As the Eurozone lurches from crisis to crisis, and governments of the member states seek to unload the burden onto the poorest in society, people have been fighting back. From the titanic struggles in Greece and Spain, to the election of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, we have seen the rise of powerful movements across the continent. Now, this radicalisation is beginning to have an effect in Finland with a major public sector strike.
Unions representing 2.2 million workers, representing 80 % of the workforce in a country of only 5.5 million, recently called a one-day political general strike in protest against the cuts proposed by the right-wing coalition government. The Government intends to shorten annual leave, turn two weekday holidays into days without pay, make the first day of sick leave unpaid, reduce pay during sick leave and cut extra pay for overtime and Sunday work. These changes are expected to come into effect from the beginning of 2017.
Alongside Germany, Finland has been one of the most enthusiastic proponents of austerity in the Eurozone. Now, the government proposes that the Finnish people take the same medicine that has been inflicted on the Greeks. As Timo Soini, leader of the far right True Finns and foreign minister, put it, “If you messed things up yourselves, you must clean it up yourselves. Now we must take strong medicine.”
However, this does beg the obvious question—who exactly has “messed up,” and who should “take the medicine”? Governments across the Eurozone are united in their view: the 99% must pay for the crisis, so that the 1% can continue to profit. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of Finns said #stop!
Attending the huge rally in Rautatientori Square, Helsinki, I was immediately struck by the number of people there. The square was packed—the organisers claimed 30,000 had braved the torrential rain, and I can well believe it. People spilled out onto the surrounding streets, and a carnival atmosphere pervaded, with music playing across the PA system and kiosks selling hotdogs to the demonstrators. (The lyrics of It's Raining Men seemed somewhat incongruous, though they did at least reflect the foul weather.) However, behind the carnival atmosphere was a steely determination to defeat this increasingly unpopular government.
The first two people I spoke to on the demo were trade union officials. Mikko Koskinen, a 34-year-old employee of the Finnish Trade Union Confederation, explained the motivation for the strike:
“We are opposing the government’s plans to cut out benefits for the workers,” he said, “especially those concerning night and weekend work. The big plan the government is suggesting is that there should be forced legislation that cuts out the possibility for workers to negotiate better terms and conditions.” (Hear the whole interview here)
When I asked him what effect the cuts were having, Mikko continued, “This is a long road ahead, because we haven’t seen any legislation yet. We have made some calculations about the effects on workers, and the biggest effects will be on people working in the public sector, those people on lower incomes. They will lose around 10% of their salaries because of these plans.”
Finally, he struck a conciliatory tone: “I still hope that there is time and willingness to negotiate something other than this forced legislation, and the idea of this event is to show the government that we aren’t happy, but we’re willing to negotiate to make Finland a competitive country again.”
26-year-old Susanna Haapalainen, working for public sector union JHL, echoed these sentiments.
“The protest is mostly about our right to negotiate collective agreements,” she said, “because the government is trying to restrict our right to negotiate. That’s the main reason, but also because of the individual things that the government is trying to put through—from 2017, the first day of sick leave will be unpaid, which is a really important issue for our members and all the workers in Finland.”
“The cuts that are planning to be made will not improve the status of the Finnish economy,” she continued. “I would really like to see negotiations. That’s how Finland used to work; I really hope the government will come to its senses and stop this ridiculousness.” (Hear the whole interview here)
So, for the trade unions, the demo was a show of strength to bring the government to its senses. But are these cuts simply a result of a collective attack of insanity by a government? I spoke to a number of other people in the demo who believed the problems ran much deeper, and struck a more militant tone. 34-year-old municipal worker Antti Kaajakari was critical of the approach of the unions.
“I’m most worried about how even on the workers’ side, the big unions agree a little bit with the government that we have to make some kinds of cuts,” he argued, “and I don’t believe that’s the right attitude. It doesn’t help, because people won’t have money to buy things, and small businesses won’t be able to sell their products, so I don’t believe it’s the right medicine to make any cuts. If you’re making things to export, this depression is global, so it doesn’t help to make cuts inside this country. We cannot compete with China, we cannot make our employees live in these conditions—we need a different kind of solution.
“I’m a little bit afraid that our government will start by proposing extreme cuts, but then pretend to listen to the protest and say we only need a few cuts—that’s their tactic. I believe much more in Keynes’ economic theory—if you have a depression, you should invest money to help the economy.” (Here the full interview here)
Taru Kulmala, a 23-year-old student studying social work, was angry about what effects the cuts would have on the unemployed and people with mental health problems.
“If you cut social services, you’ll cause more problems,” she began, “and that will cost so much more than preventing the problems in the first place.”
When I asked her what she thought of the right-wing argument that the cuts were unavoidable, she was defiant.
