Despite the publicity, fewer strikes take place in Finland than before – but many of them are illegal.

In mid-June this year, almost 2,000 stevedores in Finland went on a day-long strike. Made up of members of the Transport Workers’ Union (AKT), their action was in reaction to staff practices applied by a Russian shipping company. As a result, Finnish ports were shut down for the duration of the strike. In a press release, Ilpo Kokkila, Chairman of the Board of the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), the leading business organisation in Finland, condemned the strike, due to its harmful effect on Finnish exports and job protection in this country.

But did AKT and the stevedores go wrong, and if so, where?

“The effects to the economy were manifold and cumulative,” states Minna Etu-Seppälä, a specialist in labour legislation and collective bargaining policies at EK. “Shutting down the ports costs a lot of money, not just for the shippers, but the entire logistics chain, the manufacturing industry and various services. Think about the interruptions in the delivery of raw materials or perishable foods and the need for overtime after the strike. If a country appears very prone to strikes, this hardly serves to attract investments there.”

Looking at the issue from the employee standpoint, Senior Advisor in collective bargaining for the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK) Katarina Murto sees a strike as being the last-resort means for the workforce to try and make an impact on things.

“First and foremost the idea is to discuss locally at workplaces the reasons that have given rise to problems – to find answers to the question, ‘Why employees would go on strike’,” she states.

Murto points to the fact that approximately half of all industrial action relates to negotiations between the employer and the employees regarding workforce reductions, which have been very common in recent years.

“On many occasions, the employees have considered it unsatisfactory for the employer not to abide by the spirit of the law regulating these negotiations, but merely dictate what will take place. Employees thereby have taken action.” Murto then highlights that the number of strikes here in Finland is significantly fewer than in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The science of striking

The total number of workdays lost in Finland due to industrial action has also subsided over the decades. An expert in this area is Timo Toivonen, Doctor of Social Sciences and Professor emeritus at the University of Turku, who in 1972 defended his doctoral dissertation concerning strikes and social change Drawn to the topic due to the large number of strikes in Finland in the ‘60s, the ultimate incentive for Toivonen was the metalworkers’ strike in the winter of 1971. Lasting seven weeks, it turned out to be one of the last major workers’ strikes in the country.

“At that time, the Finnish labour market was restless,” he recalls. “Even though attempts were made to counter this through very comprehensive collective bargaining, this only made matters worse. Many fields of industry were booming, and the workers were not satisfied with collective agreements made to cater for the least productive industries; as a result, many strikes broke out.”

Strikes in the eyes of workers

How did this reflect on the lives of everyday people?

“I worked as a painter on building sites from the late ‘60s onwards,” recalls Tarmo Pennanen, 67. “Back then, collective bargaining agreements were made for one or two years at a time, and major wrangling took place between the parties regarding wages and working hours. The workers’ side furthered its cause with strikes, which were initiated by our trade union. Strikes, or stoppages, used to be commonplace in the construction industry.”

On strike twice, Pennanen was granted an exemption by the trade union to complete critical work that had to be done even during the strike, such as heating up unfinished buildings.

“This permit also entitled you to work on sites that were not part of the strike, and this is something I did as well. After all, I had a young family at the time, and needed to earn a living, as the strike benefits paid by the union were miniscule compared to normal pay.”

Employees at Pennanen’s workplace would be informed of a strike by their respective union stewards. During a strike, the local trade union branch would dispatch “picketers” – site employees who were union members – to the building sites to discourage strike-breakers or “scabs” from going to work.

“This was strict; if words were not enough to dissuade scabs, even physical force could be used to drive the point home. Sit-down strikes were a common device to persuade the employer to get rid of a non-organised workforce,” Pennanen concludes.

Strikes reflect societal turbulence

“The propensity for strikes to occur depends on the economic and political situation,” Professor Toivonen states. “In the 1920s, which was an economic growth period internationally, there were a lot of strikes in Finland. But the number of strikes went down drastically during the economic depression that followed the Wall Street Crash. When times were bad, people were just happy to have a job. As the 1930s was a period of fascist activity as in some parts of Europe, strikes were considered communist subversion and were therefore to be suppressed.”

The post-war years were particularly strike-prone for various reasons relating to political tendencies towards the left and the return to civilian life, plus, obviously, there was a lot of work available. The biggest strike during Finland’s independence took place in 1956, lasting three weeks and basically shutting down the country.

“Generally, the occurrence of strikes coincide with growth periods; there are fewer of them in weaker times, so they are cyclical as well,” the professor observes.

Industrial action in the future

Looking ahead, should industrial action begin to move in a new direction?

“What businesses basically hope for is to change the tendency away from illegal strikes,” EK’s Etu-Seppälä says. “Legal strikes are obviously allowed when the former collective agreement has expired and a new one has not been made. We are worried about the fact that some 90 per cent of strikes in Finland are illegal, whereas in Sweden, for example, such action hardly takes place.”

According to Etu-Seppälä, although the Labour Court has imposed penalties on illegal strikes, these have been too small. A fine of a few thousand euros is disproportionate with the damage caused, which can be anything between thousands and millions of euros per industrial action.

As an example she mentions Finnprotein, a soybean processing company that went bankrupt this year. A number of strikes had broken out there, resulting in a substantial loss of business opportunities and production. One after another, these strikes were declared illegal by the Labour Court, but effectively it was the company that paid the price.

“The decision to go on strike is a tough one for employees to make and has an adverse effect on the atmosphere at workplaces,” Murto says, pointing out that strike benefits paid by unions do not fully compensate the loss of income.

“In conflict situations, employers in Finland have the right to apply their interpretation over that of the employees. Such cases can ultimately be taken to the Labour Court, but this process is very slow. In cases of industrial action, court decisions are often reached fast, within a week.”

So, as with everything, there are at least two sides to the story here. Interestingly, many of us can see the validity of either side, as our position in life changes over the years. To strike or not to strike, that is the question to be asked both now and in future.

Mika Oksanen