Helsinki (12.12.2014 - Heikki Jokinen) The firing of a shop steward at the ABB factory in Helsinki quickly brought about a heated debate. The company sacked shop steward Terho Laitila claiming that he was the instigator of illegal walk-outs.

Riku Aalto, the chairperson of Metal Workers' Union reacted robustly.

The Federation of Finnish Technology Industries say they are willing to intensify local negotiations. But when there has been no result at factory level negotiations, the employer reacts by dismissing the shop steward for unwarranted reasons”, Aalto says.

As things now stand when an employer doesn’t approve of a person elected by the employees, that person will be relieved of his or her duties.”

In protest Aalto pulled out of the labour market organisations working group set up to negotiate the reform of the bargaining system.

Aalto made it very clear that terminating the employment of a shop steward is a serious issue in itself, but the fact that it happens at the same time when there are ongoing negotiations in regard to reform of the bargaining system makes it especially grave.

During these negotiations the employers are trying to make shop stewards personally responsible for any industrial action that occurs. Now they act as if this sanction is already in place.”

A quick agreement

Only two days later the Metal Workers' Union announced that the case had been resolved and there will be no court case. The collective agreement stipulates a compensation of 10 to 30 month’s salary when a shop steward is dismissed for unwarranted reasons. The deal made now has not been disclosed.

ABB management probably understood that the stakes were too high: public debate very quickly got into full swing and there was every chance of a high profile court case. Furthermore, the unions and confederations on both sides worked hard to hammer out a deal.

The trade union movement viewed the firing of a shop steward as an extremely serious issue and got widely involved. Similar cases are relatively rare in Finland.

Protection for those who are representing employees has to be absolute and employers must respect it”, said chairperson of the Trade Union Pro, Jorma Malinen.

This kind of action only serves to undermine a revival of the labour market, Malinen said. ”The words and real actions do not translate at company level.” He also added that he’s considering pulling out of the working group set up to reform the bargaining system altogether if the sacking of the shop steward is not recinded.

ABB is a multinational company based in Switzerland, working in fields of power and automation technologies. It employs 5 400 people in Finland in four different locations.

Some years ago ABB Finland appointed a CEO who had been working earlier in China. He is known for his repeated criticisms of the Metal Workers' Union local chapter at the Helsinki factory while lauding the Chinese way to act.