Finland: major strike movement puts pressure on new government

Postal workers’ union president Heidi Nieminen speaks to the press. A postal workers strike led to the government crisis. (Picture: PAU).

By Jonas Brännberg – translated from article in “Offensiv” paper of the CWI in Sweden

It took a week to form a new coalition government in Finland following the resignation of Prime Minister Antti Rinne in early December. Little changed, the same parties are included in the new government. Rinne’s fall followed a large successful strike in support of 700 parcel sorters working for the state-owned “Posti” in opposition to attempts to outsource their jobs with major wage cuts.  

But the new government, which includes the Social Democratic, Centre, Green and Swedish People’s Party as well as the Left Alliance faces new problems. 100,000 industrial workers led by the “Industrial Trade Union”, the trade union “PRO” and the Federation of Professional and Managerial Staff “YTN”, have launched a fierce new battle starting with a three-day strike over their labour contract. The strike has effectively stopped Finland’s export sector. 

According to the employers, the strike has cost 400 million euros. The whole country was brought to a standstill. All production from the high technology and industrial sectors has stopped reported Ralf Holmlund, Chief Shop Steward for YTN and one of the 3,000 strikers at Wärtsilä’s factory in Vaasa. The strike is over wages which have lagged behind those of workers “in key competitor countries” because of the so-called “Competitiveness pact” which had earlier been forced on the unions by the employers and government.  The agreement included a clause saying the annual working time could be extended by 24 hours without pay, which the unions now want removed. Employers are also now trying to reduce payments for overtime and weekend work.   

At the time of writing, as the strike proceeds, no negotiations are taking place and the sides appear to be dead-locked. The unions are preparing new strikes and the forest industry employers have responded to the strike with a six-day lockout. In addition, the Electricians’ Union is currently conducting a four-week strike, as they have lost the right to represent their members in industry due to changes in their collective agreements. 

There is no doubt that in Finland, the large companies can afford to pay more. The income gap has grown dramatically in Finland, with the wealth of the rich growing fastest. At one of the companies, where workers are now on strike, the UPM forestry company, the CEO earns 150 times more than ordinary employees. Since 2010, CEO salaries in Finland have increased from 37 times higher than that of the average wage earner to 48 times. 

The government crisis that forced Antti Rinne out arose because the Centre Party was pushing the Social democrats and the Left Alliance to not intervene to prevent large state owned companies from further widening the wage gap, such as is happening at “Posti”. where the company tried to change to a cheaper collective agreement with another union (so called “collective agreement shopping”). At the same time, the Centre party is worried at the disastrous figures it is getting in opinion polls, which are now about 10%. 

The 34 year-old Social Democrat, Sanna Marin has now been appointed Prime Minister, the youngest in the world. All five government parties are led by women and four of them are under 35, a situation that has been promoted internationally as  a sign of equality and “progressive” politics. However, these parties in government are implementing continued welfare cuts, inadequate climate measures and brutal measures against refugees. The Left Alliance, in this situation of escalated labor struggle, is making a historical mistake by participating in the government with right-wing parties. By doing so it not only undermines its own position, but also paves the way for a growth in support for the right-wing extremist Finns Party.

A victory for the industrial workers’ struggle would strengthen the confidence of the entire working class to also fight against other injustices, including government policies. This means it becomes even more important that the fight must be stepped up, with a plan for extended strikes, in combination with solidarity strikes from other sections of the trade union movement.