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Trade Unions

Union density is high in Finland, with almost three-quarters of employees in unions. Individual unions, which have considerable autonomy, are organised in three confederations, broadly along occupational and educational lines. The three confederations are SAK, STTK and AKAVA. However, there are plans for a wide-ranging merger.3

There are 2.2 million trade unionists in Finland. Not all of these are in the workforce, as retired people, the unemployed and students can belong to unions and a significant number do so. But even when this is taken into account, a very large proportion of employees are union members. A regularly repeated survey undertaken by Statistics Finland found that union density was 74% in 2008.1 This is higher than the estimates of the ICTWSS database of union membership, which put union density at 69.0% in 2011.2

There are three trade union confederations in Finland. SAK is the largest with 1,008,040 members (January 2015)3 . It predominantly organises manual workers, although around a third of its members are non-manual. STTK is in second place with some 608,000 members (2015). It organises the majority of non-manual workers. AKAVA, the third largest Finnish union confederation, has 588,865 (2015) members and organises graduate employees. The three confederations work closely together and there has been a co-operation agreement between them since 1978. There is, however, some competition between STTK and AKAVA for graduate employees, with AKAVA showing greater growth.

The situation is, however, set to change dramatically through a major trade union merger, which will involve unions from all three confederations (see below).

The three confederations are made up of a number of separate affiliated unions, although recent years have seen a number of union mergers.

SAK has 22 affiliated unions, primarily organised on an industry basis. The largest SAK affiliate is PAM, which represents workers in the private services sector and has 231,381 members. The next largest is JHL, the union for the public and welfare sectors, which has 230,176 members and was created through a merger involving six unions in 2005. The metalworkers’ union with 144,182 members is in third place.

Affiliated unions have their own constitutions and have considerable negotiating autonomy.

AKAVA with 35 affiliates is organised occupationally. Its largest union, OAJ, which represents teachers, has 121,033 members, the second largest, TEK with 72,353 members, organises graduate engineers, and the third largest IL with 70,838, organises professional engineers (all figures for 1 January 2015).

Politically, SAK has no formal links to any political party but it is close to the social democratic party the SDP. Overall, the political links have become less important, although the three largest SAK unions provided money to the SDP in the election campaign in 2009, and the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto) was also supported by some SAK unions to a more limited extent. The two other confederations emphasise that they are not party political.

The level of trade union organisation in Finland remains high. Unemployment insurance is typically obtained through union membership, although it is also possible to be insured through an unemployment fund without being a union member. The Statistics Finland surveys show membership of unemployment funds increasing in recent years as an alternative to union membership. The surveys show union density falling slightly from 73% to 72% between 1984 and 1990, then rising to 79% in 1997, when the economic crisis of the 1990s made it sensible to be a union member and benefit from increased support during potential periods of unemployment, before falling back to 77% in 2003 and 74% in 2008.4

Unions increasingly recognise that they need to take active steps to recruit those joining the labour market if they are to maintain their strength and influence. Young people are a particular target and the unions encourage students to join – AKAVA, for example, has more than 100,000 students in membership, who belong to a special student council AOVA. AKAVA’s membership has increased sharply in recent years, going from 375,000 in 2000 to 588,865 in 2015.

There is a high proportion of women in membership. Figures from the unions show that 46.0% of SAK’s membership is female, 75% of STTK’s and 52.7% of AKAVA’s (figures for 2015).8

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.