Finland is suffering from a seasonal ailment. Not the flu, but an acute case of industrial strife.
It’s not hard to notice strikes, threats of strikes, overtime boycotts, employee lock-outs, work-to-rule-threats and wage hike demands from unions making almost daily news headlines this year.
Real estate workers; bank workers; the forestry and paper industry; ski resort operators; cleaners and janitorial staff, university and college professionals; private social and healthcare workers; information and communications technology workers; private education and vocational adult education staff, and VR train drivers are just some of the people who have walked off the job (or threatened to), or instigated a work-to-rule regime in the past six months alone.
“Almost all the collective agreements have ended or are about to end during the last four or five months so we have a bunch of negotiations going on simultaneously” says Markus Aimälä from the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK
“There are a few negotiations where things are not going well and where they announced a strike or strike threat and that fills all the publicity. I’m not saying it is a minor thing. Every strike and strike threat is a bad thing. But it doesn’t mean our collective negotiation system is not working” he adds.
But Finland is facing an outbreak of industrial uncertainty that’s normally associated with countries like France or Italy. So why does Finland, usually seen as a paragon of Nordic efficiency, get plagued so regularly by workplace turmoil?
It all comes down to a traditional system of collective bargaining.
Explaining Collective Negotiations
Until a few years ago, Finland had a system of collective negotiations where the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions SAK sat down at the table every couple of years with Confederation of Finnish Industries EK to work out things like terms and conditions of employment and wage increases for unionised workers all across the country.
SAK represents the trade unions and the workers; while EK represents the people who employ them.
It might not sound like the most efficient system, and it didn’t suit everyone. But it was a one-size-fits-all solution that sort of worked for most people.
“In the Nordic system we have these collective agreements, and we have a key role to play” explains Annika Ronni-Salinen, from SAK.
“We don’t have a minimum wage in legislation, and so coverage of collective agreement is approx 90% of workers. Practically everybody is covered by some collective agreement” she says.
But then at the end of 2015 EK decided to change the rules. They said no more group discussions, they would negotiate only with individual unions, one by one.
That way, EK felt, they could negotiate better terms for employers because maybe some industries were doing well, some needed help, some workers would want more money, some would be okay with less. They no longer wanted a one-size-fits-all model.
From SAK’s position, EK is playing a game of divide and conquer. They prefer negotiating with individual unions than one umbrella organsation. And SAK reckons EK would be happier still negotiating workplace terms and conditions with individual companies, rather than their respective unions.
“I don’t feel it’s divide and conquer. It’s just sound decision making” reasons Markus Aimälä.
But is it effective? After all, when talks with individual unions don’t go the way unions want, they simply threaten to strike.
“It depends. The effects of strikes are very different depending on what kind of business we are talking about. The best example I think is the ports, the harbours. If you stop the imports and exports, that’s something the businesses just can’t take for long. It amounts to huge damages. Then of course we have other branches [industries] where maybe a strike doesn’t have that big of a an effect” says Aimälä.
In some areas, as Aimälä mentions, like ports controlling Finland essential imports and lucrative exports, the unions have more power when they threaten to strike to get more money or better workplace terms and conditions.
“There are key areas where strikes are very damaging and of course it leads to a situation where the trade unions have more ability to pressure employers” Aimälä states.
Who Brokers Peace Between Unions And Employers?
When talks about a new collective agreement break down, unions signal far in advance that they would consider strike action, as a way to apply pressure to employers.
So should the government step in? No thanks, the trade unions say.
“We see that it’s better the politicians are not dealing with salary negotiations, that’s our job” says SAK’s Annika Ronni-Salinen.
“The government doesn’t have a role in this game any more. When we had the former central level negotiations, we were talking about these bigger solutions, so the government was sort of supporting the central level negotiations with tax changes, and other regulation changes like unemployment benefits. But now without central level negotiations, the government doesn’t have a role to play any more, they are only trying to influence things with political speeches” she says.
Ronni-Salinen concedes the old system functioned well, with the government participating too. Even though they weren’t officially part of the negotiations, they were able to play a stabilizing and supporting role, she agrees.
But the one person who is at the centre of all the disputes is Finnish National Conciliator Minna Helle. Her office has to negotiate between unions and employers to try and come to agreements that prevent strikes or other types of industrial action from happening.
It’s not always successful. You’re more likely to read statements like “as yet it is impossible to say anything about when and how the dispute will be resolved” on the conciliator’s website than read about positive resolution of conflicts.
Not every dispute ends up being mediated by the conciliator’s office. In 2014 for example there were 124 labour disputes in Finland. The National Conciliator acted as a mediator in eight of them.
Following Minna Helle’s Twitter feed gives an interesting insight into her work, and the difficulties she faces finding common ground between the many different parties with disputes.