. In fact, we feel that the HAF is more modern than the LO itself."

Board members at major European companies

"What is it like to work locally in a large group?"

Both Thorsen and Selmer are full-time union leaders, Selmer since 1993 and Thorsen since 2006. While working together at the HAF, in their day jobs, they’re union representatives in their respective international groups, Bilfinger and INOVYN. This means that they work differently from most Norwegian union representatives.

Bilfinger Industrial Services Norway AS is part of Bilfinger SE, a German group, which is one of Europe’s leading companies in industrial maintenance and servicing. INOVYN is owned by INEOS and is Europe’s leading lye and PVC manufacturer with factories in eight European countries.

"Today, the HAF consists of eight clubs, explains John Øivind. "INOVYN is owned by Jim Ratcliffe, the richest man in the UK. Bilfinger is German-owned. The other companies where we’re represented have a different ownership structure, which is to say that the HAF deals with a range of different owners."

Portrait photo of Tor Morten Thorsen

"We, who deal with large, international owners, have our own ways of building respect and trust. Our owners know that if we fail to find a solution, something will happen", Tor Morten points out. "We need no one to tell us that. It’s part of the process of maintaining mutual respect. For this reason, we find solutions in the boardroom or in the director’s office – behind closed doors. Discussions can be tough, but they take place in forums where no one loses face. Management and union representatives perform different roles but, in most areas, we share the same goal – to secure jobs."

"Tor Morten works for a German-owned group. Bilfinger is much bigger than Hydro has ever been. I work in a group that’s number one in Europe in the PVC industry. When we were in Hydro, we were number 8. So, yes, we have our challenges, but we tackle them in the boardroom. Tensions can run high in there, not least when we discuss investment" says John Øivind. "There are many PVC factories in Europe and all of us have investments. We’ve invested continuously in our sector over the past 20 years, so that has to be a reason. We’re no pussycats, but we do the work at the negotiating table."

Tripartite collaboration and Norwegian culture

"You say that your platform as a trade union is to play a role in a tripartite collaboration process. How do you take that culture with you into each of your international organisations?"

Portrait photo of John Øivind Selmer

"INOVYN is a meeting place for the four union leaders from the UK, Italy, Belgium, and Norway. We’re charged with looking after all INOVYN factories in Europe. I’m in charge of Scandinavia. These days, other union leaders say they’re pleased to have learned so much from our Scandinavian collaboration model. For me, collaboration comes naturally. That’s how we work and it’s fun to hear that others are learning a lot from us."

"It’s like Per Wold used to say: ‘All in good time’. He realised early on the importance of corporate democracy and got very close to management", explains Tor Morten. "Per Wold and the HAF became an important tool for the directors at Herøya. They couldn’t do anything unless they squared it with the HAF. I think we have built a unique collaboration model here at Herøya. The culture we have fostered at the HAF is truly special. My guess is that the managers at Yara, INOVYN, and Bilfinger would agree."

"What personal satisfaction do you get from doing union work?"

"It’s extremely educational," says John Øivind. "I’ve worked as a full-time union representative since 1993 and I could never have gained as much knowledge as I did in those years if I hadn’t been in that position. We don’t get employed; we get elected. And, if our members are not happy with the work we do, they throw us out. That’s how it is, and I stand every year. I’ve got to do a good job for my people."

"You’ve opted for exposed positions, ones where you are subject to criticism. Why do you run for election each year?"

"I want to get things done to secure jobs", responds Tor Morten promptly with a determined air. "What gives me the greatest satisfaction is to work for our members and secure jobs."

"We don’t know how the future will be, but it’s clear that we’re facing a challenging period. We’re going to gain control of the coronavirus and we’re going to be able to live with it, but society will change. The HAF must contribute to public policy as well", says John Øivind. "Together, the Herøya Industrial Park and the facilities at Bamble make up Norway’s largest industrial workplace. How have we gotten through three major rounds of restructuring without friction? How have we manage to lead on wages in the country? And how have we managed to get new factories if the owners are foreign? That’s no coincidence and we at the HAF should be given a lot of credit for that."

Thorsen from left and Selmer

Tor Morten Thorsen

Head of Herøya’s labour union, Club Manager of Bilfinger East, member of the Bilfinger European Works Council, and board member at Bilfinger Norge AS.

"I started as a summer replacement for the magnesium plant in 1979. At the time, I completed a course in machining and worked with Per Wold. He asked if I wanted to continue working instead of pursuing further schooling. I accepted the offer and was immediately given HAF’s green membership card. Becoming a member was a matter of course."

Thorsen hadn’t planned to ‘mess with union work ever’. A set of circumstances led him to take over as a local shop steward in the electrical department. "That’s when I joined the HAF’s board. This was in the late 1990s, after which it became a full-time union job."

Hydro Production Partner had 22 workshops at Herøya and had set up its Maintenance Centre. Thorsen joined as the club’s deputy manager tasked with organising workshop employees. The manager then fell ill, after which he got thrown into work in the middle of a sales process, which ended with Bilfinger taking over ownership.

John Øivind Selmer

Secretary of the HAF and Club Manager at INOVYN.

Selmer jointed the PVC factory from Union. "I’ve always been engaged in politics and had a deep appreciation of the HAF long before I started working for Hydro. When I was elected to the HAF Board in 1991, I was still doing shift work. I stayed in that job until 1993. By then, Greenpeace had decided to attack PVC and chlorine, and I was told by management to put things in the right perspective. I switched to working the day shift, working on environmental issues while being a union representative at the HAF. In practice, I worked on environmental issues full-time for the HAF, its members, and the company."

Selmer is now Club Manager at INOVYN Norway and Deputy Chairman of INOVYN European Works council, a member of INOVYN Norway’s business board and Secretary of the HAF.

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