|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
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
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
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.