This February, a confrontation took place in Finland between the right-wing government and the workers. Finnish PM Petteri Orpo pushes for a reform that limits social security for the unemployed, makes it easy to fire people, and undermines the right to organise and strike. The trade unions responded with a huge mobilisation at the beginning of the month and plan further action. 

Veronika Susova-Salminen, Finland-based journalist of Czech origin, explains how Helsinki are taking the path that her homeland and other Central European states once took: towards restricted workers’ rights and the state making business’ wishes come true. And while it happens under the pretext of working on more ‘productivity’, the key result would be more poverty and precariousness, she argues.

Full transcription of the recording is available below.

Hello to everybody listening or watching Cross-border Talks. Today we are going to discuss what happened in Finland last week. It is a truly historic event, a truly historic mobilization of working people participating in mass walkouts. Not exactly a strike, but I think we can explain it in more detail in a moment. But anyway, we are talking about a historical mobilization of the working class against the proposed policies of the right-wing government of Finland. We are going to discuss these matters with Veronika Susova-Salminen, a Czech-Finnish journalist based in Finland, who watched these events live in the country where she is based. Hello, Veronika!

Hello, everybody.

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Veronika, there were 300,000 people not working last week in Finland on two days of last week. Some of the media speak about the largest mass mobilization, if not in history, then perhaps at least in the history of the last few decades in Finland. Could you explain the reasons behind this mass walkouts, work stoppages, and what moves of the right wing government made Finnish working people so angry?

Yes. It was a huge strike for two days. Basically, in some cases it was two days, like Finnair, for example, was on strike for two days. In some cases only one day, Thursday. There were several confederations, the three biggest confederations of trade unions of Finland who went to this strike for, as a warning, for the time being, to the government.

Finland has the most right-wing government, most probably since the beginning of independence, since 1917. It is created by a coalition of two big parties, which is the National Coalition Party and Finns and two small parties, which is the traditional coalition partner, which is the Swedish party, representing the Swedish-speaking Finns and then Christian Democrats. This government came up with the so-called reform which is basically introducing huge changes into the labor conditions in Finland.

Both you and me, we are coming from the Central-Eastern European countries. For us, what we see here in Finland is déja vu. The very same things which are already in action in our countries for many years, which are now introduced in Finland, with the same argumentation. The key argument of the government is that it is necessary to lower the ratio of the debt of the government towards the gross domestic product. They say that this is a dangerous situation for Finland. In fact, this debt is about 73%, less than 75% of gross domestic product. It’s not a totally uncontrollable amount of debt.

Another proposal in labor laws, which is a deja vu for me as a Czech, concerns the abolition of the first day of sickness payment. In Czechia, the law goes further and there’s no sickness payment for three days. So they don’t start with the most radical way, but they start with this. We know what this means: this is actually pushing people to go to work sick. We know this will be the result.

Then, there are huge changes within social welfare. Specifically, they want to cut a lot of the unemployment grants, which they want to limit. They want to give you basically the full amount of money only for two months. After two months already, they are proposing to limit the unemployment support to 20%. In case your unemployment continues more than eight months, they will cut another 5%. They also are saying that because there is unemployment support, the amount of money is based on your income before you were fired or lost the job. This money is counted if you had at least a six month contract before and then you were fired or lost the job. Now you would need to be employed for at least 12 months.

Therefore, these people who are most vulnerable, who have only started working and have lost the jobs -because usually firms cut those who work for the shortest period – will be in this situation. If they work for shorter period than 12 months, they will not have a right to this money. They will get only the basic support, which is the next thing to be cut. Just like the children benefit for the unemployed.

At the moment, if you are unemployed and you have children, you are allowed to get a supplement, which is usually between 100 and 50 to less than €300 per month for a child. The proposal is to abolish this totally, so unemployed people will not get the extra support for their children. And they will get only 20% of the initial support sum if they remain unemployed for more than two months unemployed.

