Education International
Education International

Finland: trade union front to defend negotiation rights

published 21 September 2015 updated 22 September 2015

The teachers’ union Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö has joined over 30,000 workers from all sectors to demonstrate in Helsinki, Finland, to oppose the planned governmental anti-union laws anddefend trade union negotiation rights.

Under a torrential rain storm, workers from Finland's three national trade union centers, SAK, STTK and AKAVA, held strikes and demonstrations on 18 September to show their opposition to the new coalition government's proposed legislative attack on collective bargaining rights. In addition to demonstrating in the capital city, some 300,000 workers engaged in work stoppages, and trade unions held local demonstrations across the country.

This was the first time in twenty years such a huge mobilisation was held in Finland, where unions and employers have a long tradition of settling disputes through negotiation. Trade unions have had the right to negotiate collective agreements for a very long time, and the negotiation right has been “sacrosanct” in the Finnish society.

Opetusalan Ammattijärjestö(OAJ) President and Vice-President of AKAVA, Olli Luukkainen highlighted that members of the OAJ, the biggest union in AKAVA, were in the front line in demonstration, defending negotiation rights but also demanding that the government stop cuts in education budget.

This demonstration was not against employers, because all agreement between union and employers are still valid, he said. He pointed out that this was a great defense of negotiation rights, not a strike. Right now, the trade unions’ first aim is to defend negotiation rights, he said, underlining that all employees through their unions should to have the right to negotiate on their working hours, salaries and holidays.

There are several agreements in the education sector, with teachers working primarily in the local government sector and are paid mainly by municipalities. They have different agreements and salaries depending on the sector or level of education.

Finland held parliamentary elections last April, and the National Coalition party, the Finns party and the Center party, all right wing parties, established a new government, which issued its program in June. This program set up strong cuts to the education budget, as well as the development cooperation budget.

The government also decided that because of the weak national economy Finland needed a special “societal agreement“. The aim of the agreement was to lower labour costs by 5 percent. The government further announced that if, together with trade unions and employers, they did not manage to reach an agreement on this matter, there would be more cost cuts in the public sector. The government also requested that all trade union federations and trade unions accept this broad agreement.

After a rather short negotiation period, this “societal agreement” did not happen. Unions claim that the situation was not a real negotiation situation, because the government had decided the result in advance. Instead of a real negotiation, the situation was more a “take it or leave it” one, so the trade unions left the negotiation table, Luukkainen said.

So just after trade unions closed the negotiation doors, the government announced that, because the societal agreement was not reached, it was ready to pass a law cutting holidays in the public sector, and changing the salary compensation paid for working during the weekend.

“We are truly aware of the weakened economy of Finland,” Luukkainen noted. “However, this is not the way we solve this type of problems. The Government’s plan to forget the unions’ right to negotiate is something which we cannot accept at all. Also, the plans government announced will affect mostly the public sector and workers such as early childhood education teachers and other predominantly female professions. Low paid female workers like teachers cannot raise alone the economy of Finland.”

With people taking to the streets, defending workers’ rights enshrined in ILO agreements, Luukkainen said that “it is time to sit back all together at the negotiation table.”