Helsinki (05.05.1998 - Juhani Artto) In Finland, as in several other industrialised countries, mergers are taking place in the union movement.

Four private service sector unions in Finland's largest central trade union organisation, SAK, have begun negotiations which will probably lead to their merger in 2001. The four unions currently represent some 212,000 commercial workers, employees in the hotel and catering industry, building caretakers, cleaners, industrial guards, travel agency employees and workers in a large number of smaller sectors. Almost two thirds of these belong to the Union of Commercial Employees.

One of the central issues in the merger talks is that of how such a large spectrum of people in different occupations can be put together harmoniously into a single union. Activists in the USA have lots of experience of multi-sector trade unions but the Finns are less accustomed to this. Union structure in Finland is traditionally based on the "one industry, one union" -principle.

However, recent history is encouraging. The Union of Commercial Employees itself is the result of a successful merger of three rival unions eleven years ago.

The present 35,000-member Chemical Workers Union also now represents the rubber, leather, glass and porcelain workers, who only a few years ago had two independent unions of their own. Such mergers can be effected smoothly through careful preparation which is fair to all parties and respects them.

Likewise, the 53,000-member Wood and Allied Workers Union was formed a couple of years ago by merging the unions of woodworkers and forest workers.

As the largest member union of SAK and the largest in Finland KTV, the 230,000-strong Municipal Workers Union, is proof that a multi-sector union can also successfully defend its members' rights in Finland. KTV members work in almost 2,000 different occupations.

Jari Vettenranta, who is in charge of KTV's strategic planning, emphasised in a recent interview* that the multi-trade structure of a union is quite well adapted to current changes in working life.

"When there are many unions developing the same service chain, they tend to pursue their own special interests, which makes it difficult to improve job descriptions. One large union is better able to harmonise different occupational groups through the process of such change", Vettenranta argues.

"Working  on a large scale means that a union has more resources. This is necessary since future unions will have to work not only at the local and national level but also at European level. Our capacity to make an impact on politicians will depend more than ever on our own expertise. Unions will have to conduct their own research work."

"During the crisis in the Finnish economy in the early 1990s we were able to defend jobs in the municipalities, even though there were half a million unemployed in the country. Had KTV been a small union, this would not have been possible," Vettenranta claims.

In STTK, the second largest central trade union organisation, there is a merger underway involving the 73,000-member Union of Technical Employees, TL, the 51,000-member Union of Salaried Employees in Industry, STL, and the 8,000 member Federation of Construction Engineers in the Private Sector, RAL. This merger is due to be completed in three and a half years.

TL and STL have already concluded common collective agreements in several industries. The road towards full merger is, however, not completely free of hazards. Doubts and tension have arisen, for example, due to the fact that TL has a large majority of men (77 per cent) and STL has a still greater female majority (90 per cent).

In the long run the number of central trade union organisations may also be reduced from the present three. SAK president Lauri Ihalainen has recently spoken openly about the long term prospect of a merger between SAK and STTK.

STTK membership roughly doubled in a short period in the early 1990s following the bankruptcy of what was then the number two central trade union organisation, TVK. This collapse was due to the highly speculative manner in which a few of TVK's top leaders managed the organisation's financial resources.

Generally speaking, however, the Finnish unions have a sound and solid financial base thanks to a high rate of union membership and effective collection of union dues. Some 30 years ago the parties agreed that the employers would set off union dues directly from the earnings of their organised employees and remit the money directly to the union.

The rate of union membership in Finland is among the highest in the world, presently standing at about 90 per cent. Contrary to the fears of union activists, the membership rate even rose during the economic recession of the early 1990s.

It is safe to predict that further mergers are yet to come. There are still several small and very small unions among the 82 national unions within the three central trade union organisations. The dissolving of traditional ideological barriers is one factor working in favour of those who dream of having a strong union to defend employees in all sectors of working life.

Another safe prediction is that employee organisations representing employees with higher education and earnings levels will be the last to consider a full merger with the rest of the union movement. Such unions are well-represented in the third central trade union organisation, Akava.

*Jari Vettenranta was interviewed by Marja Ikkala, Editor-in-Chief of Ravintolahenkilökuntalehti, the magazine of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union.