Helsinki (31.01.1999 - Juhani Artto) Both during and since the Soviet Era the world media have often focused their attention on Murmansk, a city of half a million residents in the north-western corner of Russia. In the West, the interest has mainly concentrated on military issues, as for decades Murmansk has been an important naval port. Factual and speculative reports about its nuclear facilities and risks are numerous.

Finnish construction workers and their union organisations have long been interested in Murmansk for quite different reasons. In the 1990s, hundreds of Finnish construction workers have been employed on construction projects in Murmansk. The Finns have erected office buildings and schools and have helped to modernise residential buildings.

Cross border co-operation between the construction worker trade unions of Murmansk and Northern Finland began in the 1960s. Up to the end of 1980s their main activity was an annual exchange of delegations for discussions, but in the early 1990s the parties agreed to change the character of their co-operation. They chose as the main areas union education and the concrete struggle for better working conditions in the construction industry.

Matti Huutola*, a former carpenter, has actively promoted and organised this co-operation. Since 1990 he has worked as a regional secretary of the Construction Workers' Union in Northern Finland. Although the area includes the Finnish part of Lapland and covers an entire third of Finland, it has a total population of only about 200,000.

"Over the years I have made several construction site inspection trips to the city of Murmansk and its surrounding region. This was often in the company of Russian union officials. At any one time in 1995-1996 there were 300-500 Finnish construction workers working in Murmansk, although this number has now fallen because the Russian economy is so weak."

In 1996 a common union education programme started, seeking to benefit the Murmansk trade union movement, and it has proved to be a success. "Occupational safety awareness has improved, for instance, partly as a result of the programme." As a concrete example Huutola refers to a virtually complete lack of care when handling asbestos.

The project ended in December 1998. Union activists from the Murmansk construction industry were offered and participated in a total of seven seminars, each lasting two days or more. The lectures and discussions covered a wide range of topics ranging from collective bargaining to the duties of shop stewards and from questions about the employer-employee relationship to company financial analysis.

Both Russian and Finnish experts served as teachers. The Finnish Construction Workers' Union met most of the costs.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union the construction workers trade union in Murmansk weakened rapidly. The number of paid-up members fell from 30,000 to only a handful. Now it stands at 5,000-6,000. Concrete defence of workers' rights has brought many new members to the organisation", Huutola notes.

Now, the union education project is over, but for the parties concerned it is quite clear that their co-operation will continue.

The Murmansk region's trade union organisations are also part of a larger cross-border union co-operation initiative in the European Arctic Area. The other two partners in this are the trade union organisations of the northern provinces of Sweden and Norway.

*In June 1998 Huutola became a Member of Parliament