Controversy over law restricting right to strike in healthcare sector
A new government act which has made it possible to order healthcare professionals to continue working even if the person in question has resigned has evoked animated discussion among the social partners about the rules of industrial action. Trade unions have condemned the act as an intervention of employees’ right to strike, while the heads of trade union confederations have also demanded that the responsibility of trade unions in the case of protected work be improved.
Prime minister critical of mass resignation threat
Finland’s Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, has strongly criticised the actions of the opposition parties and the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals (Terveyden- ja sosiaalihuoltoalan ammattijärjestö, Tehy) in threatening mass resignations in the healthcare sector as part of an industrial action announced by Tehy (FI0710039I, see also press release of 15 October 2007). The threat of industrial action was initially focused on the special nursing subsector, although Tehy had also collected signatures in the social and basic healthcare sectors.
The prime minister argued that the demand to resolve the industrial action solely through monetary means was irresponsible. As Mr Vanhanen stated:
It openly accepted a setup in which nurses threaten people’s health and lives with their threat of resignation, and the state is supposed to resolve the dispute with money. Representatives of the opposition underscored their view by voting against the patient safety bill.
The prime minister insists that the next government policy programme must be written in such a way that a similar situation is not allowed to occur. Already, the new Patient Safety Act (1027/2007), adopted on 16 November 2007, makes it possible to order healthcare professionals to continue working even if the person in question has resigned. Mr Vanhanen also made it understood that the parties now in opposition should withdraw their calls for state intervention in the nurses’ dispute if they wished to remain acceptable to the government.
According to Mr Vanhanen, the key issue in the Tehy action was the method used. He argued that ‘the resignations were aimed at circumventing the normal procedure of agreeing on the limits of industrial action in such a way that the harm caused to others is not unreasonable, which is part of a contract society’.
The prime minister also said that there should be reasonable limits to the use of power, insisting that the ‘normal behaviour of a contract society must be restored in labour market questions’. In addition, Mr Vanhanen criticised Tehy for not warning its members that each individual would have been criminally responsible if a patient became disabled or died because of the resignations.
Trade union response
The President of the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö, SAK), Lauri Ihalainen, has demanded that the responsibility of trade unions in the case of protected work be improved, although he rejected the possibility that the rules of industrial action should be controlled through legislation. Mr Ihalainen stated that the mass resignation threat issued by Tehy was an individual case and that it would not be generalised. He expressed his wish that the trade union confederations would jointly agree on the rules of protected work.
The Finnish Confederation of Salaried Employees (Toimihenkilökeskusjärjestö, STTK) and the Confederation of Unions for Academic Professionals (Akateemisten Toimihenkilöiden Keskusjärjestö, Akava) have also expressed their willingness to enter into discussions with other labour market organisations about the rules of industrial action. The President of Akava, Matti Viljanen, believes that confederations have the ability and readiness to strike a deal, adding that: ‘I believe that the Finnish system of industrial relations is functioning and that the trade union movement is able for internal discussion under its own steam’.
The three trade union confederations, SAK, STTK and Akava, have decided to settle their rules of industrial action in early 2008. Prior to this, each of the confederations will engage in discussions with their affiliated unions.
The drastic measures proposed under the industrial action threat issued by Tehy have marred the Finnish industrial relations landscape. Many commentators pointed out that the STTK-affiliated union has transgressed the limits which have traditionally been understood as being inviolable. This encompassed an unwritten rule that people’s health and lives should not be endangered through industrial action.
Pertti Jokivuori, Statistics Finland