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Labour disputes in independent Finland

Labour disputes started to become common in Finland at the eve of independence. The general strike of 1956 was one of the most significant events in the domestic politics of post-war Finland. Labour disputes were the most common in the politically active period of the 1970s and 1980s.

The existence of an organised working population is the basic precondition for labour disputes. The number of Finnish wage earners started to grow rapidly as the end of the 19th century drew near. As workers got organised, the first organised labour disputes took place as well. Labour dispute activity quickly became common in Finland in the early 20th century, and by the mid years of the first decade such activities were already seen rather often. At roughly the same time a broad general strike was organised in Russia. In the year of Finnish independence 1917, and in the context of the political activity of the time, labour dispute activity was especially common. After a calmer period during the 1920s, striking became more common again towards the end of the decade. In 1927 the number of working hours lost during strikes slightly exceeded the record numbers of 1917 and grew to 1.5 million working days.

Labour disputes were rare in the 1930s which was probably due to the depression of the early years of the decade and the political conditions of the later years of the decade. Labour disputes burgeoned after the wars. In 1950 the number of working days lost during labour disputes rose to 4.6 million, which was more than three times the number of working days lost in 1927.

The most significant year in the history of labour disputes in Finland was 1956, when a broad general strike was organised. The number of working days lost during the strike rose to nearly 7 million. As a consequence of the general strike, general incomes policy settlements started to be favoured in Finland. The government has a visible role as a mediator of labour disputes when such settlements are negotiated.

Political strikes were common in the 1970s

After the 1956 general strike, Finnish labour markets entered a calm period which lasted until the early 1970s, when the actions of employees' organisations became more political than before. Promoting the interests of workers against those of capitalists was a 1970s phenomenon. Labour disputes were very common all the way until the late 1980s. The political atmosphere calmed down during the 1980s but relatively stable economic growth enabled wage earner organisations to initiate a fight for wage increases.

In Finland a connection of some sort can be seen between the number of labour disputes and business cycles. The wage increase demands of wage earner organisations have tended to grow during uptrends and employers have often initially bought industrial peace by agreeing to higher than intended wage increases. Then, at the first signs of a downturn, the differences in the views of the social partners on how much wages can be paid have culminated, which has lead to strikes. Correspondingly the preservation of jobs has been the point of focus during downturns and the inclination to strike has diminished.

Working days lost during labour disputes 1917-2006

Wage disputes decreased in the 1990s

The depression of the early 1990s put a nearly complete stop to organisations' labour disputes for a few years. During a period of mass unemployment there was not much striking for wage increases anyway. Instead, labour disputes against employers' plans for layoffs of personnel became more common in the early 1990s. These often temporary work stoppages have generally not managed to save any jobs.

After the turn of the millennium labour disputes have increased somewhat in comparison to the 1990s, but no significant increases in striking are in sight. Trade unions' wage demands are more realistic these days than they were during the past decades, and awareness of the inflationary pressures resulting from wage increases extends all the way to the factory floors. The aims of the social partners are generally close enough to one another that the losses both partners would incur from long strikes are greater than any advantage that might be gained.

The labour dispute with the biggest economic impact since the 1990s depression took place in the paper industry in 2005. After failed collective agreement negotiations, local shutdowns were arranged at paper factories and finally nearly the entire chemical forest industry was locked-out. More than 500,000 working days were lost during the labour dispute. During the nurses' strike in 1995 over 600,000 working days were lost, but the effects of the nurses' strike on the economy were not as radical as those of the paper industry strike.

Labour disputes against employers' outsourcing plans have become more common during the past decade. Employees have organised stoppages of work by which they have expressed concern for the preservation of conditions of employment and jobs during reorganisations. Industrial peace may in the future be threatened also by the increasingly complicated nature of wage systems and increased local wage negotiations. In addition, various remuneration by results systems as well as option rights easily give rise to conflicts between the employees of different enterprises and different wage earner groups.

More strikes in Finland than in other industrial countries

When compared internationally there were more labour disputes in Finland during the 20th century than in other industrial countries. The number of working days lost per employee because of strikes was, on average, clearly lower in Western Europe and North America than in Finland. During the 20th century the inclination in Finland to strike was nearly as high as in the Mediterranean countries - except for the 1990s, when there were few strikes in Finland.

During 2000-2005 Finland lost the third highest number of working days, after Spain and Italy, relative to the number of employees of all EU countries. The reference period does, however, include the most active labour dispute years during the past decade, i.e. the years 2000 and 2005. It is difficult to compare how common labour disputes are over a short period of time as major labour disputes are so occasional. It would, however, appear that these days the Finnish activity in organising labour disputes does not differ significantly from other small EU countries such as Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Ireland.

Inquiries: Mr Harri Nummila +358 9 1734 3235

Sources and links

  • Statistics on labour disputes
  • Nummila Harri (1999) Työtaistelut (Labour disputes). In Suomen vuosisata. Statistics Finland, Helsinki.
  • Sadan vuoden työtaistelut. Työtaistelutietoja vuosilta 1890-1989 (Labour disputes 1890-1989). Statistics Finland, Helsinki.

Last updated 7.8.2007