Debate on general validity of agreements escalates

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In May 1999, the Finnish social partners have been listing their goals for the next national incomes policy agreement, to be negotiated later in the year. A disagreement over the general validity of collective agreements - ie their applicability to all employers and employees in a sector, and not just members of the signatory organisations - has risen to the fore. The trade union movement would like to affirm the principle, whereas some business interests would like the practice to be more flexible than is now the case.

In spring 1999, the Finnish social partners started debating the substance of the next national incomes policy agreement (FI9905104F), to apply when the current settlement expires in early 2000. Very strong reactions are being aroused by the trade union movement's objective of clarifying the system of "general validity" of collective agreements, whereby an agreement may be deemed to be binding on all employers and employees in a sector, and not just members of the signatory organisations. The unions want to affirm that an agreement in a given sector is generally valid if at least around 50% of the employers belong to the relevant employers' organisation. At the moment, the system seems to be quite unclear. Lorry drivers in particular have experienced a lot of differences in interpretation, because many of their employers do not belong to any kind of employers' organisation.

In May 1999, for example, the Finnish Transport Workers' Union (Auto- ja Kuljetusalan Työntekijäliitto, AKT) organised industrial action in the waste transportation sector in Helsinki. The union aimed to put pressure on the French-owned company SITA Finland, which is not a member of an employers' organisation, to follow the collective agreement for lorry drivers, which it had earlier rejected. According to AKT, the union had received allegations that the company had limited its workers' rights to join a trade union and had put pressure on those who were already union members. The dispute ended after a couple of days when the company conceded the demands, on the grounds that it had already followed all the conditions of the collective agreement in practice except for one special form of time off that the company had compensated in money instead of free time. The company's previous reluctance to apply the agreement was not, therefore, a question of wage issues. The distinctive aspect of this case is that the majority of the company's employees do not belong to the union but rather negotiate their own individual contracts, and the employees had apparently been satisfied with the company practice of paying in money instead of free time. The main goal of this dispute was a matter of principle, whereby AKT tried to put pressure on the non-organised employer to join the employers' organisation. However, the company decided to continue on a non-organised basis.

There have been disputes about general validity in other sectors also. Now both the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö, SAK) and the Confederation of Salaried Workers (Toimihenkilökeskusjärjestö, STTK) want to develop the system of collective agreements and to extend the general validity principle in the upcoming incomes policy agreement, which may be centralised, rather than devolved to individual sectors. However, this view is opposed by an organisation which is not involved in the official negotiations over incomes policy, the Federation of Finnish Enterprises (Suomen Yrittäjät, SY), which advocates a contrary policy line. The Employers' Confederation of Service Industries (Palveluty|nantajat, PT), believes that the possible extension of general validity should be resolved in the committee currently examining the Employment Contracts Act (FI9810179F). The Confederation of Finnish Industry and Employers (Teollisuuden ja Työnantajain Keskusliitto, TT) is not willing to express its position at this stage.

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