Helsinki (21.09.2000 - Juhani Artto) In a seminar held in the Finnish south coast town of Porvoo at the end of August the Nordic graphical workers union umbrella NGU sought answers to the question "Nordic female energy - how do we utilise it?" At the beginning of the seminar representatives of the five Nordic countries and the NGU chairman, Finn Erik Thoresen from Norway, explained to the Finnish union magazine Kirjatyö how they view the present role of women in the labour market and in trade union organisations.

Thoresen and Malte Eriksson, who chairs the Swedish Grafiska Fackförbundet organisation, participated in the events of the first day of the two day seminar. "This is the first time that the NGU gentlemen have been involved in the women's meeting. It's a good sign", commented Irene Hämäläinen from Finland. Irene Hämäläinen is the Director of the Finnish union's unemployment fund and is one of its leading women.

The NGU leadership consists of the national union chairmen and the secretary of the organisation. All five of these are men. An unofficial women's network recommends to the leadership appointees to women's positions. The NGU's affiliated member unions represent 100,000 organised employees in the media industry.

The Nordic media unions are affiliates of the new international federation UNI, which began operating in January. The Nordic media industry women in UNI are represented by Irene Hämäläinen. The affiliated member organisations of UNI have a total of 16 million members.

A branch with a female majority
reinforces the whole union

"Statistics indicate that men in our industry earn about ten per cent more than women, but the main problems of working life are not divided by gender", says Lahja Kokkonen, who has been a union activist for more than a decade. In recent years she has been a member of the Executive Board of the Finnish union and leads the salaried employees branch with more than 3,000 members all over Finland.

Lahja Kokkonen feels that the role of women in the union is not problematic. While the union's image is a masculine one, she expects this to change at next year's Conference. With four female Board members women are currently under-represented in the union leadership of 15 persons. 40 per cent of the rank and file members are women.

"Personally, I have always worked with men and encountered no special problems." Kokkonen works as a marketing consultant at the Helsinki Televisio broadcasting company. On the other hand, she emphasises the weaknesses of the salary structure. Efforts to reform this have run into resistance from the employers, although the salary structure has not changed with the diversification of job profiles.

"Few employers still have the same job profile as five or ten years ago", Kokkonen points out. "The job profiles of salaried employees adapt with the changes in the enterprise." The radical transition of the media industry has expanded the union to include website designers, media agency employees and telemarketing professionals.

According to Kokkonen, attitudes within the union towards salaried employees have improved over the last few years: "Although there are still some people who regard us as fine ladies who have no business being in a union. Younger members have no such problem, and regard it as self-evident that workers and salaried staff should campaign side by side."

The salaried employees branch has a clear majority of women members. "Our active example strengthens the whole union. For example we organise about ten training courses annually."

The new international - UNI - is a positive step forward in Kokkonen's opinion. " The power of the media union is not enough when it comes to lobbying the European Union. We have to fight for our goals from a broader platform on which men and women have equal status."

Kokkonen believes that the globalisation of business also affects the salaried employees of the media industry."In a multinational company, for example, marketing material can be produced centrally and distributed electronically. This may shift jobs from one country to another."

A young woman is shop steward
in a workplace with a male majority

Trude Tinnlund Johansen from Norway works at Peterson's, a major packaging enterprise in Fredrikstad, near Oslo.

For more than a year she has also been the enterprise shop steward. Why did the workers of a business with a majority of male workers elect a young woman to be their shop steward?

"I don't know. Perhaps, I am good at the job", Johansen says with the characteristic reflexive irony of Nordic culture.

In the beginning many older male workers related the new shop steward with suspicion. "However, the attitudes warmed up rapidly."

In the Norwegian union more than a quarter of the rank and file are women. With a third of the seats on the union's Executive Board, women are even over-represented.

Before making any significant decision, the union analyses the impact of the proposal on women. The collective bargaining programme includes a ten-point charter seeking to improve the status of women. Several union branches have signed local equality agreements.

However, gender equality is not very well enforced in working life practices. Johansen notes, for example, that men are promoted more readily than women at her workplace. "When more machines are installed, it is often women who have to step aside and men are appointed to manage the machines."

"We try to equalise the situation by encouraging women to participate in vocational training. Interest in such training has increased recently."

Johansen expects the NGU women's network to grow in strength.

HK-Industri trade union takes gender
discrimination issue to the EU court

When Denmark's graphical workers union folded last year, the members rapidly found a new home in two other unions. About 6,000 packaging workers joined the Specialarbejderforbundet SID, while 15,000 graphical workers and 5,000 salaried employees joined the union HK-Industri.

Inge Meyer, who works as a secretary in Denmark's largest newspaper Jyllands Posten, heads the HK-Industri salaried employees' organisation.

"We used to have a large female majority but now lots of men have joined the union. This requires us to monitor equality issues with special care. Despite the long tradition of gender equality in Denmark, women still earn less than men and suffer sexual harassment at work."

Meyer has not personally experienced difficulties as a working woman. "Our employer appreciates women as much as men and I myself work regularly with men in an atmosphere of equality."

