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Sture Fjäder challenges Finland’s trade union culture

Sture Fjäder challenges Finland’s trade union culture

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, photo Cata Portin

Strengthening the Nordics as an economic region, cutting income tax, reviewing the priorities of the welfare state – these are just a few of the issues on union boss Sture Fjäder’s agenda for Finland and the Nordic region.

It is just after 4pm and the autumn darkness is starting to descend outside Akava’s Helsinki offices. Sture Fjäder still has a lot of work to do before his working day is over: there are many things he wants to change and time is running out. The leader of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland has managed to strengthen the organisation’s profile in the two and a half years he has been boss. Sture Fjäder’s ambition when he won the race to become Akava’s leader two years ago was to be much more visible in the social debate, and the National Coalition Party member has really succeeded in that respect.

Challenges through openness

His open approach has also had some of his more old fashioned colleagues shift uncomfortably in their chairs. They have been used to solve things behind closed doors, while Sture Fjäder has openly talked about what has been happening during meetings.

Finland’s trade union culture definitely presents a challenge. He is also fighting to maintain a confederation with more than half a million highly educated members organised through 35 trade unions.

Sometimes they don’t have much in common. The largest group among the members is the teachers’ union with some 100,000 members. Yet the majority work within the private sector.

In recent years the confederation has recruited five more trade unions representing 60,000 members, but the successful recruitment drive has a flip side – getting along with totally new groups is a challenge. 

“We have 35 owners and three negotiating organisations, so it’s naturally rather difficult.”

Two year labour conflict freeze?

He has also spent long hours negotiating a framework agreement with employers which guarantees a two year labour conflict freeze. Finland is in a deep crisis and unions agreed in principle to freeze members’ salaries. Employers also promised to hold back.

“Executives’ salaries must not increase more than employees’ pay during these two years, then all credibility would be gone and you would no longer be able to make these kinds of agreements.”

The government supported the solution by regulating tax brackets in line with inflation, which safeguards people’s purchasing power. The government’s role in negotiations is comparatively unique, as is the fact that central issues like pension policies, labour market legislation and parts of economic policy are delegated to the social partners.  

“Governments have a certain degree of contact with trade unions in the other Nordic countries too, but we do have a very special situation in Finland where the state uses a carrot and stick approach.” 

Renewal worries

Underlying all this is a deep concern for how the country can manage to renew itself while central parts of industry, Nokia and the IT sector, are fighting for survival.

“We’re facing the greatest change to Finnish industrial history since the country gained independence. We have to hope that we can get through this crisis by simply creating new things, and to do that you need the right incentives.”

The incentives he is talking about include cutting income tax, a topic to which we shall return.

President of the NFS

As this year’s President of the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) with more than 8.7 million members, Sture Fjäder is currently speaking from an even wider platform.

“I feel I have focused a lot on the NFS, perhaps more than many previous presidents. I am a strong believer in the Nordics. I have spent a lot of time there, I have been meeting with the secretariat. During my term we are focusing more on concrete issues than on communiques.”

The Presidency is regulated by a carefully drawn up system of rotation which runs all the way to 2022. There is always one president and six people in the presidium, which is a working committee. The Vice President will be next year’s President. 

The NFS currently has no Secretary General because Loa Brynjulfsdottir has moved to the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) and her designated successor turned out not to fulfil the NFS presidium’s criteria. 

After much debate, the NFS has developed a joint vision and a clear strategy comprising three main points which Fjäder sums up like this:

“Remove border obstacles and secure a free labour market: that is the first priority. The Nordic model for collective agreements is under pressure and we need to change it. I think we should do it ourselves. The third is an economically and socially sustainable working life.”

This is not his first Nordic mandate. In the 1990s and 2000s he served as Secretary General at the Nordic Economist Union (NCF). 

“I think you should look at the Nordic region as a whole. If something happens in Finland, Sweden or Denmark, something major in terms of initiatives or industrial development, it creates jobs in the other Nordic countries too because companies are so closely linked these days. It is business to business and it is networks.”

EU friendly

My colleagues in Oslo read Akava’s Europe Programme and felt it was more EU friendly than they were used to?

“Yes, but at Akava we are strong believers in Nordic cooperation and in the Nordic region as a labour market. There is no contradiction in the fact that we feel Europe to be an opportunity, but yes - we do see the EU as more of an opportunity than a threat.”

Akava is also a strong proponent of the common currency.

“The euro has been a good thing from a Finnish perspective, through the eyes of Finnish workers.”

When it comes to the NFS, the most important issue is labour mobility. The Nordic region has in principle enjoyed a free Nordic labour market since 1954, but there are still many border obstacles despite the fact that Ole Norrback’s border obstacle forum has managed to remove some of them (NLJ has written several articles on border obstacles over the years).

“This is about safety like pensions, health insurance, unemployment systems and so on. This is the social part of the labour market and you obviously have national solutions to pensions, social protection, insurance and such – these aren’t EU issues.

“The Council of Nordic Ministers doesn’t play a role like the EU or parliament, issuing directives and such. Therefore we have a problem.”

Sture Fjäder thinks the group of civil servants now taking over the work does not represent a good solution. 

“You cannot just identify the problems, you have to solve the problems and here the NFS has an agenda. We want to aim for no border obstacles in the labour market.”

He points out that the NFS has been a driving force and has cooperated closely with the Nordic Council of Ministers and Ole Norrback.

“Perhaps the Nordic Council of Ministers should cooperate even closer with the NFS and the different countries’ trade unions, because we have the knowledge and we have the members. Our degree of organisation is after all so high that we have a right to be heard. Our unions are called up about this so we can play a part, but of course politicians are the ones with the mandate – it is they who create national legislation and this should of course be coordinated to get rid of border obstacles.”

