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JUHANI ARTTO
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Despite recession SAK unions have been able to defend
employees' pay levels, benefits and rights


Helsinki (22.06.2010 / updated 22.06.2010 - Juhani Artto) In late May 2010, when the Food Workers' Union SEL signed the new collective agreement for food workers, an unusually long round of bargaining came to an end. It had begun in August 2009 with the collective agreement for technology industry workers, signed by the Metalworkers' Union.

In light of the exceptionally difficult economic conditions the trade unions have fared well. In autumn 2009 the agreements raised wages and salaries by between 0.5 and 0.6 per cent, and the agreements signed in spring 2010 saw a rise of about 1 per cent. In the private sector the cost impact of the agreements is on average 0.6 per cent per annum, in the municipal sector (that employs a fifth of the labour force) slightly higher. In 2009 inflation sank close to zero.

Thus, unions were able to defend employees' purchasing power despite the almost 8 per cent slump in GNP in 2009 and rapid rise in unemployment. From the outset maintaining purchasing power levels was the main goal of the unions belonging to the largest union confederation SAK.

The main victims of the recession or the ones to lose out most are those who have lost their jobs without being able to find new employment. The Ministry of Employment and the Economy forecasts that the recession means a net loss of about 125,000 jobs. About 2.5 million people are employed in Finland.

Pay negotiations to start again soon

Most of the new agreements are in force from two to three years, the average for the SAK private sector unions being 2 years 3 months. However, it was common to agree on wages and salaries for the first year only. The volatility of the world economy and the insecure prospects of the domestic economy was the reason for this pattern. Several unions will begin to bargain on the second year pay rises soon after the summer holiday period.

The agreements do not bring major qualitative changes to working conditions. Already in the previous bargaining round a number of unions secured a six-day paid paternity leave period for their members, and now many more have managed to do the same. Shop stewards' rights were improved. Also parents' rights to stay at home to take care of a sick child were expanded.

The fiercest and most determined effort to worsen working conditions was made by food industry employers who tried to add the notion of ‘flexibility’ to working hours which would have allowed for ten hour working days and six day working weeks. After several limited strikes and strike threats the employer side had to back down.

In the food industry dispute and in the dispute concerning the port workers' agreement the employers hired scabs in an attempt to break (or at least mitigate the effects) of the strike - an extremely unusual and rare practice on the Finnish labour market scene in the last few decades.

Employers' EK played a strong role

The agreements were negotiated by national trade unions. Within the SAK, the member unions and the confederation agreed in May 2009 on common goals. After that SAK mainly offered a platform for information change between the member unions and coordination of their action.

However, this coordination remained very limited. In the critical discussion this has been identified as a weakness of the employee side.

On the employer side the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK had an iron grip on the negotiators and decision-makers of various employer associations. In line with EK's goals pay rises remained moderate and expiring dates of the new agreements vary widely. The latter makes it even more difficult, in the future, for union organisations to mutually
coordinate their actions connected to collective bargaining.

More cohesion needed in the trade union movement

Employers' power centre EK announced in spring 2008 that it will not any more participate in negotiations for comprehensive income policy agreements. It meant a turn-around in the labour market policy as the comprehensive income policy agreements had been characteristic for the labour market negotiations since late 1960s. Bargaining on national union level without the frames set by a comprehensive income policy agreements had been an exception for four decades.

Experiences of the 2009-2010 bargaining round -despite its fairly good results for employees- stress the need to build up more cohesion between trade union organisations.