Helsinki (14.12.1998 - Juhani Artto) Four service worker unions plan to merge in 2001. The letter of intent was signed in early December. With more than 200,000 members the new trade union will become the second largest in Finland. The Municipal Sector Trade Union has 228,000 members.

The merging unions are the Union of Commercial Employees (130,000 members), the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union (51,000 members), the Union of Technical and Special Trades (10,000 members) and the Caretakers Union (13,000 members). More than 80 per cent of the members in the two larger unions are women.

Many factors favour the merger. It will improve organising and lobbying power and helps to build trade union unity, as the members of these unions partly work in the same places. Recently some of the parties were involved in a bitter dispute about which union should organise cleaning staff.

In collective bargaining the new union should seek a framework agreement covering the whole of the service sector, suggests Maj-Len Remahl, who chairs the Union of Commercial Employees.

Another goal, Remahl says, is to make the new union so attractive that service sector employees are eager to join it, feel secure as its members and regard it as an effective channel for improving their well-being. Here she refers to recent studies showing that the main reason for joining unions is earnings-related unemployment benefit. Remahl is unhappy with this kind of preference and insists that the new union should be more attractive than its predecessors.

Although lots of preparatory work still needs to be done in the four union merger, Remahl is inviting even more unions to join in the process. In the short term it could also include two more service sector unions which are affiliated to the largest central trade union organisation, SAK.

In the longer term the challenges are mergers, which would mean crossing the central trade union borders.

The president of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, Jorma Kallio, is also ready to see more unions joining in the merger process. He sees a growing threat to basic employee rights in working life unless the unions are strong and based on mutually loyal structures.