Mario Fürst

"Finns are cool" – and visiting TEK was a part of Austrian shop steward training

News article

Being a shop steward is quite similar in Austria and Finland, says Mario Fürst, Automation Engineer and shop steward from Borealis Austria. He visited TEK for 3,5 weeks as a part of his shop steward training.

Edited 28 May.

Imagine that in Austria, the highest shop steward training takes place in Finland. Well, this is not exactly the case, but the training does include working abroad.

For Mario Fürst, abroad meant Finland. He works as an Automation Engineer at Borealis Austria. Borealis also has a site in Porvoo.

Why did you choose Finland?

“I had previously worked in a project with Neste Engineering Solutions which included traveling back and forth to Porvoo, so Finland was familiar to me. My impression back then was that Finnish people are reliable and it was nice working with them, so I knew Finland would be a good choice”, says Fürst.

What is this training?

To give some background, in Austria, there is only one umbrella organization for unions, called ÖGB (Österreichischer GewerkschaftsBund), the Finnish counterparts of which would be Akava, SAK and STTK. Under ÖGB there are seven unions representing four million employees. 

Unions offer similar services as in Finland, including legal and salary advice. Also like Finland, the unions train their shop stewards.

“I have taken a lot of training in my union Gewerkschaft GPA. The highest training that I’m currently participating is Social Academy, which is organized by the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour, and it includes working abroad”, Fürst explains.

I like that you start recruiting members already as students. In Austria a union or a shop steward contacts you when you get a job.
- Mario Fürst

The Social Academy is organized once a year and only around 20 applicants are accepted.

“You have to want to be there. The application process has many steps, for example, you will have hearings at your union and the Chamber of Labour. So you need to qualify for the training.”

The participants are shop stewards or other representatives from unions or the Chamber of Labour.

Besides working with unions abroad, the training covers political and historical aspects, business administration and labour law.

“The most important thing, however, is building networks. After the training you will have names and know people who to contact in legal issues, for example, compared to just sending random emails and hoping you’re contacting the right person.”

So, what have you learned during your time in Finland?

“I like that you start recruiting members already as students. In Austria a union or a shop steward contacts you when you get a job.”

“People in Finland will gain a better understanding of the unions early on and it’s easier to build on that in work life later on, when many of the students may become employers themselves. Here almost 55 % of employees are union members, whereas in Austria only 20 % belong to a union.”

What surprised you in Finland?

“Porridge tastes salty. When I do it at home, I only put a little salt and then something sweet, like fruits.”

“The work of shop stewards seems quite similar in Austria and in Finland. Collective agreement negotiations are different, here there are less people in the negotiations, in my understanding YTN or JUKO representatives, maybe lawyers and then employer’s representatives.”

“In Austria we have designated meetings with two teams: in the big team there are 40-50 shop stewards and the smaller team keeps the big team informed about the negotiations at all times. The final decision is decided together with the whole group.”

“Also, the coolness that Finns display, the self-confidence that most people have.”

What didn’t surprise you?

“Sauna culture, it was exactly as I thought. In Austria, there’s a sand timer that shows you how many minutes you have. First 15 minutes there’s no löyly, then you throw the water, and then your turn is over. Here it’s a lot more relaxed. And you can have drinks in the sauna, this is not common in Austria.”

What could Finland learn from Austria?

“A difficult question to which I don’t have an answer. I rather think that Austria could learn to rely on people more. In Finland you don’t think that everyone’s trying to cheat, you rather see the positive things first. In Austria, employers tend to think that 'when the cat’s away, the mice will play'. Here it’s different.”

The coolness that Finns display, the self-confidence that most people have, surprised me.

Shop steward questions

Since Fürst also works as a shop steward, we asked him to fill in the shop steward questionnaire. You can check out the previous shop steward interviews in Finnish here.

What do you do for work and in which organization? In which city?

Automation Engineer at Borealis Austria. Borealis is a worldwide Polyolefin Producer, my homebase is Schwechat close to Vienna.

What is your role as an employee representative?

I’m member of the shop steward team.

How long have you been an employee representative?

Since 2011.

Number of people you represent?

Our 6 people shop steward team represents about 300 people (white collar workers). Only the chairman of the team works full-time as a shop steward. Our collective agreement is Chemical Industry for white collar workers.

Why did you become an employee representative?

I don’t like injustice and think reflection on conflicts of interest is very important and have to be brought up, otherwise nothing is going to change.

What have you accomplished as an employee representative?

Bringing up the idea of job bicycle at Borealis Austria: Company buys bicycle the employee wants to get, without tax and employee pays it back on monthly basis (payback time 48 months), deducted automatically from the salary. At the end of the payback time employee can buy the bicycle for very little money from the company.

I’ve been able to help in different issues already, because as a member of the works council I’m protected and can ask everything what is necessary, and the employer has to give me an answer.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an employee representative?

To keep the emotions away!

What is the easiest part of being an employee representative?

There is no easy part at all, because everyone I represent is an individual and although this is good, it doesn’t make it easier!

What do you enjoy most about being an employee representative?

When I was able to help, and I could improve the situation of employees.

What is the downside of being an employee representative?

You are always in charge; it doesn’t matter at which time. Or if employer thinks an employee has to be terminated.

What support do you receive or wish for from your union?

The unions support shop stewards in the collective agreement negotiations. They also provide legal advice in labor law (for all union members), all kinds of shop steward trainings and benefits for members.

You can also receive legal advice form the Austrian Chamber of Labour. In Austria you are a compulsory member of the Chamber of Labor automatically when you start a job, independently from your citizenship, whether or not you are a member of a union.

Whom would you recommend becoming an employee representative?

People who care of others first and then themselves!

Whom would you not recommend becoming an employee representative?

Anyone who has no interest taking things seriously!

What keeps you busy during the day?

To prioritize things, because at least every subject has its priority. And saying no!

What keeps you awake at night?

Being misunderstood! It takes hours, months sometimes years to gain trust, it only takes a second to lose it.

What are people currently discussing at the workplace?

Inflation rate, the recession. As we all know, continuous growth is actually not possible. What is the solution? Is there one? In my opinion yes, but that would require a total new system all over the world. Idea is nice but making it a reality is rather impossible.

What should be discussed?

People should get more in politics, no one believes in political parties anymore, that is not good for democracy!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I think we should learn and practice to reflect openly on issues and subjects already in school, without leaving anyone behind. It should be even an own subject, because envy, jealousy and fighting against each other are people's biggest enemies!

Edited on 28 May: the percentage of Finns that are union members, the number was updated to match TEM's statistics 2021.