Political strike brings Finland to a standstill

Thunderstorms and heavy downpour greeted a national walkout by Finnish workers on Friday 18th September. Nevertheless tens of thousands braved the rain to demonstrate outside Helsinki Railway Station against Government proposals to ban long-standing collective bargaining agreements. Some 300 000 workers throughout Finland stopped work in defence of hard won holidays, sick pay, unsociable hours payments and a proposed 5% pay cut.

The Government response to economic stagnation is to argue that the labour market needs to be reformed to make Finnish industry more competitive and to introduce deep cuts in services. Past agreements have had legal recognition to protect minimum standards for employees, but now the Government wishes to impose a legal maximum. Collective bargaining agreements are scheduled to be renegotiated next year and it would become illegal to exceed the new caps and retain existing benefits. Following the May general election the governing coalition is now led by the Centre Party, with the National Coalition and the far-right True Finns Party. This strategy aims to allow efficiency reforms without a spate of strikes.

The general strike, which is still legal in Finland, has been called jointly by the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff (AKAVA) and Confederation of Professionals (STTK). Together they represent over 2 million members, out of a total population in Finland of about 5.5 million. 70% of women and 60% of men in Finland are unionised (source STTK), making it the world's most densely unionised country excluding Iceland (source OECD). 2013 saw an increase on the year before to 25,999 days lost through strike (source AKAVA) for the whole year. So in just one day the government has provoked a tenfold increase in annual strike days.

On the same day, students at Helsinki University have occupied the Faculty of Law in protest at Government cuts. Funding for education has been cut, with directives to the higher education sector to seek alternative income sources. For the first time they are expected to introduce fees for non-EU students. There is increased pressure for research and courses to be funded through commercial partners. Helsinki University, has been particularly hit with a 15% cut in funding. With labour costs the main expense in higher education, this is projected to lead to the loss of some 1,200 staff. The students are concerned that teaching could be placed in jeopardy.

The previous coalition headed by the National Coalition Party with Social Democrats, Swedish People's Party and Christian Democrats tried unsuccessfully to impose an austerity-light agenda. Now, however, the leader of the Social Democrats, Antti Rinne, has supported the strike and was a speaker at the Helsinki demonstration.

As well as the anti-union laws, the incoming government have an agenda of cuts to health and social care, education, rail services, unemployment benefits, and more. Friday's stoppages affected bus, rail, air and harbour traffic. It included many factories, offices and shop staff. Police and health workers joined the strike, maintaining essential cover. Most of the stoppages were only for a few hours, but the effects were felt throughout the day. A parliamentary debate due on Wednesday to discuss the proposals has now been postponed while PM Juha Sipilä visits Germany to discuss the refugee crisis. However, while the thunderstorms over Helsinki may have subsided by the time he returns, he is unlikely to find it so easy to quieten the industrial storm his government have provoked.

Espoo, Finland. 18/09/2015

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