Helsinki (02.02.1999 - Juhani Artto) National collective agreements form a central element of the Finnish labour market. There are about 600 of them. In the 1990s it has been fashionable in the employer camp to demand greater emphasis on local agreements. Often this demand has been an integral part of vocal campaigning for "greater flexibility".

The results of a new study on local agreements must therefore come as a surprise to many who have sympathised with the employers' lament. The study shows that Finnish legislation and national collective agreements offer a broader framework for local agreements than has so far been used.

"Opportunities for local agreement were expanded during the recession of the early 1990s. The frameworks created at that time have not proved to be too narrow", says Jyrki Helin, author of the study.

The study includes a thorough analysis of practice at 44 workplaces in seven industries. 1,100 shop stewards also answered a questionnaire about local agreements.

There were local agreements at all of the workplaces studied. The most common of these were agreements on the time and length of the lunch break or other routine issues concerning hours of work. Often activists do not even regard such agreements as "local agreements".

In industry local agreements are in most cases made at production plant level. They include hours of work and pay arrangements seeking to solve production-related problems.

In commerce a local agreement usually covers a whole chain.

At municipal sector, typical local agreements in the early 1990s derived from the need of many municipalities to balance their budgets by imposing drastic spending cuts. Employees and their organisations often agreed to cut their hours of work and correspondingly lower their earnings. Since then the prospects for municipal sector local agreements on working hours have widened.

Less than a fifth of the employer representatives interviewed wanted to expand further the area covered by local agreements.

In a third of the companies studied, the role of employees and management methods were modern, Jyrki Helin concludes, while in about one company in four they were old-fashioned. The remainder fell some way between these two opposing positions.

Of the companies categorised as "modern" a majority have successfully applied existing opportunities to make local agreements. Thus the researcher finds that about a fifth of the companies studied operate in "a circle of success". Here the local partners together seek greater and newer strengths and better ways of working.

Helin emphasises that in such companies the partners seldom have difficulties in interpreting collective agreements. These companies give their staff a great deal of information - both favourable and unfavourable - about company finances and plans. The atmosphere is open-minded and the partners regularly discuss relevant issues. On average these companies achieve better financial results than others with a different approach.

At the other end of the company spectrum are those which try to use local agreements to undermine the minimum norms set by national collective agreements.

In his comment on the new study Lauri Ihalainen, chairman of the central trade union confederation SAK, says that the results provide a solid foundation for further discussions with employer representatives. "Surprisingly many employers still fail to understand what equality in working life really means and how it benefits companies as well", Ihalainen stresses.

"For us an essential goal is to strengthen the status of shop stewards at the workplace and to take measures to expand union representation into the small and medium size companies where it does not yet exist.