Helsinki (04.04.1998 - Juhani Artto) The Finns score high in per capita Internet connections and www-publications, but language sets limits on how thoroughly this northern European nation has integrated into the global electronic network. This can clearly be seen in the Finnish trade union movement.
While reading, writing, hearing and speaking English is almost daily routine for academics and the younger generation in Finland, for many other Finns language is still an isolating factor. Five million people speak Finnish, a language which is closely related to Estonian and to several very small minority languages spoken in Russia and also more distantly related to Hungarian.
The trade union organisations are accustomed to publishing materials in Finnish and in Swedish, which is the mother tongue of 300,000 Finns and the second official language in Finland. They have mainly used English and other international languages to advise their counterparts in other countries about the basic facts of the Finnish organised labour scene.
Internet has had little immediate impact on this state of affairs. The three central trade union organisations SAK, STTK and Akava, and a few of their member unions have included some English language material in their www-publications. Since August 1997 there has also been the present publication, Trade Union News from Finland, which provides short background and news stories concentrating on issues of interest to union activists in other countries and on other continents. As the compiler of this publication, I strongly believe that the Finnish experience is as important to know as are the experiences of working people in any other region.
The Finnish trade unions have not been particularly quick to recognise the potential of Internet to dynamise and internationalise the mission of the union movement. The language factor must have been one of the reasons for this slow start.
Until now, Finnish unions have mainly benefited from Internet e-mail. Most of the national union organisations have begun to use e-mail in their daily work. However, rank and file union members with Internet connections are not yet using them much in union activism.
The Finnish union movement seems to be going through a rather long transition period before it learns to make full use of basic Internet services. Despite the high net connection density in Finland, the majority of union activists, who are men in their 40s and 50s, have serious doubts about the whole Internet affair. My prognosis is that it will take 2-4 years before the web is regarded by the Finnish trade unions as an important and regular part of their working methods.
However, many unions already have early versions of their www-publications and many more have sites of their own under construction. More information will be provided in English but the total amount will still probably remain so limited that any globally curious American, Australian, Asian, African, Argentine, Albanian, etc. activists would do well to start learning Finnish.