This is the proposal in a nutshell. There are many other things which they are proposing in the labour law, within this reform package. One of them is very serious and that’s why the trade unions are mobilising so much. The government basically wants to intervene in the possibility of a strike in Finland. This is something which is a continuous policy of these rightist politicians and parties who are representing more business interest than the interest of the working people.

They want to make political strikes in Finland illegal. A political strike, as you know, is the strike which is aimed to challenge or influence the policy of government. So these strikes would not be legal in Finland like, for example, in the United Kingdom. And we know how the development of trade unions and labor looks like in the United Kingdom. Next thing which they want to make illegal are solidarity strikes. Solidarity strikes are strikes between the different trade unions which support each other during the bargaining process. According to our government, such actions should be made illegal. The government claims it is needed because of the cuts, because of the dire economic situation. But as you can see, it is an attack on organized labor. This is nothing other than the attack on organized labor in Finland. So we can understand why trade unions are so angry about it and why there is such a huge mobilization.

Well, for our Eastern European or Central European viewers, the move to abolish solidarity strikes or political strikes is really nothing new. Again, the Central European analogies come to my mind, as here in Poland, for instance, it is impossible to strike in solidarity with other workers or even to stand up against anything other than particular working conditions or payment conditions in your workplace. So indeed, the government is going to deliver a horrendous blow on the Finnish organized workers movement and on the workers rights. So the question is why? What are the deeper grounds? Are we seeing another quite standard attempt of the business to maximize profits and an example of neoliberal thinking? Or is there really something very bad going on in the Finnish economy that makes the right-wing think that extreme moves must be necessary?

Well, I think this is still a continuation of the same policies which we have seen in many other countries. Unfortunately, you know, during the pandemic, there was a lot of talk that there is the end of neoliberalism and of neoliberal globalization. But in many countries in Europe, in the European Union, we see that this is not true. Finland or my country, Czech Republic are the best examples, I think, because both governments are doing policies, which are based on the Washington consensus in the time when the world is changing.

If you look on the situation of Finnish economy and what you can read in normal mainstream Finnish media, you hear that the Finnish economy has two big problems which lead to slight recession. The first problem are high interest rates. Which is, frankly, something that the government of Finland cannot influence because Finland is in the eurozone and the government cannot do much against this. The workers neither can, only they have to pay for it.

The second issue, which is mentioned usually as a reason for changes, is a typical neoliberal mantra about low productivity. But why this low productivity? Reasons for low productivity compared with, for example, Sweden or the United States, as there was such a comparison done, is that there is not enough technological edge in Finland anymore, Finland has also problems with education.This is something that the government should tackle. But instead, they are proposing social welfare cuts.

Young people will suffer by these cuts, which the government is introducing. They will be one of the most affected groups. I don’t think it goes together very well. I think the government does not actually say much about how the planned measures will help the economy. It sounds more like repeating mantra: it’s needed because of debt, we have to tackle the debt. Typical neoliberal way.

And as you can see, the way how they deal with the strikes, with the trade union and the organized labor is clearly showing that this is a long term process, long term attack on the organized labor. The government says: we have a majority, we have Parliament a majority, we have to do reforms. And you have a right to not agree. But that’s it, we will do what we want in the end. However, not only trade unions are criticizing these reforms, but also many economists, including the mainstream economists. Recently, for example, the Economic Policy Council criticized the way how this tackling of debt was being done. They say: you are cutting in wrong places and the cuts will influence mostly the same people – the lowest and poorest people who need the support will suffer. Meanwhile, the burden will be not similar for everybody.

It’s the return of the same policy. It’s possible to see how much the political establishment in our countries has no fantasies and how much this neoliberal way of thinking and acting continues to exist even under the conditions which are changing in the world. Because if you listen, what was discussed in Davos economic forum was that many things which this government is pushing to do – don’t work. One of the things which we know doesn’t work is that you cannot cut yourself to prosperity. You cannot. And this is what they are doing.

