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Council of Nordic Trade Unions: Full steam ahead?

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: Heikki Löflund

Free movement of labour is a major benefit, affording the opportunity for increased economic growth and welfare. That much is undisputed. "But, it is important that we are well-prepared to meet the changes and that we are aware of the possible knock-on effects," says Sture Nordh, Vice-President of the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS).

Social partners have been invited to meet with the Nordic labour ministers in Finland. The topic for discussion is the free movement of labour between the Nordic and Baltic countries. A draft of topics for discussion between the Nordic and Baltic labour ministers has been drawn up and sent to the social partners for study ahead of the meeting. At the meeting the conclusions reached by the labour ministers are reviewed.

"It's important that everyone is treated equally and that they have the same rights and obligations, so we avoid a second class labour force. Collective agreements must apply to everyone," emphasises Tom Saxén, general secretary of the Council of Nordic Trade Unions.

Photo:  Heikki Löflund

The Council of Nordic Trade Unions. Secretary General Tom Saxén, President Lauri Ihalainen and Vice-President Sture Nordh.

Tom Saxén points out that the legal and illegal movement of workers has increased. The ministers are therefore asked to ensure compliance with the rules, and to beware labour black markets and social dumping.

A lack of compliance with the terms of collective agreements could lead to a distortion of competition in certain industries, he fears.

The NFS has chosen to prioritise three areas for its activities in 2001: Internal Nordic matters, issues relating to Baltic cooperation and European issues. Relevant political issues are employment, labour, welfare and EU enlargement.

Tripartite co-operation

The social partners meet with the Nordic labour ministers on an annual basis. The dialogue between the social partners is integrated in the partnership at all levels. The secretariat of the Nordic Council of Ministers emphasises that the dialogue between social partners and the labour ministers, known as the ‘tripartite cooperation’, is important for Nordic co-operation. During the Finnish presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers this year, Finland has actively supported the further expansion of the

partnership between the social partners and the labour market authorities with joint involvement in seminars, conferences and committee meetings.

"It's important that such a development be allowed to continue," comments Søren Christensen, General Secretary of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Internationalisation, a threat to trade union rights

The Council of Nordic Trade Unions has its own issues it wishes to address at the meeting with the labour ministers. For example, board representation in the event of mergers. In recent years, a number of mergers within the Nordic countries have taken place across national borders. This has made employee representation at board level vulnerable. The legislation governing employee representation at board level varies between the Nordic countries. When mergers take place, employees risk being excluded from the various boards.

According to the NFS, this is an issue that should be addressed by means of co-operation at Nordic level. The labour ministers are responding to this challenge by promising to set up a fast-track committee to establish a general overview of the problem area.

Once this report has been published early next year, the plan is to continue discussions to find out what can be done.

"We won't give up," says Sture Nordh. "We want to turn this into a collective bargaining proposal. At the NFS, our work is based on co-ordination by means of collective agreements. In the Nordic model, collective agreements form the basis for employment law issues. The collective agreements between employees and employers mean that we have more say in the way conditions at work are regulated. Things work a lot smoother and there is greater flexibility than if it were all regulated via legislation. The Nordic model with collective bargaining and collective agreements is our most important contribution within European trade union co-operation. Since there are no agreements covering more than one country, except within certain companies, the establishment of a convention between countries must resolve the matter concerning employee representation at the board level. Unless we manage to establish an agreement on employee representation in Nordic companies, the position of trade unions will be severely weakened."

Trade unions paralysed

The labour ministers are also supporting the NFS proposal to ask the presiding country, Russia, to arrange a tripartite conference within the context of the Baltic Sea co-operation. With the fall of communism, trade unions in the former communist states have been in a state of paralysis and there is no sign of employers organising themselves. With the support of the Nordic Council of Ministers, the NFS conducted a tripartite project in the form of Labour Law Seminars within the Baltic Sea Trade Union Network, one aim of which was to provide information about complaint procedures in international bodies like the ILO and the European Court of Human Rights.

"Knowledge of the mechanism has increased," says General Secretary Tom Saxén, "but it will be a long time before any real understanding of the importance of trade union work will be achieved," he says.

"There was a time when trade union co-operation in the Nordic countries took a back seat, while our attention was turned towards the EU, but now trade-union co-operation in the Nordic countries is full steam-ahead," says Sture Nordh.

"Today, my perception is that all issues have a European perspective, while, at the same time, trade union co-operation in the Nordic countries has become even more important. We need a structure to enable us to make a joint push on important issues in the EU. For example, the issue regarding collective agreements and the development of basic trade union rights in Europe. But, we would be wrong to think we lead the way in all areas, we also have something to learn. For example, protection against wrongful dismissal is weaker in the Nordic countries than in many other European countries," concludes Sture Nordh.


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