But does the NFS speak with one voice here – there are those who even argue in favour of higher border obstacles?

“Yes, but no NFS members have a national policy. On this issue everyone agrees that we want an open Nordic labour market and that all border obstacles must go."

The importance of the Nordic region

To Finland, Nordic cooperation has for a long time represented a road towards the West, ever since after WW2.

“I sense a renaissance for Nordic cooperation now, there is a great need for it. If you look at Norway I guess it is the most EU adapted county in the Nordic region despite it not being an EU member.”

Yet he also sees great potential for improvements of the economic, political and social model which the Nordic countries to a large degree share.

“What is the Nordic welfare model? Is it the one we have today, or is it something which is modernised and less wide reaching – because in Finland at least we are struggling to pay for it?”

The demographic challenge with an ageing population lends urgency to the debate around the future of the welfare society. The new EU member states and southern Europe are putting pressure on Germany and the Nordic countries to ease their labour legislation and collective agreements. 

The NFS has traditionally argued that politicians must protect the Nordic collective agreement model.

“That is always on the Nordic Region’s agenda because of our shared cultural heritage: we have similar societies, we share basic labour legislation and collective agreements. Depending on which country you’re in you have more agreements and less legislation or more legislation and fewer agreements. But it is still the same basic social model and the same Nordic welfare state.”

Sture Fjäder feels the response has been poor. Trade union membership is still relatively high in the Nordic region compared to many EU countries, which makes the NFS a relevant organisation. That's why the politicians should listen.

“What we miss in the Nordic region is a social dialogue on working life between the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers and employers – that’s the kind of cooperation we should have, just like it is within the EU, a social dialogue. The NFS wants this and it has not been promised by politicians. But employers don’t have a joint Nordic organisation.”

The welfare question

Sture Fjäder’s social views really come to light when he talks about welfare issues.

“What are our collective responsibilities and what are individual responsibilities? In all of the Nordic countries there is a debate on the role of the public sector. The welfare society wasn’t meant to oversee the outsourcing of your entire life?”

He doesn’t feel this is about ideology. His message is anchored in Akava’s strategy and does not represent his personal views.

“This isn’t a political question but a question of what kind of society we want. Should people have more freedom of choice and more control over their own money instead of paying taxes which are distributed by politicians in the form of services?”

Finns earning between €3,000 and €6,000 a month make up 18 percent of all tax payers, but they pay 53 percent of all public taxes. 

“So you’ll understand why we take great interest in what future investments should be, what can we afford? We must prioritise and this is the difficult question for politicians. We want to have this debate: what do we at least keep?

You talk about cutting income tax to an average European level, but there are different structures and welfare costs money?

“Yes, welfare costs money, but we have a vision which we call vision 2019. We want to create a new welfare society which clearly identifies what is society's responsibility and what is the individual’s responsibility.”

Sture Fjäder thinks education, health care and care for the elderly are obvious state responsibilities.

“Education, training, knowledge – these are universal benefits, but should the state interfere in everything or should you allow the marketplace and individuals to decide?”

Akava’s leaders are worried about the way in which the public sector’s share of the country’s GDP is growing, and say only a larger private sector can maintain the public sector. 

“The more companies we get the more of an incentive we have, and the better things will be for Finland and the rest of the Nordic region. The broader and bigger the private sector, the bigger the public sector can grow so this is no zero-sum game.”

Member surveys also show that people’s attitude to work has changed. There is a new generation wanting to be entrepreneurs – not to save Finland but in order to be their own boss. Economic prosperity is also a driving force. 

“As a worker in Finland you can never grow rich, our taxes are too high. It is an equalising system, it is the Nordic model and it guarantees social peace. But there are no incentives to work long hours and take responsibility for hundreds of people.”

Finland’s service sector also appears under-developed and this is where you find the greatest potential for new jobs. With a ten percent increase in employment, Finland would not have any problems at all financing the public sector. 

“Our taxes are so high that people cannot afford to consume."

Sture Fjäder

Born on 14 mars 1958 in the small seaside town of Hangö on Finland’s south-westernmost outcrop. After trying his hand at politics but failing to be elected into parliament in 1987 he went for a different career. Sture Fjäder has been working with trade unions since 1987 when he was elected ombudsman for the Swedish language teachers’ union.

On 25 October 2011 he was elected President of Akava for a four year term.

He is married with two adult sons. 


1 minute interview

Which book are you currently reading? 

I have been reading three books lately. I collect stamps and I am reading a book on Prussian stamps. I also read one on trade union politics by Risto Korhonen at Kansan Uutiset (a leftist newspaper), ‘Hakaniemen Voimavuodet’ (‘Hagnäs' strong years’) about the 1980s and 90s and what happened when the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions was divided between social democrats and communists. I also enjoy war history and read a book on the 1944 battles against Russia.

What is your hidden talent?

My father, grandfather and great grandfather were all timber men and joiners. I am not as handy as them, but if there is anything in the genes I guess I can do a bit of DIY, even if it takes a bit longer.

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

It must be my iPad for emails and my mobile phone for texting and calls. I am constantly on the move, in taxies, on trains or on planes – if I’m not in a meeting of doing lobbying.

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

My mother told me I once watched a truck stop in the street in little Hangö while one or two men with shovels were moving gravel. I wanted to do that too. But I don’t actually remember. My mother and father wanted me and my sister to go to university, which was typical for a working class family I guess. For a while I wanted to be a politician, and when I was 17-18 I joined Swedish Youth (the youth wing of the Swedish People's Party of Finland) and in 1980 I took part in municipal elections as a 22 year old non-socialist.

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