“Rich people are not paying as much tax as they should—tax avoidance. Our prime minister has a lot of money, but he avoids paying tax. That’s only possible for the rich people; it’s not possible for poor people, because we don’t have lawyers.” (Here the full interview here)
The hypocrisy of the super-rich, who propose cuts for the rest of us whilst avoiding paying tax themselves, came up more than once. 27-year-old Henri Kelavirta, who works at a food production company, continued this theme:
“The right wing are telling us that we have to do this, but we are losing tax money through tax avoidance, 6–8 billion euros a year. We should stop this—that’s would be my option. I don’t see any option except to continue the strikes until we stop the government.” (Here the full interview here)
It was clear to me that, whilst the unions remained hopeful of negotiating with the government, many people there wanted the protest movement to escalate further. People are beginning to see through the lies and hypocrisy of the tax-avoiding 1%, who propose misery for the millions, and millions for themselves. People were clearly looking for a political alternative to the cuts—hence Antti’s reference to Keynes and Taru’s demand to crack down on tax avoidance. The unions and the left must put forward an alternative political programme, one that can really solve the problems of the 99% and win mass support.
A decade ago, whilst people accepted that “excitable” Southern Europeans might strike and protest, it was “common sense” that such things could never happen in calm, sleepy Northern Europe. Now, nearly ten years after the global crash shattered any illusions that capitalism could lead to increasing prosperity for the majority, this is starting to change. In Britain, a whole series of escalating struggles has culminated in the election of possibly the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has also been noticed in Finland. Mikko and Henri both knew about his campaign (a “new start for the Labour Party” was how Mikko described it), and Antti was extremely enthused by it:
“We need to make changes in every country,” he argued. “It’s not enough to do it in one country—we saw that with Greece. There was so much pressure put on them, and they had to let down their supporters. It will take that kind of movement in every European country if we want to make that change. We need to think internationally.”
This instinctive internationalism is important—it’s obvious to many workers that the problems cannot be solved in one country, and a global onslaught against our rights and living conditions requires a global fight back.
But Britain isn’t the only country in Northern Europe where the workers have started to move. Now the Finnish workers have taken action. Whilst the crisis in Finland hasn't reached the severe levels of Southern Europe, it is becoming clear that the “Nordic model” of regulated capitalism and high living standards is dying on its feet. Neighbouring Sweden has seen a decade of cuts and privatisations, and even riots; Finland has been particularly hard hit by the decline of Nokia, as well as the decreasing demand for paper, which fuelled its paper industry. Coupled with ballooning state debt—said to be increasing at a rate of €1 million per hour—an unemployment rate of 10.3%, and a debt-to-GDP ratio well over the Eurozone target of 60%, it is clear that Finland is in crisis. Words like “crisis” trip off the tongue so easily that we often forget the human cost—in Helsinki alone, up to 3,000 people use food banks every day, unable even to feed their families without help. These cuts will make a deteriorating situation much worse for the poorest in society.
What has been the role of the Social Democrats in all of this? Disgracefully, they entered a coalition with the right-wing Kokoomus Party to carry out cuts, and were punished by the working class in the last elections. This period has seen the decline of Social Democratic parties across Europe, with PSOE in Spain and PASOK in Greece being particularly obvious examples. The crisis of capitalism leaves little room for granting reforms within the system, leaving many of these parties to carry out programmes indistinguishable from the right wing. The workers and youth have turned away in disgust, finding other outlets for the class struggle.
This action represents an enormous step forward, and shows that the Finnish working class will not meekly accept the demand that they pay for this crisis, but will fight to defend the gains that have been won over the past 50 years. However, this must mark the beginning of the movement, not its conclusion. The next step is to bring out the rest of the unions in a truly general strike, not just of 300,000 but of all 2.2 million union members. The scope for the government to negotiate will be severely limited by the crisis in Finland and the Eurozone, and the goal must be to bring down this rotten, right-wing government. An escalating series of general strikes must be organised with this aim at the forefront.
But it is not enough to oppose the government—a political alternative must be put forward, one of hope and optimism, that shows the world can get better. There is plenty of wealth in Finland, sitting in the accounts of the 1%, that parasitic class that refuses even to pay its taxes. Tax avoidance by big corporations and wealthy individuals must be brought to the forefront, to counter the lies by the right wing that “we're all in this together.”
But it's not possible to end tax avoidance, as the rich always find a way around any regulation or simply move the money out of the country. We must not just tax the largest companies, but take them over. The real wealth of society is created by working people, and should belong to our class. The banks and big multinationals must be taken into public ownership and placed under democratic management; they could then be used to plan a massive programme of investment, in infrastructure and technology, harnessing the talents of the Finnish population. Such a plan would end the crisis once and for all.