The economist you mentioned speak in a similar voice like Jarkku Elloranta of the Trade Union Confederation. He summed up that weaker job security and paid sick leave, and restrictions on the right to strike will enable a massive increase of social equality in Finland. And it is absolutely stunning to see another country pushing towards moves that were that did not work anywhere, as we discussed already in Cross-Border talks regarding both Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. So my question would be: how were the protests received in this society? And if the government is going to go stubbornly the same way, then are the trade unions planning for their actions?

I must say, I of course speak from personal experience, but I must say that the reaction in Finnish society was pretty standard. Strikes are not anything special here because Finland still has quite organized labor. Every year there are some strikes.

I live in a town where there is an important producer of paper. Last year, there was a strike, which continued, if I am not mistaken, for two or three months. The factory was closed, because there was no bargain reached. The workers didn’t go to work and they remained on strike for three, three months. So this is a pretty standard situation.

Trade unions are still an important part of any society, even if we see that the membership is declining, like everywhere. But still, if you compare it with other countries, Poland and Czech Republic, where trade union membership is no more than 12%, if I remember correctly, then the Finnish 75% looks very well. But these estimates are not correct because they usually also count students and pensioners, as pensioners in Finland are also trade union members. Experts say it could be 50, 53, 56% in relative to this part of the population which is actually working.

So there was no bad feeling about the strike. And it’s needless to say that we have closed, for example, grocery shops for one day. You couldn’t buy anything if you didn’t buy it before everything closed. Transport was, of course, in trouble, so you couldn’t travel normally and so on. But as I said, this is pretty normal. Some people don’t like it, of course, but usually people feel that there is a reason for it. And, there is some kind of solidarity.

The reaction of the government is classically arrogant. As I said, the Prime Minister reacted to the strike, saying that it was inappropriate and excessive and again repeated that the reform is what we have to do. You know, this is also typical neoliberal argumentation. There is no other alternative, no choice. We have to do it. They are killing any discussion and searching for alternatives. Since the beginning, they don’t want to engage in some kind of alternative discussion, compromise. The government makes clear that they think they are right.

The trade unions reaction is that they will continue to strike. A three day strike is planned between 14 and 16 February of this year, an industrial strike. Most of the biggest firms in Finland will be on strike, inclusing Nokia or the section of Skoda Transportation that makes tramways, or the really big paper factories. The trade unions are going to continue to push against the government and let’s see what the government will deal with. But from the Czech experience… In November, there was a strike, 1 million people went on strike and the government said we don’t care. Here there could be the same reaction.

In the final question, I’d like to ask about the international context of the recent developments. You mentioned the pandemic time, when, contrary to what was being said in the first months of COVID-19, it was not that liberalism is falling. Instead, a lot of measures were introduced to support business and to just let the workers try to survive on their own. Finland recently made headlines also in connection to the migration issues and general security questions in the Baltic region. How are those issues related to the labor dispute inside the country if there is a connection?

There are voices and experts which are actually saying that the fact that Finland quickly changed its concept of foreign policy and security policy (because Finland was, until last year, a neutral country), brings such result. We can dispute this past neutrality, because the European Union membership, in a way, changed the concept of Finnish neutrality anyway. Nevertheless, Finland did not belong to any military bloc. And then Finland became a member of NATO. This is a huge challenge for the Finnish foreign policy and security policy, because it’s a completely new situation, which they will have to deal with. It was done so quickly that I don’t think there was actually a real discussion.

Some of the experts comment that we are seeing a continuum. They say the neutrality of Finland during the Cold War, Finlandisation and the welfare state, the Nordic social state model, which everybody is admiring, were interconnected. But this model is going away. We have only a few elements of that system left and we can see that this is going away. The social welfare state and neutrality were connected together in this specific system. And now, as there is no neutrality, we have the era of reintroduction of neoliberalism.

