Fifteen day fines were recently imposed on representatives of the Stevedore Worker Associations of Helsinki and Kotka by the Helsinki and Kymenlaakso District Courts for initiating work stoppages in breach of the advance notification requirement under the Act on Conciliation of Labor Conflicts (1962/420) (the “Act”).

In February 2010, strikes by stevedores in Helsinki and in Kotka garnered considerable national media attention. In both cities, the “speed-up strikes” coincided with collective agreement negotiations. Representatives of the labor organizations provided notice of the impending work stoppages less than twenty-four hours before the strikes began.

Under Section 7 of the Act, a party intending to initiate a work stoppage must provide advance notification. The Act requires that the party seeking to initiate the stoppage must give notice of the intended stoppage or extension of ongoing stoppage to the opposing party and to the Office of the Conciliator General no less than two weeks prior to commencement of such action.

Upon receiving the labor organizations’ notice, Container-Depot Ltd Oy, Multi-Link Terminals Ltd Oy and Containerships Ltd Oy—the employers in Helsinki and Kotka, respectively—requested that the police investigate the labor organizations’ failure to provide timely notification of work stoppage. In the district courts, the employers joined the prosecutor’s summary penal order and submitted claims for compensation of monetary damages incurred as a result of the stoppages. The courts imposed fifteen day fines on each labor organization (i.e., on the appointed representative of each organization). The employers’ claims were separated from the criminal charges and are currently pending as civil actions.

The decisions of the Helsinki and Kymenlaakso District Courts centered around two legal issues. The first issue was whether the advance notification requirement of Section 7 of the Act, which had long gone unenforced, was, in effect, a dead letter, lacking legal force. The intended purpose of Section 7’s advance notification requirement is to ensure a functioning conciliation system for resolving labor conflicts and to allow employers to plan for upcoming work stoppages.

The labor organizations argued that they should not incur penalties for breaching the Section 7 advance notification requirement. The two-week notification rule has, over time, been breached repeatedly, without the injured parties ever having requested that the breaches be investigated by the police. Employers’ failure to seek criminal charges in the past may be explained by their desire to ensure that the labor market not be hindered by criminal investigations. However, the district courts were not persuaded by the labor organizations’ argument. The courts reasoned that that the legislature would have removed the advance notification requirement when it amended the Act in 2009 if it had intended that no liability follow a breach of the requirement. The legislature had not done so and, thus, the Section 7 two-week advance notice requirement, to be complied with under threat of penalty, remained valid law.

The second issue concerned whether the employers were the proper plaintiffs in connection with the criminal cases. The labor organizations argued that the employers were not the correct plaintiffs. The district courts rejected this submission, reasoning that the employers’ status as plaintiffs followed logically as the civil law claim for damages was directly tied to the organizations’ criminal failure to give timely notification.

The labor organizations’ have appealed the decisions of both district courts and the cases are now pending before the relevant appellate courts.