The dockworker strike in Finland brought up once again the discussion about limiting the right to strike in cases where industrial action causes disproportionate damage or endangers people's lives. This time, much of the exports of Finnish industry was stopped for two weeks, particularly in the bulk forest industry sector of pulp and paper. Paper unions supported the stevedores' strike - despite losing wages as well - but the general public did not much approve.
And as usual, the parties are speaking very loudly past each other and attacking straw men with ferocious determination. The last in line was Jutta Urpilainen, chairwoman of Social Democrats, whom I find increasingly embarrassing.
There are some obvious problems in limiting strikes, as well as not limiting strikes:
1) Going to a strike is the last, strongest action a worker can take to defend his rights. The worker loses his/her pay, and it is both economically and emotionally a heave step to take. It's his/her last action and chance, before resigning. It is, indeed, a basic human right, taken away only in totalitarian regimes.
2) On the other hand, workers are gullible. There may be union leaders who ruthlessly abuse the people they are supposed to defend, in exchange of personal career ambitions, and at a considerable cost - not only economic - to outsiders. I have more respect for union leaders who have themselves worked long in the profession and have risen through the ranks in the unions, less for those who step in from the outside to role-play. The AKT leader Timo Räty runs the dockworker and transport union, and I can't help feeling it's a bit funny that the truck and bus driver strikes are driven by a lawyer who does not even have a driver's license for a car, let alone a truck. And his pickets wearing high-visibility vests at the dock gates seem to be, I'm sorry to say, more like fat drunks looking for a brawl than desperate, starved proletarians.
3) There is asymmetry in the relationship between employers and trade unions, as well as asymmetry in the relationship between employers and employees. Naturally, when you have a situation where a big company is against a single employee, it is easy to see the asymmetry and know who's weak and who is powerful. But can another wrong fix one wrong? There are also cases where the employer is small, in a weak position, and against a wealthy union - and here the rules are tuned to favour the big one. The employment legislation in Finland is tuned to fit large companies with extensive HR and legal functions, and the bureaucracy and sheer number of detailed procedural requirements to small-scale employers is staggering. There are probably hundreds of law paragraphs that most small-scale employers break, simply because learning it all would take all their time - and more - and they couldn't do any work in running the company.
4) And then there are cases where a key group of employees is keeping hostage a much larger group of people, as is often the case with industries like the transport.
- The right of an employee to go to strike is a basic human right and cannot be taken away. The law mustn't punish a person for going to a strike or disobeying an order to go to work (except in dire emergencies, such as helping someone who is dying, or when there is war, or something similar). That discussion is completely beside the point and no one seriously contests it.
- However, the right of a union to enter industrial action can be limited. There are already some limitations (e.g. the warning procedures stated in law), so there's nothing new in itself; the limitations just need to be adjusted. Unions are not humans, and they do not have human rights. They are more comparable to companies. If a union breaches its obligations, breaks contracts etc, it must be prepared to face consequences, including penalties and paying compensation, just like companies do.
- The right of a union to declare strike can be limited by law, as in the case of nurse strike in 2007; an unlimited strike would have actually killed people, and the employer just didn't have the money required to pay up to the pre-strike requirements. The forced-settlement procedure needs to be worked on, so the central agencies of employer and employee unions should sit down with state representatives and define legislation. Passing a separate point law for each case is a very heavy procedure, although a parliamentary-level approval for application of forced settlement might be a good idea.
- The current, ridiculously low cap in compensation for damages caused by illegal strikes should be removed. When a union does not comply with the legal procedure about pre-warnings to strikes, or when a contract is in effect and the union renegades on it, yes - the union can go to strike, but if a court grants damages to the injured party, the union needs to pay up. If this means bankruptcy, then so be it. That's the way it is with everyone. If an employer breaks the law or contracts - e.g. in the procedure of hiring or laying off people - they just pay up, and if it means bankruptcy, so be it. There's no cap in compensation. The tax-exempt status of unions is no excuse. To the contrary, it should come with additional responsibility.
As a side note, it's interesting that trade unions seem to be not very exemplary employers, if you judge by the numbers of walk-outs and contested dismissals and similar employment issues - like recently with AKAVA and AKT. It looks like the trade union employees have to tolerate bullying to an extent that people in no other employment would.