Finnish unions are waging war against government cuts

Finnish unions are waging war against government cuts

BarcelonaLast week, Finland topped the list of the “happiest” countries in the world for the seventh year in a row, according to the World Happiness Report published annually by the Center for Well-being Research at the University of Oxford. But this year, the event has been overshadowed by a wave of weeks-long strikes, highlighting Finns' growing dissatisfaction with the conservative government of Petri Ørbo, which took power last year by flying the flag of economic austerity. .

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The conflict has been going on for months and the most massive protests began at the end of January, when the country's two main trade unions, SAK and STTK, called for an unprecedented general strike, in which at least 300,000 workers, from both the public and private sectors, participated, striking against the reforms and cuts it proposed. The executive, led by the conservative National Coalition (Kokomos), which also includes the far-right Finns Party and two center-right minority parties. But the situation has worsened since March 11, when the so-called “political strike” began, which is currently called for until March 31, but the unions do not rule out extending it further.

“It is a very unusual situation in Finland,” University of Helsinki political scientist Tivo Tiivainen explains to ARA, who emphasizes the fact that they are not being stopped to demand specific labor rights, but to try to stop the government’s austerity plans. One of the main reasons why unions are at war is precisely the government's desire to limit the right to strike through an “industrial peace” law that would, among other things, limit the duration of political strikes to 24 hours and fine. Workers participating in strikes are considered “illegal.”

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The conservative executive also intends to cut unemployment benefits, stop paying the first day of vacation, ease layoffs and reduce the weight of collective agreements when setting wages. In Finland – as in other Nordic countries – collective bargaining plays an important role in determining workers' salaries, although in 2017 the burden of global agreements was already reduced and sector-by-sector negotiations were allowed. Now the goal is to enable companies, individually, to negotiate directly with their workers, without the need to involve unions.

For more than two weeks, about 7,000 workers have gone on strike, mainly affecting rail freight and ports, which has had a significant impact on exports and imports and forced the closure of several paper and metal mills due to shortages of raw materials.

This is the case, for example, of Stora Enso, one of the world's leading paper mills, which announced that this week it will close its factory in Oulu due to a shortage of wood, while its products pile up in warehouses without being transported. Able to distribute them, the company also announced that it would stop paying wages while the factory was down. The same applies to other companies, such as Valmet Automotive, a car and battery producer, which employs about 700 workers in the city of Osikopunki, and which will also not receive their salaries. These collateral consequences may end up in court, as unions believe companies should continue to pay their employees.

More than three months of conflict

But since the strike began in November, unions from many different sectors, such as construction, the automobile industry, public transport, education and the food sector, have supported the protests. At the beginning of February, an aviation strike led to the cancellation of more than 500 flights at Helsinki Airport.

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According to the Confederation of Finnish Industries, the country's main employer, strikes could cause losses of more than one billion euros. The longer it continues, the more voices will grow warning of the possibility of a fuel shortage at gas stations by the end of this week, which will affect private vehicles and buses in the capital.

However, according to a poll published by public broadcaster YLE last week, nearly 60% of Finns are in favor. “We are ready to suspend strikes if the government shows understanding for workers’ concerns,” Jarko Eloranta, leader of the SAK union, said last week. However, Tiivainen points out that support for the government currently “has not declined so much that strikes are a problem.” “It is lower than at any time during the previous Sanna Marin government, but the situation is not catastrophic. They can maintain a tough stance.”

So far, the Prime Minister has remained steadfast in his stance and insisted that the government will not back down due to union pressure. “We believe that the points included in the government's program are absolutely necessary. They are about Finland's well-being,” Petri Orbo said earlier this month.

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