Helsinki (08.09.2000 - Juhani Artto) The Estonian chemical workers union has folded. Its existence ended at the end of June. Before the abolition the union organised ten per cent of the 16,000 employee industry. Much of this sector is based on Estonia's abundant bituminous shale deposits.

The members of the defunct union have mainly joined the Estonian energy workers union. A minority went over to the Tallinn technical trade union.

Several factors led to the abolition. During the 1990s the industry underwent a difficult restructuring process. The union was unable to defend its members' rights amidst changes characterised by bankruptcies and privatisation. New enterprises were established without union representation.

Wages sank and the union gradually lost its credibility. The small membership also left the union with no sound financial basis. Although the Finnish chemical workers union and a few other sister organisations assisted the Estonians, this help was not enough to save the union.

One special problem arose from the language factor. Some 80 per cent of the membership came from Estonia's Russian-speaking minority. Union sources emphasise that while this was not reason for the abolition, it added to the problems.

Tuomo Lilja, editor-in-chief of the Finnish chemical workers union magazine Reaktio, believes that the main reason was the union's inability to react rapidly enough to the economic transformation from a centralised Soviet system to a market oriented system.

"The union was given advice - perhaps even too much - about how to act under market economy conditions", Lilja writes in the latest edition of Reaktio. Finnish trade union leaders and activists take a keen interest in Estonian labour marker events, particularly as labour-intensive industries may attract investors by abandoning Finland in favour of Estonia. This has already reduced the demand for labour in the Finnish textile and garment industry and to a lesser extent in the wood industry.

The likely accession of Estonia to the European Union in the near future makes the Finns especially vigilant in monitoring the Estonian labour market. The leaders of the Finnish and Swedish chemical workers unions are due to visit Estonia soon, seeking detailed information on the situation in its chemical industry.

Since the early 1990s Estonia's trade union movement has been a major recipient of material and other support from Finnish and other Nordic trade unions.