Helsinki (05.03.2001 - Juhani Artto) The Electrical Workers' Union, with its 30,000 rank and file members, is one of the medium-sized member organisations of the central trade union confederation – SAK. One peculiar feature of the Electrical Workers' Union within SAK is its organising principle: it recruits members both on a trade and an industry basis.
The industry basis has been applied for the 5,000 energy sector and 3,500 information technology members, while the trade basis applies to 10,300 electricians, plumbers and other construction industry specialists and 4,500 members working as specialists in other industries. The rest of the members are students and pensioners, explains union president Lauri Lyly.
In the past the trade-based organising approach of the Electrical Workers Union was not viewed with approval in several other unions, which more or less strictly adhered to industry-based organising. In 1969 the situation was stabilised when the others ended their dispute over the organising principles of the electrical unions.
As a whole, SAK principally applies an industry-based approach to organising, while the mainly academic employees' confederation Akava operates on a trade basis. The third central trade union confederation STTK applies a mixture of both approaches.
Recently several changes in working life have stimulated a new debate on the structure of the entire trade union movement. Much attention has been focused on the organising of information technology employees. The Electrical Workers Union is one of several unions in SAK and STTK that have recruited minority elements of the industry's rank and file. In spite of this, a majority of the information technology employees have probably remained outside of the trade unions.
This is an effective and cautionary example of what can happen when organising in an industry is decentralised across several organisations with different organising principles. Fortunately the rivalry has not prevented the unions, even across the central trade confederation divide, from working together in information technology sector collective bargaining. This, however, does not satisfy the Electrical Workers' Union president Lyly in the long term.
In recent years he has promoted two major goals within union movement structures. In November 2000, he publicised his support for the idea of initiating preparations to merge the three central trade unions confederations. Before this, in June 2000, the Textile and Garment Workers' Union had proposed a similar initiative at its Congress.
In late January 2001, SAK published a draft resolution for its forthcoming May Congress on the organisation's future development goals. In this document SAK adopts the initiatives proposed by Lyly and the Textile and Garment Workers' union on enlarging co-operation between the three central trade union confederations and also studying the prospects for their full merger.
In their public comments on the initiative the STTK president Mikko Mäenpää was cautiously positive towards negotiations on wider co-operation, while Akava president Risto Piekka emphasised his organisation's firm belief in remaining independent.
Lyly calls attention to one major danger in mergers of trade union organisations. "Under any conditions, one has to avoid increasing the distance between the leaders and the rank and file." In Lyly's opinion various Internet applications offer effective remedies against this problem.
Unifying the basic working conditions
of the wage and salaried employees
Lyly's other long-term goal is to unify the basic working conditions of wage-earners and salaried employees in the sector organised by his own union. One condition for achieving this is to tighten co-operation between the Electrical Workers' Union and the STTK affiliates organising salaried employees in the same industries. "Steps towards unification of basic working conditions have already been taken in the collective agreements of information technology employees ", Lyly says.
A similar effort is under way in the energy sector, but here the condition imposed by the employers to begin these negotiations without due regard to current agreements overshadows the plan as a major obstacle.
In Lyly's long-term vision the social partners in each industry will agree on the basic working conditions of both wage-earners and salaried employees in a single national agreement.