EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Impartiality of national conciliator in Finnair dispute questioned

About

Country: 
Finland
Author: 
Pertti Jokivuori
Institution: 
Statistics Finland

The Finnish Airline Pilots’ Association (SLL), representing Finnair pilots, has rejected a proposal by the national conciliator, Juhani Salonius, who is seeking to settle the dispute. The pilots and the company have been in conflict over issues such as pensions, the use of contract labour, days off and the number of pilots on flights. The conciliation process took a surprising twist when SLL filed an investigation request regarding the impartiality of the national conciliator.

Background

In recent years, Finland’s national airline Finnair has made the headlines on several occasions over industrial relations problems concerning restructuring (FI0811029I, FI0611019I). The controversy at Finnair continues, following the announcement of temporary layoffs concerning 700 pilots; moreover, redundancies are also being planned for the entire workforce of the airline’s catering services. The pilots and the company have been engaged in a prolonged conflict over different issues such as pensions, the use of contract labour, days off and the number of pilots on flights.

National conciliator’s proposal rejected

The Union of Salaried Employees (Toimihenkilöunioni, TU) and the Finnair subsidiary Finnair Cargo Terminal Operations reached agreement in a dispute over the contracts of technical employees. As a result, the planned strike action was cancelled.

A dispute also arose between Finnair and the Finnish Airline Pilots’ Association (Suomen Liikennelentäjäliitto, SLL). As a result, the National Conciliator, Juhani Salonius, put forward a proposal for a settlement. However, SLL rejected this proposal, even though the Association of Support Service Industries (Palvelualojen Toimialaliitto, ASSI), affiliated to the Confederation of Finnish Industries (Elinkeinoelämän keskusliitto, EK) and representing Finnair, would have accepted the proposal. SLL had threatened to stage a strike but abandoned the idea in the end to continue negotiations. The Chair of SLL, Timo Willberg, underlined the pilots’ unique labour market policy by stating that SLL does not want to have to resort to strike action but rather wants a negotiated solution.

The Managing Director of ASSI, Peter Forsström, did not hide his disappointment when an agreement was not reached, adding that: ‘The cancellation of industrial action, however, is a good thing’.

Conflict over retirement and external labour issue

Mr Salonius’s proposal would have covered the next two years and would have included a small pay rise for Finnair pilots. The agreement was not overturned over the pay issue, but rather due to questions related to retirement benefits and the use of outside labour. The pilots’ council rejected the proposal unanimously.

The pilots are opposed to changes to the employees’ retirement benefits. For most of Finnair’s commercial pilots, the retirement age stands at 55–60 years. A minority of older pilots still have a chance to retire at the age of 52 years. The company, however, would like to raise the retirement age limit to 60 years.

Another contentious issue, particularly in recent years and at present, has been Finnair’s intention to increase the use of external labour in its operations. In the pilots’ view, Finnair’s pilot work cannot be outsourced without an agreement with SLL.

Impartiality of national conciliator questioned

The conciliation process took a surprising and exceptional turn of events when SLL filed an investigation request regarding the impartiality of the National Conciliator, Mr Salonius, who has been mediating the union’s contract dispute with Finnair. More specifically, SLL has asked the police to investigate further its suspicions of bribery related to Mr Salonius’s recent trip to Thailand. The mediator and his wife went on holiday to Thailand from late January to early February 2009. On their return flight, Mr Salonius was moved from economy class to business class. SLL suspects that the Finnair management was hoping to influence the mediator’s decision-making through questionable means.

Mr Salonius, who has held the post of National Conciliator for 12 years, insists that this is the first time that his impartiality has been challenged, adding that: ‘Accusations pertaining to my impartiality are unfortunate, especially as there are no hard facts to back up the claims.’

Finnair has confirmed that Mr Salonius was indeed assigned a new seat on the flight from Thailand. The company claims that it is a common practice for passengers to be moved on health grounds. The cabin crew had deemed Mr Salonius unfit to sit by the exit door for security reasons as he suffers from a hip problem. Nonetheless, SLL has raised questions over the national conciliator’s impartiality and requested that he step down from the case. As a result, District Conciliator Esa Lonka has taken over the negotiations. Mr Lonka had led the early stages of the talks in January while Mr Salonius was on annual leave.

Meanwhile, Finland’s Labour Minister, Tarja Cronberg, says that the accusations against Mr Salonius will be investigated, in line with regular practice in such cases.

Pertti Jokivuori, Statistics Finland