In late march, the conservative Coalition Party led the so-called “six-pack” government in presenting a new budget. It is yet another blow against the Finnish working class. Last year’s cuts were doubled to a total of 5.2 billion euros, while the government and employers exercised blackmail against the unions and pushed through attacks on pensions. Given that the Left Alliance (VAS) and the Social Democrats outrageously continue to participate in the government’s attacks, the question arises of how resistance and a new workers’ party can be built.
Sosialistinen Vaihtoehto (CWI Finland) has interviewed Juha Tapio, member of Oulu City Council, on the new budget. He was elected to the City Council on a Left Alliance list but dropped out in protest against their rightward turn.
What do you think of the new budget?
It reduces the money for all the important things: education, social care, and health care. Raising the tax has not been done properly. Ordinary workers and the poor get more taxes, such as the rise in the VAT. The largest increase in tax revenue comes from an increase in the VAT on food products. The municipal tax will be increased, while government grants will be cut by 240 million euros. And local taxes are not progressive, as is the state tax. In addition, there will be cuts in the local authorities that already have big problems with large debts.
How can the Left Alliance agree to this budget?
They say: "Now the rich pay." Those with over 100,000 euros in annual income have to pay a "solidarity tax". But the tax is almost nothing on the whole and is not even permanent. Moreover, it is as Esko Sepponen (former MEP for the VAS and economics scholar) said: "The solidarity tax does not apply to capital income, such as dividends, bonds, etc." The new tax is about equivalent to the wealth tax which was abolished by the previous government. They also defend themselves by “cuts in the military”, but while the defense is dismantled and the regiments are closed, they buy equipment for offensive wars, for example buying new missiles from the United States.
What is the deal on pensions?
The government has always talked about raising the retirement age. Now, SAK (Finnish trade union coalition), STTK [union federation for salaried and professional employees], and the academics union AKAVA agreed to raise the retirement age, in return for getting, for example, a part-time pension. The deal also means worsening unemployment benefits for those employed for less than three years, often young people, by 100 days. In addition to that, they are reducing unemployment days by an additional 100 days for individuals who do not “accept activity”, such as a “course” or an internship without pay.
Is there any opposition in the VAS to the budget?
Yes, a lot. There are some who accept everything the government does, but the opposition is getting bigger and bigger. Many want them to leave the government. Markus Mustajärvi (MP expelled from the parliamentary group because he refused to support the government), for example, correctly calls these right-wing policies.
How did ordinary people react to the cuts?
Bourgeois propaganda “on the need to cut back” is so big, and has been heard for such a long time, that people did not expect anything else. Many people feel bad and see no alternative. The Left Alliance is not likely to get good results in local elections in October.
Will the True Finns [Finnish nationalist party] take advantage of the discontent?
They are trying to. In the municipalities, for example in Oulu, they do almost nothing. Just sit and want to be friends with the majority, especially the traditional bourgeois parties. But at the national level, the party leader Timo Soini is making opposition policies, although he has very little to say. An interesting question is: will people trust the True Finns? In this case, it is only because there is no alternative. Or, will they not vote at all? Already, there are very few who vote in municipal elections, about 50 percent. Poor and young people are those who primarily do not vote; they are disappointed in all parties.
Sosialistinen Vaihtoehto and CWI: "For a new workers’ party"
The “six pack” government’s latest budget is a frontal attack on the working class, and it is certainly not the last. The Finnish capitalist class, just like their European colleagues, want to let workers, young people, seniors, immigrants, and others pay for the crisis that they themselves have created. They use the turmoil and the atmosphere of crisis to force through attacks on workers’ rights and severely weaken the unions’ position. Attacks on the unemployed, precarious employment, more work agencies, and other social problems open the door to a growth of the low-wage job market, where more and more workers get sucked in. Not surprisingly, the main bourgeois paper, the Helsingin Sanomat, applauded the budget and the retirement package and called it the "Finnish model".
What is being applauded is in reality a model in which the working class’s interests are totally denied while the capitalists walk free - with union leaders and so-called workers’ parties giving them a “free pass”. This policy is not a solution and has no end. In Ireland, there is a similar "consensus" plan to cut the public sector by half by 2014, and the country’s young people are fleeing the country. Not unexpectedly, the bourgeois Hufvudstadsbladet (the highest-circulation Swedish-language newspaper in Finland) comments that the budget cuts probably will not be enough in the long run. All the while, the Finnish/Swedish bank Nordea reports record earnings and Finnair’s board give themselves bonuses as the cabin crew are supposed to accept reduced wages.
In addition to the cuts going on, a neo-liberal regime shift is underway in the public sector. For example, reduced resources in combination with proposals for performance-based grants to schools destroy any possibility of an equal educational system.
The fact that the Left Alliance and the Social Democrats participate in this and sit in a right-wing-led government is a historic betrayal. In recent years, the unions have called several major strikes to stop the worsening conditions: paper mill workers, stevedores, bus drivers, and others have been at least partially able to stop some attacks. Meanwhile, many walk-outs have been called to protest against cuts and closures. Instead of building on this nascent radicalization and militancy, to build a nationwide movement against the right-wing policy, the VAS and Social Democracy have stabbed the workers’ struggle in the back, by being part of a government for the capitalists. The Defense Minister and Social Democrat Stefan Wallin argues that in the present situation one must "take off the ideological glasses" and that everyone must "give up something." But Social Democracy and VAS have not only put on neoliberal spectacles, but a conservative straitjacket as well when they accept a “balanced budget” and the dictatorship of the market.
The fact that the ruling class is taking advantage of this situation can clearly be seen in the witch hunt against the transport workers union AKT. Regardless of the veracity of the allegations of sexual harassment lodged against AKT’s chairman, it is obvious that the media and the government are doing everything they can to weaken one of the more militant unions in Finland.
Sosialistinen Vaihtoehto and CWI argue that opposition trends within the Left Alliance and the trade union movement, those who want to fight against these policies, must come together to discuss how the resistance can be formed. A call should be made for the SAK to follow the example from Europe by launching a strike movement, where a one-day political strike against the government, with full mobilization of the members, could be a first step. Resisting the government policies must also include a discussion of how workers and youth can have a political voice that is also involved in the fight against cuts to pay, services, and so on. Sosialistinen Vaihtoehto argues that a new fighting mass workers’ party must be formed.
Sosialistinen Vaihtoehto and CWI support all initiatives in that direction, while we emphasize the need for building a strong and well-organized socialist formation in such a resistance movement. There is no solution to the crisis of capitalism as long as the capitalist system is maintained. Karl Marx was right when he said that crises are an organic part of the system, caused by the simple fact that the workers under capitalism do not get paid the full value of what they produce, and hence in the long run are unable to buy back the goods they produced. Capitalism, with its endless quest for profits, must be abolished and replaced by a system in which resources are allocated on the basis of human need, according to a democratically decided plan. In practice, this democratic socialist policy means a struggle for nationalization of banks and big corporations, under democratic control and management from below by workers, unions, elected officials, and consumers.