HK-Industri has purposefully fastened onto cases in which the principle of "equal pay for equal work " has been infringed. On several occasions the union has even appealed to the EU court, with both favourable and unfavourable outcomes.

Meyer expects that the new international UNI, to which HK-Industri is affiliated, will emphasise equality issues in its work. She considers UNI's eagerness to utilise the Internet to be promising, but also reminds us that traditional forms of work are still needed.

The union has a women's programme

Carina Ibert from Stockholm has almost twenty years experience of union activism. She works at the digital pre-press department of the company Graphium.

Ibert heads the union's environmental group and is now in her fifth year as a member of the union Executive Board. The leading troikka consist only of men, but four of the other nine members are women. One third of the rank and file members of the Grafiska Fackförbundet union are women. Ibert is ready to give union chairman Malte Eriksson credit for his clarity on equality questions. The union has recently prepared a women's programme.

"In the past many men had an unfortunate attitude towards women, but the situation has now fundamentally improved, with men relating to women in a fair and realistic way", Ibert says.

"Women's union activism has also taken steps forward. In the past such participation was limited by lack of support for activism at home."

Ibert is especially pleased at the progress which the union has made among new media employees. "This is clearly one of the union's success stories."

Employers demand secrecy
over wages and salaries

Vigdis Ósk Sigurjónsdottir from Iceland works on the layout of the country's largest newspaper Morgonbladet. In a country with a population not exceeding 280,000 the graphical union has slightly more than one thousand working age members and fewer than 200 pensioners. There is only one woman on the seven member Executive Board. More than a quarter of the rank and file union members are women.

"My own employer pays men and women equally, but that's not the case in all companies", Sigurjónsdottir notes.

"The fight for equality is hampered by employers who demand that employees do not reveal their wages and salaries. Our union has not had the strength to break this practise. Our appeals to the members to discuss the pay issue openly have not borne fruit."

According to Sigurjónsdottir, the union performs more strongly in occupational health and safety issues. The union also actively promotes vocational training. "In particular, we encourage young mothers to take part in order to smooth their return to working life."

One factor assisting equality is a national law that guarantees three month's paternity leave to fathers with 80 per cent compensation.

Few workplaces
have an equality plan

Gender divisions play no visible role in the daily handling of matters concerning working life and trade union organisations, says Tuula Kallio, a member of the Executive Board of the Finnish graphical workers union who works in Tampere. "This is regrettable, as women experience difficulties in securing access to training and men are promoted more easily than women. Examples of the opposite trend are very rare."

"This lack of equality is due to the backward attitudes of men. The employer representatives are mostly men. However, some of the blame also rests with women who do not sufficiently appreciate their own skills. Men are more courageous than women in accepting new tasks."

"Although national law requires workplaces with more than 30 employees to prepare an equality plan, most of them have compiled no such plan. The powers that be do not regard this matter as one of primary importance."

In Kallio's experience too many men label equality efforts as "feminist bustle", which makes women cautious in defending their own rights. "Rank and file men have to be educated to comprehend that equality in working life is good for both men and women."

"At union level I have noticed no major problems, but on the individual level I have even encountered chauvinist attitudes. These represent the same conservatism that also slows down other development of our work."

"In our industry jobs have disappeared at such a pace that only the textile and garment industry has suffered more. Job security problems cannot not be solved by sweeping them under the carpet", Kallio insists.

The consequences of rationalisation by Kallio's own employer, Alma Media, have been especially severe. "When the focus of investment was shifted to new media, there was a debate on the role of foreign ownership. The Swedish family Bonnier, with its ownership of almost a quarter of Alma Media, has considerable influence on Alma Media's orientation."

"Neither job security nor equality goals can be attained if the trade union movement does not have a strong grip on matters. Even though the industrial peace obligation in our collective agreements limits the methods available to us, we can still influence matters in many ways", Kallio notes.

NGU studies how to respond
to North American capital

Finn Erik Thoresen has been the NGU chairman for the last six years and leader of the Norwegian affiliated union since 1991. He explains that "Nordic seminars constitute an important part of the NGU's work. Before women's issues, we have, for example, debated collective bargaining policy, environmental questions and the problems of young people in working life".

"At the 1995 women's Conference, the central issues were atypical employment, telework and sexual harassment of women. The NGU does not engage in the work of national unions. Instead it opens up common discussions on topical issues. It is the task of the national unions to draw conclusions and implement them."

"In the new international UNI, the Nordic trade unions have much to offer the others. While our hands are full defending decent working conditions here, the situation elsewhere, for example in North America, is much more difficult. There many enterprises even try to eliminate trade union organisations and keep organised labour out of workplaces."

"This issue is very topical, as North American media industry multinationals have begun to invest in Europe."

Thoresen reports that the Nordic, German and British unions are working with specialists from the University of Glasgow to find the most effective ways of responding to the challenges presented by these North American multinationals.

"The goal of our Strathclyde project is to give us the ability to show the owners of these multinationals what the limits of their rights are. We will not allow dumping of men's or women's rights", Thoresen insists.