Finland: Wave of Strikes in the “Happiest Country in the World”
(«Proletarian»; Nr. 16; Spring-Summer 2020)
In March 2019, the United Nations published its World Happiness Report (1): for the second year in a row Finland was ranked first. Finland is a small Nordic country with a population of 5.5 million and a reputation for being a model welfare state. The media around the world have reported on its plans to create a guaranteed universal income for all its inhabitants to eradicate poverty.
But the reality is less rosy and it seems that Finnish proletarians do not have the same opinion on their living and working conditions as the bourgeois statisticians of the UN. If we start with this famous ’universal income’ instituted in 2017, it was actually only at an experimental stage for two years. It only applied to 2,000 long-term unemployed, drawn by lot, and its amount was only 560 euros, a sum equivalent to the unemployment benefits it replaced, the only advantage for the beneficiaries being that it was granted even to the terminally unemployed. In the end, the measure was not renewed because of the hostility of the employers and the lower middle classes, who complained that the level of social expenditure and the taxes that finance it were too high.
Finland was a prosperous country which, like other northern European countries, was for a long time able to finance a welfare state capable of guaranteeing social peace and binding the proletariat to the capitalist system and the bourgeois state. This is no longer the case; the country has been hard hit by the economic crisis of 2008, the consequences of which were felt for years. A symbolic example of this is the fall of Nokia; the former telecom giant only escaped bankruptcy by divesting itself of a large part of its activities and cutting thousands of jobs in Finland and around the world. Similarly, forestry and the paper industry, which is traditionally the country’s largest sector (2) and still accounts for just over 20% of the country’s exports, have suffered a severe crisis. Most paper production has been relocated to Asia and Latin America and the weakest companies have disappeared.
The economic difficulties of this former capitalist paradise have also affected or threatened large sectors of the petty bourgeoisie; this has led to the emergence of an extreme right-wing political party which has become in a few years the third political force in the country, ’The Real Finns’. In their program there is a strong emphasis on the ’defense of the bosses of small and medium-sized enterprises’, alongside the defense of the ’Finnish identity’ (3) and anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic positions.
After their spectacular score in the parliamentary elections of 2015 (19%), the True Finns entered the government led by the Centre Party with the National Coalition Party, two traditional right-wing bourgeois parties.
The central objective of this reactionary government was the recovery of Finnish capitalism, which meant restoring the rate of profit by lowering the ’cost of labor’ and reducing social spending.
The main tool has been a ’competitiveness pact’ negotiated with trade unions, which is supposed to reduce labor costs by 3.5%. This was a package of austerity and anti-labor measures, the main ones being a wage freeze and an increase in working time (3 extra unpaid working days per year), an increase in the retirement age to 65 years from 2025 (which will vary thereafter according to the increase in life expectancy), a reduction in unemployment benefits, a 30% reduction in the payment of holiday pay for civil servants, an increase in employees’ social security contributions (and an equivalent reduction in company contributions); on the employers’ side, on the other hand, the ’pact’ provided for a reduction in taxes.
By worsening the situation of the working class and the masses, these measures have improved the health of the enterprises; however, they have not been able to bring the country out of a recession caused by the decline in its export market share in a sustainable manner. The growing unpopularity of the government led the True Finns to leave the government in 2017, causing a crisis within this party, with the ’moderates’ leaving it to remain in the coalition. This crisis and its more open positioning on the far right did not weaken the party, contrary to what political analysts believed. The April 2019 parliamentary elections were in fact marked by the retreat of the parties that were in government, in particular the Centre Party of the former Prime Minister, which experienced a real collapse. The Social Democratic Party won with 17.5% of the vote, but was hounded by the True Finns (17.2%). The new government was formed by an alliance with the Greens (which with 12% of the votes had a historic result), the ’Left Alliance’ (ex-CP) and... the Centre Party, which was disowned by its voters.
Despite the election promises of the left-wing parties, the new government only foresees a reduction in the austerity policy of the previous government; in particular, it has committed itself to carry out the ’reform’ of the social security and health system aimed at reducing costs by cutting back on benefits, initiated by the Centre Party. This did not prevent it from receiving the support of the trade unions, which were much more sensitive to its promises of productive investment than to the interests of the proletarians.
Victory of the Strikers
It did not take long for Finnish workers to realize, if they had any doubts, which side the new government was on. The Post Office, a semi-public institution, had decided to transfer 700 employees to a subsidiary as part of its quest for profitability, thereby cutting their salaries by up to 30%!
The project only just known, the workers went on strike on November 11. For almost two weeks, 10,000 postal workers followed the movement, in solidarity with the threatened workers and to demand wage increases. But the conflict extended beyond the Post Office: solidarity strikes were called on November 25 in land and air transport, ferries, etc.
When the threat of a blockade of the ports or even a general strike loomed, the management of the Post Office withdrew its project, no doubt at the instigation of the government, which was worried about a blockage of the economy (exports, mainly by sea, account for 40% of GDP). A few days later the Prime Minister was forced to resign under pressure from the Centre Party, which criticized him for his weakness in relation to the workers; it was the Minister of Transport who was elected in his place on December 8, becoming perhaps the youngest acting head of government in the world – she is 34.
This undeniable success of the proletarian struggle served as an encouragement to workers in other sectors. Thus, from December 9, 100,000 workers in industry (chemicals, wood and oil, etc.) and services went on strike for three days, demanding wage increases and an end to unpaid work and, more generally, anti-social measures that the new government has absolutely no intention of repealing; since September, a strike over unpaid overtime has been widely followed.
The withdrawal of the Post Office project is only a first victory for Finnish workers in the face of the attacks on them, which the current government, under pressure from the capitalists, does not intend to spare them. But this victory can and must serve as a lesson for future struggles and as an example for proletarians in other countries: it is by breaking with the well-established practices of class collaboration and social consensus, by launching an unlimited strike and by calling on workers in other sectors that it is possible to make a government back down.
There is no doubt that the Finnish trade unions will do everything in their power to try to get this lesson forgotten.
It is up to the proletarians of Finland and elsewhere to remember it and put it into practice!
(1) See «World Happiness report», 20/3/19.
(2) 60% of the exploited forest area belongs to private owners (26% to the State and the rest to logging companies, etc.): there are more than 600,000 of them (i.e. almost 14% of the population), half of them having only small properties (less than 2 hectares).
(3) In particular, they are hostile to compulsory Swedish language learning at school. Swedish is the country’s second official language, with the Swedish-speaking minority constituting about 5% of the population.
International Communist Party