Helsinki (10.03.1998 - Juhani Artto) The trade union movement must react to changes in working life and society by reforming itself. So says Lauri Ihalainen who is the president of SAK, the largest central trade union organisation in Finland. In his future vision the movement faces major challenges.

Reforming the union movement, however, does not mean abandoning its basic values. Rather the opposite.

"A trade union movement solidly based on true values will gain strength in the future. Trade union organisation is a spiritual and social movement. It is not like a department store or insurance company, of which one can expect a certain return for a certain investment. Sometimes, our basic values have been left in the background, but in difficult times it has been these very values which have kept us together", Ihalainen emphasises.

"No doubt globalisation - the internationalisation of the economy and of business enterprises - is the biggest challenge facing us."

"Finland can succeed in fiercer competition only by high quality, good know-how and specialisation. To compete through low wages and low indirect labour costs would be a bad strategic choice", Ihalainen says.

"At its best, Finland will attract foreign capital because of the stability of its social and economic system, not because it is dismantling the welfare state."

"In the near future, as members of the European economic and monetary union, we will have to adapt to a low inflation society. This will force us to seek solutions which boost individual purchasing power, as opposed to increasing the nominal size of wages and salaries."

Although Ihalainen characterises the fight for better pay as an essential task of the trade unions, he emphasises that the overall role of the movement must be viewed in broader terms. As one of the key terms in his vision of the future, he speaks of "pro-active collective bargaining": we must take the initiative ourselves and be able to avoid always saying "no". In addition to its labour market role, the trade union movement must seek an international impact and an influence on the development of Finnish society.

"In defending our rights internationally we are lagging behind the interests of capital and the employers, but this situation will change."

Ihalainen believes that within ten years Europe will have trade union organisations which are no longer limited within national borders and which will work for collective agreements on an international level.

"The significance of these organisations will increase in the future, even though collective agreements will mainly remain national."

"Domestically we have to influence income distribution, social security, prices, taxes and many other things. A broad, enterprising policy is the most effective way to work for the rights of employees."

Ihalainen predicts that continuous, long-term employment will come to be valued again.

"It may be a surprising conclusion, but the fashion for outsourcing and networking has its limits. A turnaround is bound to occur because good quality and satisfactory financial results demand a high level of know-how and commitment."

"The proportion of short-period employment, however, is still increasing. 64 per cent of recently created jobs have been temporary. Big challenges for the unions also include the overlapping of production of goods and services and the fact that workplaces are becoming smaller."

"The reality of working life no longer corresponds to the taylorism which forms the basis of trade union organisational structure and of the collective agreement system."

Local collective bargaining will increase, but Ihalainen considers it vital that the change is implemented in an organised way.

"It is essential that national agreements continue to be universally binding in the future and that the shop steward network is extended to cover smaller workplaces."

This may mean the election of regional shop stewards or authorising union officials to bargain on behalf of employees working in small workplaces.

"The unification project* of the private service sector unions is a good example of progress in the right direction. We have to look for larger entities in the movement."

"In future the parties may sign framework agreements for entire sectors. These would define the basic terms of employment common to all staff groups. Wages and salaries would still depend on how demanding the work is."

Ihalainen thinks that in ten years there could well be just one central trade union confederation in Finland instead of the present three.

"In any case, the memberships and the goals of SAK and STTK are so similar that the two organisations may well converge. At the next stage it will be essential to increase practical co-operation in education, international and local lobbying, solidarity work and communication."

In Ihalainen's vision, women will play a stronger role in the trade union movement and the members will be equal regardless of how successful each is in working life.

"The union activists of the future represent the generation following the baby boomers. They have a higher standard of education and a broader variety of professional skills than their predecessors. They are also more international. At the workplace the union activists of the future will participate in the development of the entire work unit and of the enterprise. Their role will not be limited narrowly to pay and benefit issues."

"As for human relations at the workplace, the union activist of the future will not be a disciple of the employer, but a teacher."

(The interview is published in Finnish in "Ravintolahenkilรถkunta", the magazine of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union.)

* Four affiliated unions of SAK have begun negotiations with the goal of merging into a single union. These unions organise commercial, hotel and catering workers, janitors, cleaners and a few smaller employee groups.