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.

Helsinki (13.08.1999 - Juhani Artto) Electricians Union members award good marks to their union and are also eager to participate in its work. These are the main findings of a new study made by professor Harri Melin of the University of Tampere. The researcher himself finds the level of willingness to participate surprisingly high.

More than 60 per cent of 1,000 randomly selected members completed the questionnaire. The union has 29,000 members in the energy sector, telecommunications, the construction industry and in maintenance duties in various industries.

The most important factor identified by the respondents was job security (53 %), followed by a good income (28 %) and interesting work. In a corresponding study conducted in 1985, job security and pay level were equally important. This change primarily reflects the growing insecurity felt by workers in the current highly competitive working life of the late 1990s and the deep recession in the Finnish economy which immediately preceded this situation.

Helsinki (05.08.1999 - Juhani Artto) In the early 1990s the Finnish economy went through its deepest recession since the Second World War. In just a few years a state of nearly full employment crashed to one of almost 20 per cent unemployment. Gross domestic product fell by a tenth of its pre-recession level. A banking crisis was triggered, with a final bill of FIM 40-50 billion (FIM 1.00 = EUR 0.17 = USD 0.17), creating a financial climate which even forced many healthy enterprises into bankruptcy.

The future of society's social character was severely in doubt.

Welfare structures, however, were maintained. These were mainly financed by huge budget deficits, swelling a national debt of FIM 50 billion to FIM 420 billion in only seven years.

Without cuts in public welfare programmes indebtedness would have worsened even more. From today's perspective these cuts mean an annual FIM 55 billion saving in public expenditure. Nevertheless, 70 per cent of public expenditure consists of welfare services (unemployment benefits, education, health, child care, pensions, income support etc.). Ten per cent goes on interest and on debt repayment.

Helsinki (02.07.1999 - Juhani Artto) "While it is not the purpose of the trade union movement to organise strikes, if the employer organisations challenge us by turning down proper European-level negotiations on working conditions, then conflict may be needed", said ETUC General Secretary Emilio Gabaglio at the Thursday evening Press Conference.

ETUC President Fritz Verzetnitsch supported this observation. "We're not looking for strikes but we aren't afraid to strike, either. The first industrial action will probably not be seen at federation but at branch level", he specified.

"In this Congress we have secured a framework for European-level negotiations. We have a twin-track approach. We have the tools for both federation-level and branch-specific negotiations. All of the elements for bargaining on European-level working conditions, workers' rights and training are covered in our Resolutions", Gabaglio assured at the Press Conference.

Helsinki (01.07.1999 - Juhani Artto) Over 600 delegates at the 9th ETUC Congress listened carefully to the words of Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, whose country had assumed the EU-presidency just ten hours earlier. The tall, 56 year-old Finnish Premier recently made his mark by spending one week on paternity leave, as is now the right of all fathers of new-born babies in Finland. Mr Lipponen was warmly received by the European trade union leaders.

Mr Lipponen, a union member himself, is clear in his attitude towards the role of trade unions, beginning his formal remarks with the words: "Cooperation among European trade unions isan encouraging example of a successful and pioneering way of working together in a changing Europe". He finished by congratulating the ETUC for the work which has been done and he characterised the Congress as a significant tour de force. "We need real partnership to make Europe successful", he affirmed.

While Lipponen refrained from making concrete promises to work for the ETUC's demands, there was nothing in his speech which was at variance with basic ETUC policy.

Helsinki (30.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) There was a brief moment of tension this morning at the 9th ETUC Congress when a Turkish trade union leader defended the death penalty given to Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Before the Turkish speaker made this contribution, ETUC General Secretary Emilio Gabaglio had condemned yesterday's court decision. The Turkish speaker had to leave the floor without no applause whatsoever from over 600 delegates present. "Democracy has no need for death penalties" was the comment from the chair of the meeting.

The high point of the morning was the speech of the new ILO Director General Juan Somavia. "The benefits of the global economy are not reaching people around the world. The global economy does not pass a human decency test."

Somavia demanded a new socio-economic paradigm for the world. To solve people's problems, such as unemployment, various sectors of life must be globally integrated, just as the economy is integrating. Insofar as problems are handled in a segmented manner it is difficult to solve them, the former Chilean Allende government minister from the early 1970s argued.

Helsinki (29.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) More than 600 delegates at the opening session of the 9th ETUC Congress warmly greeted the attendance and address of European Commission President (designate) Romano Prodi. Mr Prodi expressed in strong terms his support for continued trade union participation in European social dialogue between the labour market partners, governments and the Commission.

This is needed not only for working life and social issues but also in smoothing the path to EU enlargement. "Your contribution in this context is absolutely crucial", Prodi enthused.

He was cautious, however, over defining the context of cooperation and dialogue. "Europe has the best safety nets in the world in the form of job security legislation, collective agreements and social protection systems. These are valuable achievements."

"But we have offered too many exits from the labour market and not enough springboards to new opportunities. For the future, new skills and new jobs – not benefits – must be the first priority", he emphasised.

Helsinki (28.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) The opening ceremonies for the four-yearly ETUC* Congress will be held tomorrow morning. Today, the delegates warmed up for the Congress by broadly discussing ways to improve gender equality in working life.

Today's Equality Conference was historic in two ways which reflect changing attitudes in the European trade union movement towards the whole problem of gender equality.

In contrast with the traditional "Women's Conference" with only female participants, the male representatives at the ETUC Congress were also invited to participate in the equality discussion. This approach was also emphasised in the speeches: lack of equality has a negative impact not only on female employees but also on their male colleagues and even on enterprises.

Helsinki (10.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) In the last few years the proportion of older workers among unemployed commercial workers has steadily increased. Is age discrimination one of the reasons for this trend? This question was the subject of a new study commissioned by the Commercial Workers Union.

The study indicates that unemployed commercial workers over 50 years of age are seriously at risk of becoming victims of ageism, even though age discrimination is prohibited by law in Finland. However, Anne Kouvonen, the author of the study, is cautious in her conclusions.

The most alarming evidence comes from figures on how often various age groups were invited to recruitment interviews during the last twelve months.

Helsinki (09.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) Five years ago two State-owned companies, Finland's Neste and Norway's Statoil, merged their petrochemical sections and formed the new Fenno-Norwegian company Borealis.

In 1997 Neste sold its Borealis shares to Austria's State-owned oil company OMV and Abu Dhabi's IPIC.

A few months ago Borealis announced a plan to reduce its staffing by the end of the year 2000 by 850 employees, 140 of them at its plant in Porvoo near Helsinki.

The well organised and experienced Finnish workers did not accept the plan and began to fight back in various ways. They began by banning all overtime work, then refused to participate in any improvement discussions and added pressure with walkouts and protest actions at loading and unloading sites. Except for the highest ranks, salaried staff also followed the workers' example.