Unless otherwise agreed
Lassila & Tikanoja caretakers gave up a large part of their overtime and agreed to work irregular hours. Local bargaining is not always so easy. Are there any benefits for employees, or do they always end up on the losing side?
Since this spring, Lassila & Tikanoja (L&T) have started to adjust their working hours, mostly using a 12-week adjustment period.
Inkeri Hanki, Eastern Finland regional chief shop steward from Lahti, explains that the local bargaining process was long, hard and difficult for everyone involved. It also included one misstep.
- There was a lot of twisting, turning and tweaking.
The Government and employers want to increase local bargaining – in other words, negotiating the terms and conditions of employment at workplaces. When flexibility basically boils down to deteriorating terms and conditions, what’s in it for employees?
Cutting down overtime while extending service hours
Hanki says that caretakers have taken quite a critical view of the introduction of the working hours adjustment system.
- People have been split over this issue. The older generation would like to come to work at 7 am and leave at 3 pm – that’s it.
The initiative for negotiations came from the employer, who wanted to reduce the amount of overtime and provide the virtually 24-hour service level that customers were expecting. Under the Collective Agreement for the Facilities Services Sector, an employer would be entitled to introduce a 4-week working hours adjustment system of its own accord, but now the issue at hand was to do with a longer period.
The negotiations were launched in early 2014. Employees were represented by 6 regional chief shop stewards from different parts of Finland, while the employer’s side consisted of a team of 4 to 5 people. The parties convened about a dozen times at the Helsinki corporate headquarters and in Hämeenlinna.
All that twisting and turning took a year.
These things are not always shared
Kimmo Nikula, PAM’s Lahti Regional Manager, was one of the people working behind the scenes. He says that shop stewards do not often share information about their local agreements with the union, but communication worked well in the case of L&T, which was all well and good.
The difficulty of the process is illustrated by the fact that union officials also started to argue among themselves at some point over what a good adjustment system would be like.
The ‘unless otherwise agreed’ clauses in a collective agreement indicate the details that can be agreed at a workplace level in derogation of the collective agreement. According to Nikula, the problem here is that, in many cases, the employer unilaterally lays things out as facts, even though a local agreement requires negotiations.
- Employers tend to be quite controlling in our sectors, Nikula says.
One of the people who were around the negotiating table was Lasse Forss, Southwest Finland regional chief shop steward from Pori, who was opposed to the project and conveyed the discordant notes of employees. However, he describes the tone of the negotiations as appropriate.
- You didn’t have to go to meetings with your teeth clenched, Forss says.
To begin with, a 26-week adjustment period was tested in one region and in process cleaning. It was no good. The experiment produced such harsh feedback that the shop stewards terminated it.
- The supervisors kept changing shifts all the time with a pen. The thing about pipes clogging up is that it’s a bit like childbirth: it doesn’t happen to a schedule, Forss says.
Voting at workplaces
People started to work on a new proposal. There were heated debates at workplaces. In Turku, Lahti and many other locations, caretakers voted between a 12-week adjustment period with special benefits and the 4-week adjustment period under the collective agreement.
- Employees decided, I asked for their opinions, Forss says of his role.
Hanki explains that, during the second round, people learnt the hard way that any days equivalent to working days, such as periods of sick leave, holidays and time spent caring for a sick child, were to be included in overall working hours. This is to avoid cutting down too much overtime in cases where hours cannot be adjusted over a given period.
In Turku, the majority of caretakers voted for the 4-week period, but some have moved over to the 12-week model. In Lahti, most people opted for the 12-week period.
Out of about 1,100 caretakers working for L&T, almost all now fall within an adjustment system and most follow the 12-week period. The Helsinki Metropolitan Area follows a 6-week model. The idea is that working hours may vary according to work duties. People may work shorter days in September and longer hours during the October leaf-raking season. In the end, working hours changed less than people had feared in advance, but the first winter with its snowfall is still ahead.
- I can say that the field has definitely calmed down, Hanki says.
Local agreements can be terminated
The outcome raises some questions. Do flexible working hours only serve the employer’s needs? Local bargaining is often justified in terms of improving Finland’s competitiveness, but does it actually just boil down to increasing caretakers’ work efficiency even more? After all, it is not as if Chinese workers are competing for gritting our streets and keeping them clear of snow.
Antti Niitynpää, L&T Business Director, answers that customers demand efficiency and shopping centres, for example, require service in the evenings. He explains that they wanted to carry out the negotiations in good order and not in a hurry.