Now the consensus is that finlandisation policy was bad for Finland. Now we have Americanization of Finland, Americanization on the level of consumer practices and not only. What happened in the Eastern and Central European countries many years ago, is now coming here. There is Americanization in the sense of demolition of the social security, demolition of the remains of the social welfare and the huge reorientation and dependence on the United States in terms of security. We are not only speaking about NATO – Finland recently signed a new contract with the United States, very similar to the contracts that Poland and the Czech Republic, and many other countries have. This bilateral agreement will allow the military of the United States Army to be present in the Finnish territory, near the Russian borders. I don’t say it will happen soon, but there are some signs that even nuclear weapons could be stationed or transferred, transported to Finland.

Alexander Stubb, who is the most probable candidate to become the president [he won the elections shortly after this interview was recorded – MKF] from the same coalition party which is now running the government and introducing the policies which we were talking about, said that he could imagine that the law in Finland would be changed. Right now the law in Finland forbids presence of any nuclear weaponry. It’s forbidden by the law. But he can imagine that under some conditions, the nuclear weapons could appear on Finnish territory. It is Americanization of foreign policy, the nuclear orientation, and within it we see the neoliberal processes of which Finland was spared in last years still, but now they are coming there. In a nutshell, what happened with Finland is that Finland is getting Americanized. It is also, unfortunately, becoming another Baltic country in terms of the policy towards Russia. All the Finnish specifics and uniqueness is gone.

Okay. I came up with one more question. It just came to my mind right now. Just a couple of years ago, Finland actually had a left-wing government, a coalition government with Social Democrats, with the Left party, with Green Party. A lot of people were excited about Sanna Marin, a former shop assistant who rose to become the Prime minister of Finland. Just in a few years, your country went the trajectory from having the one of the most progressive governments in the world to a government which is, as you said, the most right wing, the most hardcore right wing that you had since independent Finland came into being. So my last question would be then: how was it possible?

This is a very interesting question. I am also asking why how it’s possible that The Finns, who are a social conservative party, who always stood for a welfare state, even if it was welfare chauvinism, not for the migrants, of course, because they are anti-immigrant, how they can be a part of this government and push such policies. They are against basically the base of their program. We can see here how it is dangerous to believe these rightist populists. They were promising one thing and then they are doing the other thing. And it’s not the first time in the case of True Finns.

I think for Sanna Marin the negative moment – and this we saw in many countries – was the pandemic. People grew tired of the pandemic and the governments who were presiding over the pandemic policies. They voted against them. Marin’s pandemic policies were not so strict like we had in other countries, where people are even more angry because of restrictions. However, the loss of popularity of Marin is the reaction to the pandemic.

It is the classic change of the government. But there is also a belief that many people were not probably happy with some of the progressive policies which Marin was representing. There is here the conservative electorate, especially in the regions which are usually not so progressive, not so open-minded.

The Finns went to the government with this, as I said, program of social welfare for ethnic Finns, but instead they are doing these cuts, and these cuts are falling not on the immigrants on the first place, but on the same ethnic Finnish citizens. The poor people who live in these regions will pay the bills. It is curious how many people are still falling in the same voting trap that they should remember. Last time when the National Coalition Party was in government, they were trying to do the very same things, including the policy against increase of salaries. Many of their solutions came back now. But people still vote for these people, and they even vote for anti-establishment Finns who are now supporting this policy. Interesting situation. But this is what happened in Finland.

Hearing about Americanization in social plans or Americanization of the social welfare system is always bad news. And it is particularly bad news in the context of the Nordic welfare state, which, as you said, is actually disappearing before our eyes. This Nordic welfare state was also an argument for Social Democrats in our part of Europe to prove that there could be some form a state that cared about the citizens, even within the capitalist system. As we all can see right now, it is not so sure. We will be definitely following what is going on in Finland. We will be following the events to come. And thank you, Veronika, for explaining to us what is going on in a wider context.

You’re welcome.

And last but not least, I ask you all not to forget to subscribe to Cross-border Talk’s resources, not to miss any episode. Thank you very much and see you again.

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