Trade unions in Finland: labor union membership explained

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The current health crisis has left millions of people laid off or terminated in the world. This has increased interest in trade union memberships. We can see the same trend also in Finland.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some facts about trade unions in Finland: 

Finland has a high trade union membership rate

A large portion of the Finnish workforce belongs to trade unions. In 2017, the Finnish trade union membership rate was 59.4 %.

Trade union membership rate is highest in the public service sector where the rate was 72.8 % in 2017. The rate was second highest in the industrial sector where the rate was 71.8 %.

Globally these percentages are very high. In 2018, the OECD average was 16.1 %. The Finnish rate is equivalent to those in other Nordic countries. Except for Iceland, where the trade union membership rate is about 90 %.

In Finland, trade union membership rates have been declining for years. For example, in 2004 the same percentage was 69 % and in 1989 it was 71.9 %.

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Finnish trade unions on the employee and employer sides

There is no single principle of organization in Finnish trade unions. It’s a mixture of occupation, educational level, and industry. 

Trade union organizations in Finland have a hierarchical structure. At the lowest level are local trade unions. These are closest to the individual employee. Those local unions are then organized into national federations of local unions. The federations in turn belong to national confederations. 

There are three employee confederations in Finland.

SAK (the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions – SAK) is the largest of them with over 900 000 members. It primarily organizes manual workers, although almost a third of its members are non-manual. SAK currently has 18 membership unions. Some of them have historically been extremely strong and powerful.

A demonstration in 2018 organized by SAK against the so-called activity requirement of the unemployment benefit. (Photo: Sakari Kiuru/National Board of Antiquities, photo HK8114:13)

The second-largest trade union confederation is AKAVA. Its members are university graduates. AKAVA currently has 36 member unions and about 600 000 members. 

The smallest confederation is STTK. The majority of its members are non-manual workers. STTK consists of 17 member unions and approximately 500 000 members. 

These confederations have a collaboration agreement. They often work closely together, especially in larger societal issues.

This collaboration doesn’t prevent competition between them. For example, STTK and AKAVA compete over members. A few years back STTK was larger of the two but AKAVA has grown in recent years.

Employers are represented by four confederations. 

The confederation of the Finnish Industries EK is a rather new confederation. It was born out of two older confederations in 2005. EK has 24 member organizations.

Public sector employer organizations include the Local Government Employers KT, the Office for the Government as Employer VTML, and the Commission for Church Employers KiT

Entrepreneurs’ organization is the Federation of Finnish Enterprises. It is an organization for small and medium-sized companies. 

There there is also the Union for Finnish family businesses, Suomen perheyritysten liitto ry, representing family-owned businesses in Finland.

Trade unions in the Finnish society

Labor union membership in Finland started growing after the Second World War. 

Since the end of the 1960s, there’s been close collaboration between the labor market representatives and the Finnish government.

Eteläranta 10, Helsinki, home of EK (photo: Jaana Maijala/Helsinki City Museum, photo G27499)

The government consults organizations on both sides over legislation that affects the Finnish working life. Many aspects of Finnish society we now take for granted are the result of such collaboration. These include our annual vacations, overtime pay, etc. 

As almost any law can be considered affecting working life in some form or another, the organizations have traditionally been very influential. That influence has fluctuated somewhat over time. It has also depended on the composition of the Finnish government. 

Union membership has been in the decline for years. Political scientist Aino Tiihonen says the connection between one’s occupation and one’s social class is weaker these days. Therefore joining a union possibly associated with a particular political party or ideology becomes problematic.

Whether you are a union member in Finland or not, your employment relationship is still highly influenced by them. Collective agreements regulate the employment conditions of about 89 % of wage earners in Finland. Trade unions negotiate them.

You can learn more about collective agreements and how they influence, for example, salaries in our tutorial  Working in Finland. We’ve also talked about collective agreements when we told you how you can find out about salaries in Finland.

Union membership in Finland

Joining a union is voluntary in Finland. It is also a very natural part of working life in Finland.

Employers generally don’t hold union membership against you. You can even ask your employer to withhold your union dues from your monthly salary. They then transfer them to the union. You can of course also pay your union dues yourself.

In many countries, union membership is automatically associated with certain political views. In Finland, it isn’t. Here, union membership doesn’t reveal one’s political opinions. Union membership is seen more as an insurance.

If everything goes well with your employer, membership rarely makes a difference in your daily work life. It’s when going gets tough that you’ll see the benefits of membership.

Unions provide help to their individual members. They give legal help. Union help interpret collective agreements, employment contracts, and employer practices. They assist in wage determinations, etc. Getting access to this type of help and information is difficult and expensive without union membership.

Each trade union also provides additional benefits that they market to their members. Often these include training courses, discounted or free access to vacation facilities, discounted insurances, etc. 

Our tutorial Working in Finland includes a list of existing trade unions. The list includes membership descriptions and links to their webpages and negotiated collective agreements. You cannot find a similar list anywhere online. 

Union membership fees are usually between 1 and 2 % of your earnings. This includes the associated unemployment fund fee.

Unions often market their unemployment funds together with union membership. In reality, you don’t have to be a member of a union to become a member of an unemployment fund.

Unemployment funds

Finnish residents are only entitled to earnings-based unemployment benefits if they are a member of an unemployment fund.  

Unemployment funds in Finland are administered by trade unions. There is only one exception. YTK – the general unemployment fund – is not associated with a trade union. It accepts all salaried employees as members. In addition to YTK, there are 25 other unemployment funds in Finland. You can find their contact information here.

The cost of membership varies a bit but it’s really reasonable. Some unemployment funds quote their membership fee as a percentage of your salary, some have a fixed annual sum. For example, in the service sector, the membership fee is 0,5 % of your annual gross income. For YTK it is 92 € per year.

The unemployment funds are able to keep their membership fees low because they are highly subsidized by the Finnish government. They do not need to cover their unemployment payment costs with membership fees. 

Joining now?

If you are a resident of Finland, join an unemployment fund! It makes a huge difference in your income if you ever become unemployed.

If you think you’ll ever need help with your employment relationship, joining the union makes sense as well.

Hakaniemenranta, home of the employee unions in Helsinki (photo: Sakari Kiuru/National Board of Antiquities, photo: HK8017:60)

You can join the associated unemployment fund with the same union application form. The union membership fee normally includes the unemployment fund fee. If you want to join just the fund, they all have a separate fee for non-union members.  

The level of the unemployment benefit doesn’t depend on the fund. Members of all funds get the same level of support based on the same set of criteria. Thus you don’t need to take that into consideration when you are choosing an unemployment fund. You just need to find a fund that matches your occupation.

If you have just been laid off or terminated, joining an unemployment fund now won’t help you right away. In addition to other eligibility criteria, you have to have been a member for 26 weeks in order to qualify for the benefit. 

Union membership may, however, help you in other ways in these difficult times. They can help you make sure that the layoff and termination processes were done correctly. They might have career counseling and trainings available for their unemployed members.  

This is your ultimate guide to rules governing Finnish employment relationships. Get it from our online store!

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