Helsinki (20.08.1999 - Juhani Artto) Trade unions and their members in Finland are represented at places of work by more than 50,000 shop stewards and labour protection representatives. Unions affiliated to the largest central trade union organisation, SAK, have a total of 35,000 such representatives elected by the rank and file members. The unions of STTK have 9,000 and Akava 6,500 corresponding local activists.

Recently the SAK monthly Palkkatyöläinen newspaper carried a leader article on the need to reinforce the position of shop stewards at the workplace. The shop steward system was established in the 1890s at the same time as the emergence of the trade unions.

Legislation first recognised the shop steward system in 1917, which is the year when Finland became an independent State. The model, however, collapsed for 30 years following the civil war of 1918 in which the Whites (bourgeois) defeated the Reds (labour movement). After the Second World War, which for Finland ended in September 1944, a proper shop steward network was designed on the basis of an agreement between the main labour market central organisations: SAK and the then STK. The system was reformed in the 1950s and 1960s and again in the last decade.

The Palkkatyöläinen editorial points out that shop steward rights have always lagged behind changes in working life. Their job security is not complete, they face difficulties in getting the information needed in order to discharge their duties and there are shortcomings in their access to trade union education.

The trade union movement has sought for many years, without result, to insert in local agreements conditions on the existence of shop stewards.

During the early 1990s recession shop stewards had an exceptionally hard time. According to a recent SAK survey the workplace climate clearly deteriorated. Willingness to be elected shop steward was less common. Attendance to collective interests was no longer a self-evident necessity. There was even fear of traditional trade union activism in the rank and file, the editorial notes.

A separate problem arises in workplaces with no shop stewards at all. Half of the membership of SAK unions works at workplaces with fewer than 30 employees and only 56 per cent of these workplaces have shop stewards.

In spite of these shortcomings the shop steward system remains solid. Elected officials work responsibly and are often willing to make heavy personal sacrifices. This system, however, depends on the baby boom generation and future scenarios must seriously alarm trade union decision-makers and activists.

Palkkatyöläinen suggests that it is now the shop stewards' turn to be the object of one of those projects or campaigns which are initiated in large numbers by the trade union offices in other fields. "Shop stewards cannot live by application manuals alone. The whole trade union movement owes them much more", the writer of the Palkkatyöläinen editorial emphasises.

"Trust in the future must be fortified by updating the position and rights of the shop steward to match the realities of current working life."

"If the ever-extending list of shortcomings is continually relegated into stuffy task forces as a third class question, then who will thereby be encouraged to take on these responsibilities", the editorial asks.