EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Nurses’ dispute in settlement talks

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Over 12,000 nurses belonging to the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals planned to take part in a mass resignation on 19 November 2007 if no pay and working conditions agreement was reached. As a result, national conciliator Juhani Salonius and a special mediation board have attempted to reach a settlement. The government has meanwhile forwarded a bill to parliament defining a law that would make it possible to order healthcare professionals to take on essential jobs for patient safety, even if the worker in question has resigned or retired.

More than 12,000 nurses belonging to the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals (Terveyden- ja sosiaalihuoltoalan ammattijärjestö, Tehy) were due to take part in a mass resignation on 19 November 2007 if no pay and working conditions agreement was reached before that date. Tehy has demanded a wage increase of 24% for nurses working in the municipal sector. However, the Commission of Local Authority Employers (Kunnallinen työmarkkinalaitos, KT) has only offered a 12.7% pay increase (FI0710039I). The dispute has had a huge impact in the Finnish industrial relations sphere.

Special mediation board set up

Efforts have been made by national conciliator Juhani Salonius and a special mediation board headed by Archiatre Risto Pelkonen to reach a settlement ending this difficult dispute. On 1 November 2007, the mediation board began its work to reach a settlement in the labour dispute between KT and Tehy.

The Chair of the mediation board, Mr Pelkonen, regarded the situation as complex. Nevertheless, he has expressed optimism about the outcome of the talks. The board has discussed the dispute on several occasions, with the representatives of both parties to the dispute being present for the entire duration. According to Mr Salonius, who is also a secretary of the mediation board, all questions that could be linked to the labour dispute have been brought up since the first mediation session.

Government introduces patient safety bill

Meanwhile, the government has introduced a bill in parliament pertaining to a law that would make it possible to order healthcare professionals to work at jobs considered essential for patient safety, even if the person in question has resigned or retired. The Social Affairs and Health Committee – one of the parliament’s 15 special committees – voted 11 to six in favour of the bill. According to the committee, the tasks that a healthcare professional can be ordered to do need to be specified, in order to prevent the law from being used as a weapon in a labour dispute. Moreover, the committee does not want to allow nurses involved in a labour dispute to be arbitrarily ordered to work. Instead, the committee considers that the law should specify that such a stipulation should only be permitted for particularly compelling reasons, and only as a last resort. In addition, the committee stipulates that there should be a time limit on how long such an employee can be compelled to work under such conditions. The committee does not feel that conditional fines should routinely be used as a way of compelling a nurse to work. Instead, the matter should be left to the discretion of the state provincial office in question. The parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee also wants to set an expiry date for the bill.

The Employment and Equality Committee also discussed the bill and was strongly divided on party lines. All committee members from the opposition parties voted against the bill. In their view, the approval of Tehy should be sought whenever one of its members is ordered to work.

After a lengthy discussion on the controversial patient safety bill, the parliament finally accepted it by a majority of 113 to 68 votes on 16 November 2007.

Labour Court dispute

Both Tehy and KT have summoned each other to the Labour Court as a result of the dispute. However, the court has already ruled that the mass resignation by Tehy members on permanent employment contracts was against the law. Thus, the Labour Court ordered the trade union to pay a total of about €31,000 in fines. The court also concluded that KT had the right to start hiring replacement workers as the industrial action carried out by Tehy would seriously undermine patient safety.

Meanwhile, Tehy has filed a complaint with the Labour Court alleging that KT and three local employers have violated the municipal law on collective bargaining contracts for municipal employment. The trade union believes that the hospital districts of Finland Proper and South Ostrobothnia in southwestern Finland and the City of Tampere have declared open the posts from which nursing staff affiliated with Tehy have submitted resignations. The trade union also highlighted the fact that the employers sent letters to workers who have resigned, pressurising them to change their minds.

Pertti Jokivuori, Statistics Finland

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