Thousands on strike as government and unions face off in battle of wills

Industrial action in dozens of sectors puts pressure on the government, in the latest round of conflict between politicians and unions.

Thousands attend a rally in Helsinki's Senate Square in January to protest the government's 'active model' of tackling unemployment / Credit: News Now Finland.

Thousands of workers are going on strike on Monday and Tuesday, as the government and unions continue their battle of wills over proposed changes to working conditions.

The Industrial Union Teollisuusliitto will strike later in the week, while the Welfare Sector Union JHL is involved a two day strike on Monday and Tuesday. Both unions are protesting the government’s plans to make it easier for small businesses to fire employees.

The proposals from Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) would mean that companies with up to ten workers would have less red tape to go through if they wanted to trim staff. The government believes it would boost competitiveness and, ultimately, employment.

Unions disagrees, and strike action over the past month has already forced a concession from the government, which recently backtracked from its original plans to apply the rules to companies with up to twenty workers.

What will be impacted during the strike?

The Industrial Union alone has 100,000 members who could take part in their strike from 25th to 28th October. It potentially impacts sectors from boat building, the chemical industry, mining and oil refineries; to the forestry industry, farming, textiles and garment industry, and even early morning newspaper deliveries.

The Welfare Sector Union strike could hit railways and the metro, deliveries and food supplies at supermarkets, health workers at hospitals and health centres, caretakers, cleaners and food service workers in schools.

In many parts of the country, like Finland’s second largest city Espoo, parents are being asked to provide lunch for their children at schools and kindergartens on Monday and Tuesday this week. Several school and health centre canteens in the region will remain closed, unable to provide any services at all during the strike.

Political points scoring

The closure of school cafeteria during the strike has lead to some heated rhetoric, with the Blue Reform chairman Sampo Terho saying in an interview with state broadcaster YLE that unions are “ready to take the bread from the mouths of children”.

Europe Minister Terho has been one of the most outspoken opponents of union strike action, saying it’s part of a concerted effort to get Social Democrat leader Antti Rinne elected as Prime Minister at the next election. He has called the union information campaign about the strike “lies” and denounced union leaders as “elites”.

Terho’s party is currently generating only around 2% support in opinion polls.

The issue of this particular employment reform – a relatively low profile measure compared to all the other proposals that have come up during this parliament – has become a major battle for the three party centre-right coalition government, something it doesn’t need or want going into election season.

And that’s a point that politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree on.

“The very issue here at hand is of minor importance. It’s a smallish reform about employment protection legislation, but it has become a focal point for society’s larger contradictions and opposing forces” explains MP Juhanna Vartiainen (NCP).

“These have partly to do with the election, unions want to enhance the electoral fortunes of the Social Democrats” he adds.

“A bigger issue is why are the Center Party and National Coalition Party driving an issue this hard even though they know that it’ll mostly lead to a huge fight? As I’ve understood it, not even [the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK] is that into this proposal” says Joel Linnainmäki, a Green politician on Vantaa City Council.

“For the National Coalition Party I think this is also a bit embarrassing. They’ve gone to great trouble to paint themselves as a pragmatic party who aren’t in anyone’s pocket. And now they spend their days waging open war on the labour unions over a small political issue, which most experts say could easily be replaced with something more efficient” Linnainmäki tells News Now Finland.

Unions feeling hoodwinked by the government

At the heart of the dispute is the core issue of how the government, employers and unions work together.

Traditionally in Finland, these three parties have negotiated together and come up with a workable consensus on any labour market reforms.

At the start of his time in office, Prime Minister Sipilä also went down this route as he negotiated a ‘competitiveness pact’ with the umbrella groups representing unions SAK and employers EK.

So far so good, everything was running the way it always had between the three parties. But since then, Sipilä’s government has forged ahead with its own path of creating new proposals and pushing through legislation without the agreement of the unions – like the so-called ‘active model‘, that opponents say punishes people for being unemployed.

This new way of government-lead working has put the cat among Finland’s traditionalist pigeons, and it’s all down to how each side interprets a set of guidelines laid down by the International Labour Organisation ILO.

The government sees the ILO guidelines as meaning they should consult unions before making any big changes to working life and employment conditions for workers in Finland. But labour unions interpret the ILO guidelines to mean that no changes can happen without them giving a green light first.

“If Finland gives blocking rights to unions, it is tantamount to saying we cannot raise the employment rate, and credit agencies would immediately downgrade Finland. Trade union interpretation [of the ILO guidelines] is wide of the mark, but many of them genuinely believe this interpretation, especially since it is an interpretation that has been correct for many parts of Finnish history” says MP Juhanna Vartiainen.

“This is a pivotal point where trade unions feel they are now being robbed of this former right to block legislation that has not been approved by the centralised organisations [like SAK and EK] and that sort of explains a lot of the acidity and venom of the current conflicts”.