Helsinki (14.09.1999 - Veikko Tarvainen/Reaktio*) How can individuals find self-fulfilment in their work? Dr Kimmo Kevätsalo has analysed this question at length and with great thoroughness. His recently approved thesis "Stiff flexibilities and wasted resources" considers this and several other important aspects of working life.

Dr Kevätsalo has spent 30 years working for the Metalworkers Union, the first half of this time as a journalist for the union's magazine Ahjo and the remainder as a researcher. In the last few years he has also managed a consulting company advising on aspects of working life.

"In my thesis I have refuted the prevailing sugarcandy image suggesting that Finnish working life is rapidly changing for the better. Only at the top level are things going well. Nowadays, the majority of employees are in an endangered situation. The threats have grown in the 1990s, especially in the industrial sector."

"The main threat derives from the fact that the demands of work have not risen to maintain Finland's international competitiveness. Even by conservative estimates some 30-40 per cent of jobs in Finnish industry can easily be replaced by automation or by transferring jobs to low-pay countries. The threat of marginalisation has grown because of insufficient development of employee skills and job requirements."

In Kevätsalo's opinion this slowness in the development of job demands is mainly due to the traditional management model and especially to a basic lack of trust. The traditional management model still remains in place with the aim of simplifying, systematising, standardising and automating jobs. Mistrust between management and workforce prevents implementation of reasonable changes. Mistrust stiffens organisations.

Kevätsalo points out that this mistrust arises from three fundamentals of working life: the conflict between the purchase and sale of labour, power relations at workplaces and the division of labour - which means dividing the work into clearly demarcated routines. Especially in larger workplaces those in higher positions have privileges to defend against those on lower levels of the hierarchy. Those at the top level have little interest in discussing with their underlings about who is deserving of fat options and who is not.

The typical features of large organisations worsen the situation. "Almost all organisations diminish human opportunities for self-fulfilment. This happens both in the private and public sector, as well as in the academic world and the trade union movement. Large organisations tend to compartmentalise the individual. In the trade union movement, for example, people are compartmentalised according to their line of work and union activists are compartmentalised according to their political views and status. This creates an externally governed model determining the framework within which it is wise to restrict one's activity."

"The element of mistrust cannot be removed by any other means than trying to find a common interpretation of a common reality. In workplace development task forces there are usually representatives ranging from directors to messengers. It is the directors and the experts who dominate these discussions. Afterwards one wonders why all discussion groups lead to identical results! Those employees who have less power and the least education should be given better opportunities to express themselves."

Kevätsalo's conclusion is that ideal companies are based on common ownership and common responsibility. There are some exceptional enterprises in which the staff have a greater say in formulating decisions. Kevätsalo knows a small company which is managed on the basis of a monthly report. The employees are allowed to participate in the decision-making process pertaining to everything within their own competence and are constantly trained for increasingly demanding decision-making.

Employees can take genuine responsibility for their own future when they know what is happening and are able to influence decisions. This increases the ability of individuals on lower levels of the power hierarchy to influence matters in other life sectors. When individuals have opportunities for self-fulfilment at work, their prospects outside of working life also improve.

In his thesis Kimmo Kevätsalo combines trade union demands for workplace participation with the central conclusions of modern management theories and recommendations. However, he does not apply the ideas in representative bodies but directly in workplaces.

"Representative systems are mainly about reconfirming the existing power hierarchy. Instead one should strengthen the level on which people work, consider their future and solve their problems."

"When I recognised that workplace participation experiments where mostly empty words, I began to understand that participation requires finding a common interest in the workplace. In my opinion this common interest is not the competitiveness of the enterprise or consortium, but that of the workplace."

"A success model for Finnish workplaces requires the development of the largest possible number of jobs which are decisively more demanding. Then a rising number of wage and salary earners could increasingly use their own heads. By raising the skills standard for employees we safeguard the international competitiveness of Finnish workplaces. This is the best way to prevent jobs from drifting abroad."

Kevätsalo admits that he is advocating "a rather hard market economy model". However, he points out that successfully implementing the model will enable the public sector to take better care of those individuals who cannot or will not take part in the hectic competition of working life.

"My model is selfish. It pays no attention to global development or environmental problems. My model asks how the world economic élite can continue their rush along the highway."

"If we can use a cheap labour force skilfully elsewhere, then we can create new jobs with high requirements in Finland. Morally the question is problematic. It would be similarly morally problematic if I concentrated on world environmental problems and overlooked the wasteful use of the Finnish labour force. As I cannot solve all of the problems, I concentrate on the matters which I know best."

"The risk is a major one, however. Is it reasonable to increase consumption in Finland, even though this is part of a process which may destroy the Earth?"

"The right to move capital freely has changed the world radically. Anyone may invest in any country whatsoever and then suddenly withdraw the investment. Financial sharks do not wrestle with moral problems."

"The new global economic architecture has thoroughly altered operating conditions for the trade union movement. National collective agreements have far less influence nowadays than 20 years ago."

Kimmo Kevätsalo expresses the current challenge: "As the cold, hard logic of the market currently holds sway, we must seek alternatives and not passively await our unhappy destiny. There are managers who seem to feel pressures making them willing to search for new solutions. Now it is time to come to grips with new opportunities. Now it may also be time to abandon old ways of thinking".

"The Finnish engineering and municipal sector trade unions have made good progress in reforming the work organisations of their members. However political pressures, such as those pertaining to the European Union, have demanded so much time and energy from the trade union movement that limited resources have remained to seek new organisational solutions."

Kevätsalo's studies and experiences suggest that employees are also unwilling to consider working life reforms. They are often in positions in which self-fulfilment is difficult.

"Employees are given few opportunities to consider alternatives. This task is reserved for others. Another reason for passivity is that people find basic security in routines. It is not rewarding to seek more versatile work because pay will not necessarily improve. More versatile work would also take bread from another employee's mouth. Why create such conflicts? Senior staff would also resist if somebody else were to perform their duties."

"There are many reasons to feel that life will continue as usual if nothing changes."

However, Kevätsalo draws the opposite conclusion: "In rapidly changing working life constancy is the least secure state of affairs".

* Originally published in Reaktio (9-1999), the Finnish language magazine of the Chemical Workers Union