|JHL has played an
active role in largescale local authority reform
JHL (26.05.2010 - Juhani Artto) In Finland, reform of the local authority system has been
underway since 2005. And, all through this process, JHL, the largest union in the
municipal sector and throughout Finland has actively and successfully defended the rights
of all municipal employees. JHL represents some 220,000 employees who mainly work in the
Nationwide, and to date the most visible result of the reform has been a significant
reduction in the number of municipalities. In 2005, there were 432, and now, after
numerous amalgamations, municipalities number only 342. And in the next few years more
amalgamations will take place. Simultaneously, restructuring of joint authorities has
been, and is, under work.
In this process, the most important achievement of JHL and other trade unions has been the
understanding -regulation in effect- that municipal employees are granted five years
notice before dismissal due to these municipality amalgamations. However, this regulation
does not affect personnel who find themselves redundant in the event of outsourcing or
liquidating certain municipal services.
Many economically weak municipalities
Two major factors have made this reform necessary. The economic basis of many
municipalities is so weak that they are not able to properly offer those services they are
mandated to provide, by legislation. Local authorities are responsible for a large
provision of public health care, social welfare and education. Approximately one fifth of
the labour force in Finland works for local authority organisations.
Another reason for the laborious reform process has been the small size of dozens of
municipalities. In 2007 only one municipality out of four had over 10,000 inhabitants. In
order for any rational planning and organisation many services require a large population
base. And, this has been recognised in the legislation. It demands that the minimum number
of inhabitants eligible for basic public health care and social services -or in close
proximity- is 20,000 citizens. The corresponding figure for basic vocational education is
Municipalities in Finland, generally speaking, have a fairly broad autonomy. And in this
respect they are expected to voluntarily implement the necessary structural changes.
In 2008-2013 the government sought to promote these voluntary processes through monetary
incentives. Within municipalities this "carrot" was the impetus for all those
It is still unclear what will happen after 2013 for those municipalities that do not have
a solid economic and large enough population base to meet the challenges of being a public
Large backing for reform at national level
Among national decision-makers there has been a broad consensus on the need and outlines
for this reform. Still, at a local level, many obstacles have slowed down and in many
cases even hindered advancement. It is understandable that in many small municipalities
local politicians have opposed initiatives to become part of a much larger municipality,
fearing a loss of power as a result.
Also, fears of a weakening of identity and democracy have reduced the willingness for
municipalities to amalgamate with one or several others.
In addition, one has to take into account that proposed amalgamations have not in all
cases clearly appeared beneficial to all parties. A case in point is an amalgamation
between a rich but small municipality with an economically weaker but much more populated
municipality. Such a merger appears a bad alternative for the people living in the rich
but small municipality. Thus, for them there would be obvious reasons to oppose any
One more argument against efforts to create larger municipalities by amalgamations is
this. Research into past municipality mergers in Finland does not unambiguously conclude
that the desired goals have been reached.
Listing these obstacles gives a hint to how complicated the reform process has been and
will be. The process does not only mean the desire for reasonable changes but includes
also many other factors.
Strong municipalities important for municipal employees
For municipal employees and their unions the rationale of reform has been clear. For them
it is essential that their employer organisations are economically strong and able to
offer the services they are expected to offer. This is good for them also as inhabitants
of their own municipalities.
Reform has been more complex for municipal employees whose former tasks have been
abolished because of the amalgamation. They have not lost their employment relation but
they have had to adjust to the new tasks their employers have offered to them. This has
not in all cases run smoothly -largely through the lack of proper retraining- or for other
Nowadays, the local authorities are obliged by law to consult with the employee
representatives on changes that have an impact on employees work and working conditions.
Through the whole reform process JHL has emphasised the importance of these consultations.
As a result no "horror stories" on the treatment of employees has occurred, says
Jorma Peussa who is one the JHL head office specialists closely involved in the municipal
"Cooperation both between employers and employees and between various unions in the
municipal sectors have really been on trial", Peussa says. In the amalgamated
municipalities working conditions and work place cultures have varied. Now they have to be
harmonised and put together. It is a demanding and long-lasting challenge, Peussa
No big changes yet in the service structures
Late last year the Ministry of Finance made a thorough assessment on how the reform
project has advanced. The major conclusions were that the amalgamation process has
advanced well but the improvements in the service structure still are modest.
For JHL and the other municipal sector unions it means that much work is left to be done
in defending municipal employees' rights during this reform process.