Fixed term contracts keeping University of Helsinki chief shop steward busy

Tiina Niklander is one of the University of Helsinki’s chief shop stewards. In an academic community comprising thousand of people, fixed-term employment contract issues are frequently on the agenda for shop stewards.

Text samppa haapio kuva istock English translation Marko Saajanaho

How is shop steward activity organised at the University of Helsinki and how are shop steward duties divided, University of Helsinki chief shop steward Tiina Niklander?

JUKO (Negotiation Organisation for Public Sector Professionals) has four chief shop stewards at University of Helsinki locations, seven across all negotiation organisations. In total, there are over thirty shop stewards, of whom JUKO has 22. There are over 8,000 total employees between the University of Helsinki’s 11 faculties and multiple independent institutes.

Chief shop stewards handle practically all official negotiations with the employer, such as change negotiations and potential local negotiations. Shop stewards attend consultation meetings but primarily operate in their own local community. They are not allocated very many working hours to perform their shop steward duties, which understandably limits their activity.

What sorts of cases have you handled recently? Millaisia tapauksia olet viime aikoina käsitellyt?

The most typical situations involve various issues relating to an employment contract, such as reasons for a fixed-term contract. One question you might ask your shop steward is whether your employment should be fixed term or indefinite. Sometimes, other disputes arise over the interpretation of the employment contract.

The employer’s strict interpretation of sick pay has occasionally resulted in unfortunate situations. In negotiations, the employer has been unwilling to compromise on their views. There are very few other wage payment disputes.

What kind of negotiation contact is there with the employer?

Currently, the negotiation contact with the employer is functional. We can raise difficult issues and different viewpoints as well. They are not always listened to, but that too is quite normal.

When should one contact a shop steward? What kinds of issues does the shop steward help with?

You should immediately contact a shop steward if you start wondering if everything is quite right. You should also read the collective agreement yourself.

Shop stewards are often requested at hearings in which the employer is considering issuing a warning, for example. The chief shop steward is present especially when the issue pertains to improper behaviour, because it is typically more difficult for employees to answer such accusations. Conversely, if the issue has to do with performing job duties, for example, shop stewards are rarely requested to attend.

How well do the employees know the collective agreement?

The staff know the collective agreement quite poorly. On the other hand, no elements violating collective agreements have been found in employment contracts, so it is not easy for managers to even act in a way that violates the collective agreement.

Typically, universities employ a lot of international staff. Their language skills may be lacking, they may be unfamiliar with the work culture, and the collective agreement as a term might even be completely foreign to them. Finnish contract text may not easily accessible to an individual from a different culture, although of course academically trained people are well equipped to read more difficult texts as well.

How would you advise someone thinking of becoming a shop steward?

You should definitely become a shop steward if you have any interest in pursuing common causes, employment contract terms, or the university’s operative organisation. I will also be stepping down eventually, so there will be a vacant position soon. There will be an election next autumn, so you can get involved right at the start of the new year. The shop steward term lasts two years.

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