FINLAND: Strike one and you're out

Less than three months after Finland's new Universities Act came into force, impasses between universities and unions are heading towards strike action. Three unions represent all levels of university staff. If it goes ahead, the strike will be the first in the sector since 1986, at which time about half of support staff withdrew their labour.

Under Finnish labour law, trade unions are required to issue a strike warning at least two weeks before the intended action. This warning was issued last Wednesday for a one-day strike on Thursday week. The strike will affect almost all staff except those representing the employer and the few staff who are not members of any union.

Prior to the passage of the new Act, university staff were part of the public sector, along with most other employees in government departments and semi-government authorities. As such, the staff were covered under the same collective agreement as other civil servants and their trade unions negotiated directly with the government.

Under new arrangements, unions have to deal with SYTY, an acronym for the newly formed organisation that represents all 16 of Finland's universities. University staff ceased to be civil servants on 31 December and unions are currently struggling to reach agreement with SYTY for a new collective agreement. Negotiations have been continuing for several months.

Salary increases are not the sticking point; Finland has negligible inflation so even cost-of-living increases are not an issue. What concerns the unions is that universities want to reduce staff conditions relating to sick and annual leave.

Staff have enjoyed generous leave conditions for many years but as they are at pains to point out, this is the quid pro quo for their relatively low salaries.

Universities also want to cut the length of time staff enjoy full pay while on sick leave, meaning they would be paid a much lower daily allowance through KELA, Finland's medical welfare service.

Staff also accrue annual leave for the time they spend on sick leave, and this benefit is also being targeted by SYTY on behalf of the universities. The universities' offer would therefore affect both salaries and annual leave provisions.

Considerable discussion occurred about the brave new world confronting staff under the new Universities Act. But during the discussions before the act passed through parliament, staff were assured their conditions would not change and that the working conditions for academics would even improve. Click here to read about the new university legislation.

The Universities Act is Finland's most radical legislation relating to universities in decades, and many staff were sceptical about the loss of their civil service status. With an attack on working conditions so early into the operation of the new act, the worst fears of some staff are being played out.

One wonders why SYTY, on behalf of the universities, did not wait another 12 months to make its play. By then, there might have been pay increases to offset against an acceptance of reduced working conditions.

* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. An Australian scholar often based in Finland, he is editor of the journal Australian Universities' Review.