Helsinki (06.02.1998 - Juhani Artto) About 3,300 bus, tram and underground train drivers launched a strike in the Greater Helsinki area on Monday. The dispute concerns the rights of drivers working on privatized transport routes.

A few years ago the Metropolitan Area local authorities called for tenders from private transport companies for the right to operate services on certain bus routes. This year the City of Helsinki is adopting the practice of its neighbours and on some routes a second round of tendering between the bus companies is already under way.

The drivers are opposed to the idea of their employers, whereby companies which are successful in bidding for routes may hire drivers without respecting their accumulated service benefits. This approach by the employers threatens to reduce the incomes, social benefits and job security of the workforce.

Negotiations continued for more than half a year before the strike was called. Of the Greater Helsinki area public transport system only local trains and a few private bus lines are not on strike. As usual in Finnish strikes, there are no strikebreakers and the employers make no effort to hire them. Instead, they have described the strike as illegal and have filed suit against the striking unions.

The unions involved in the strike are those of the transport and municipal workers.

Competition for bus routes has made the companies more cost-conscious. Cost savings have been as high as 30 per cent according to the Metropolitan Area Coordination Council. However, costs have stabilized following the first round of tenders.

The labour costs of successful companies make up about half of average total costs while fuel and maintenence account for another quarter and investments for the remaining quarter.

At the end of the fifth day of the strike the parties were a long way from any compromise that might resolve the dispute.

The union representatives stress the importance of the principle which they are defending.

Employees in many other sectors will face similar threats if the Greater Helsinki area drivers fail in their present struggle.