- This is an example of effective local bargaining, Niitynpää says.
Even though the employer drove the change forcefully, according to Forss, local bargaining does not work if ‘the employer gets to celebrate’ as a result. A good point here is that local agreements can also be terminated. Within L&T, pay cheques were reduced with less overtime pay, but working hours became clearer as people got rid of sudden overtime requests.
- Now you know when you go to work and when you are free, Forss says.
Hanki repeatedly revisits the fact that the world is changing, requiring both employees and employers to change with it – and the union too. Another factor behind shop stewards’ willingness to negotiate was that requests for overtime work are up to the employer and not shop stewards to decide.
Trust and interaction
The employers’ Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) recently conducted a survey asking its member companies about the use of and barriers to local bargaining. The headline of its press release from September reads, ‘Local bargaining obstructed by trade unions’ intractable attitudes’.
Just under half of the survey respondents feel that employees’ negativity is a barrier to flexible arrangements. By this, they mostly refer to negative attitudes within trade unions and, secondly, to negative attitudes among corporate personnel as well as, thirdly, to personnel representatives’ competence. According to the survey, almost 80% of workplaces have collective agreements that allow them to use flexible arrangements relating to aspects such as working hours.
60% of companies report actually using flexible working hours to some extent, while a quarter are using these to a considerable extent.
Outside EK, it has been construed that there would already appear to be quite a lot of local bargaining in Finland. The Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA), in turn, stresses in October: pay flexibility is important.
PAM’s Nikula guffaws, rolling the ball back into the employers’ court. According to him, the prerequisites for local bargaining are trust and genuine interaction. These often tend to be in short supply in service sectors. Thirdly, each workplace needs to have a shop steward. Nikula wonders why a shop steward’s election can be a cause for crisis or ridicule for an employer.
- They ought to think that that’s their negotiating partner.
Tapio Bergholm, a researcher in labour market history at the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), says that employers have not always spoken up for local bargaining quite as enthusiastically.
- In the 1970’s, local bargaining was a nightmare for an employer, Bergholm says.
That was a period of labour shortages, when employees negotiated better terms and conditions of employment for themselves by threatening to change jobs or go on strike.
Now the tables have been turned and it’s the employer’s market. Unemployment is high and upward pay drifts have decreased.
According to Bergholm, however, a collective agreement with pre-determined rates is still the path of least resistance for many employers.
Not by the bucketful
There will be more and more demand for local bargaining. This has also been marked within PAM. According to its current strategy, the union will specifically consolidate the status and competence of shop stewards while encouraging them towards local bargaining.
According to PAM’s recent report on shop stewards, attitudes among shop stewards towards local bargaining have shifted in a significantly more positive direction over the last few years. Nevertheless, only 47% of respondents believe in equality between parties. An interesting detail is that support for increasing local bargaining is highest among those shop stewards who have only occupied their position for a short while. The longer that a shop steward has held a representative role, the more cautiously they tend to view increasing local bargaining.
Hanki says that local bargaining is the order of the day.
- I don’t know if we really need to scoop up more of it by the bucketful, but rather within reason, Hanki says.
- The sector’s collective agreement already contains quite a lot of clauses stating that it’s possible to agree otherwise with the employer, Forss comments.
According to the Government Programme, the Government will launch reforms of labour legislation to promote local bargaining at workplaces while also strengthening the position of personnel in decision-making processes. The Government Programme suggests that employers ought to have an equal position in terms of derogations from collective agreements. At present, only member companies of employer organizations may avail themselves of the derogations permitted under a collective agreement that require local bargaining, whereas their non-organized peers are not allowed to do so. This has been justified by the fact that any disputes arising from local agreements will involve employer and employee organizations. The Government Programme’s list of objectives also includes extending local bargaining to cover pay levels and well-being at work, among other things.
This autumn, people have been living in expectation in terms of local bargaining. The government-appointed one-man committee of Cooperation Ombudsman Harri Hietala will probably have issued his proposal relating to promotion of local bargaining by the time that this magazine appears.
L&T’s working hours adjustment system
Work shifts: Length varies.
Working hours: Adjusted to 37.5 weekly hours within a reference period of 12 weeks, for example. There may be weekend work.
Pay: Monthly pay will remain unchanged. Overtime is still payable for over 10-hour days.
Hours notified: Each employee can see the next 2 weeks on the shift rota, but is aware of the total number of their own hours for the full 12-week period.