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JUHANI ARTTO
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Unions and NGOs want to have the right to sue on behalf of individuals

Helsinki (04.04.2011 - Juhani Artto) Under current Finnish legislation it is not possible for a trade union to sue an employer on behalf of its rank and file members or non-member individuals unless they have authorized the union to do so. Unions regard this as a serious injustice and demand new legislation - which would allow for what is presently impermissible - to be included in the next government programme.

A new government will be formed and its programme approved in the weeks following the April 17 Parliamentary elections. Nowadays, the Finnish political system functions in such a way that it extremely difficult to carry out any essential reforms unless they have been included in the government programme.

Therefore the right to sue has been among the top issues of the union organizations' election campaigns. The Council of Industrial Unions TP wants the right to sue to cover, for example, issues related to working hours, illegal dismissals, equality, occupational safety and neglect of joint counselling. The Council represents over 800,000 wage and salaried employees, organized in 14 trade unions. In the TP, there are unions from all three union confederations Akava, SAK and STTK.

For individual employees it is often a too frightening and too overwhelming an experience for them to undertake steps to sue their employers. This is basically what TP wishes to address in its demands for reform of the legislation. In a suit made by a union the organization would take the risk of economic loss, and the risk of an employee losing his or her job would not be as big as in the case of an individual suing the employer.

TP believes that giving the right to sue to organizations would serve to clarify legal interpretations at work places and prevent illegal strikes. And TP makes much of the fact that in Norway, Sweden, France and the USA a collective right to sue is in place, whereas in Finland group suits can be made in consumer issues. In addition the Finnish entrepreneur associations have the independent right to make suits concerning an immoderate condition in an agreement. Also the Netherlands and Germany have provisions for organization suits.

At the end of March the union confederation SAK published a common statement on the right to sue with ten NGO's. Four of them work for the rights of disabled people. Also NGO's representing sexual minorities, Islamic organizations, Russian-speaking people, Roma and freethinkers shared the statement.

The political parties have taken position on the organizations' right to sue. The positions indicate that there is no easy road leading to the demand for a reform of the legislation as two of the major political parties, the Conservative (Kokoomus) Party and the Center ( Keskusta) Party  oppose the initiative. The traditional labour and left parties are in favour of it, as are the Greens and the True Finns, who according to the opinion polls are predicted to make significant gains if not outright victory in the forthcoming election.

In a recent opinion poll the majority of Finnish people (62 per cent) support the idea of giving trade unions the right to sue. Almost 1,400 Finns replied to the questionnaire, conducted by TNS-Gallup and commissioned by the Trade Union of the Public and Welfare Sectors JHL.