Legality of doctors' strike in question

Arstide streik oktoobris.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Medics say they will go on strike in the middle of May to pressure the government into finding additional financing for health care. Estonian law prohibits political strikes, and work stoppages are only allowed as means to solve labor disputes. The latter does not exist as such at this time.

„The strike planned by medical workers has no connection to the collective labor dispute act,“ Public Conciliator Meelis Virkebau said. He said that the current situation does not include a traditional collective labor dispute between employers and employees, which is why there is no reason for the conciliator to get involved.

„The planned strike could be classified as a so-called political strike that is something our legislation does not regulate,“ Virkebau said. Secretary General of the Estonian Medical Association Katrin Rehemaa said that medics have gone through conciliation procedure with the conciliator (Henn Pärn at the time – ed.) who closed the matter with his decision in early February.

She explained that the law obligates the sides (medical workers and hospitals – ed.) to continue negotiations during the strike. „If that is the law, it is definitely what we will do; however, the negotiations could prove very short,“ she added. The doctors' representative said that while the public conciliator is free in his utterances, the May 15 strike can only be deemed illegal by the courts.

Rehemaa said that Estonian law allows strikes as means of making professional demands. „We want health care financing to be on a level where medics could do their job properly and treat patients as it should be done. It is a very professional demand,“ Rehemaa found. Rehemaa suggested people who plan to see the strike as political would do well to look up the positions of the International Labor Organization or consult with lawyers.

According to Rehemaa, strikes fall under the collective labor dispute act, which is what the medics are basing their action on. „However, there is still time, as strikes need to be announced two weeks in advance,“ she added.

Head of the Estonian Confederation of Trade Unions Peep Peterson said that political strikes are not allowed in Estonia. „The Supreme Court has found that the state has the right to limit the right to strike,“ he said. Peterson added, however, that restrictions on political strikes are not common in the Nordic countries. Such strikes are allowed in Finland for example. „We currently lack good grounds on which to demand equal strike rights with Finland,“ he admitted. Peterson added that strike limitations are admissible in international law.

„I'm convinced that should we see a strike in the medical sector, it will be about salaries, not politics,“ the chairman said. While the demands of medical professionals are political, Peterson believes the strike can still be tied to working conditions, salary in other words, in which case the stoppage would be legal. „In the end we know the background holds major political questions on which it depends whether the employees will sign. However, the strike will not be political so much as a means to seek resolution of salary claims,“ Peterson said.

The union chief said that official notice needs to be given two weeks before the strike, and in this case to the Estonian Hospital Association. „Provided my information is correct, the government aims to agree on long-term financing plans by that time (May 15 – ed.),“ Peterson said. He added that therefore all prerequisites for a long-term agreement on health care financing are there. „It is probably also a tactic or a clever trick to say the strike will begin on May 15. The government can still make an effort and prevent it from taking place,“ Peterson said.

While the state can limit the right to strike, Peterson does not believe it will take that road. „As life has shown medics to be very responsible and able to help critical patients, of which they are still capable, the state has no reason to intervene. I don't think it will,“ Peterson said.

The previous major strikes in Estonia took place five years ago when a three-day teachers' strike and the confederation's strike against amendments to the collective agreements act coincided in 2012. Medics went on strike for 25 days in the fall of the same year. A countrywide strike was held in 2009 when people protested against expedited entry into force of the labor contracts act. Other major strikes have been held by transport unions. „These mostly concern specific companies, whether GoBus or ATKO,“ Peterson said.

Head of the Estonian Hospital Association Urmas Sule did not want to comment on a possible strike as the association has received no official warning as the representative of employers. „All I know about a strike is what I've read in the media, which is why I do not believe it proper to comment,“ he said.