Finland: 24,000 paper mill workers on strike

“We are prepared to strike as long as needed”

“We are prepared to strike as long as needed, we have no choice”, says Annikki Kronbäck, striking worker at Stora Enso’s factory in Kemi, north Finland.

Since Sunday 15 May, 24 000 paper mill workers in Finland are on strike against the employer’s frontal attack on their working conditions. When we visited them, on Tuesday 17 May, negotiations were taking place, but the employers’ and the union’s position are far from each other and the strike will continue for three more days.

The first national strike in Finish pulp and paper industry broke out after a number of attacks by the employers. They demand two days without pay when workers are ill, interrupted holidays, continued production on holidays, weekends and bank holidays, 12 hour working days when demanded by the employer, worsening shift hours in the summer and the right to use more subcontractors (for example for cleaning).

“We can’t run our own lives, they are playing with people. In addition, the new system means that extra staff in the summer are not needed, which is bad for the youth”, comments Annikki Kronbäck.

The paper industry capitalists, led by Arto Tähtinen, have answered the strike by giving notice of a 13 day long lockout. They are aiming to force through their demands and believe that they can smash the union.

“The strike money paid the workers is 16 euro a day, but the strike costs more for the companies which claim to lose 40 million euro per day. In addition chemical industry and transports on both land and sea are affected, says Juha Veittikoski.

“The employers are also threatening to move production abroad, but they have no idea of what they are talking about”, continues Juha Veittikoski.

Despite the aggressive position of the employers, the workers are optimistic about a victory.

“We have strong support from all workers, they realise that this is only the beginning. If the capitalists win, the same demands will later be forced upon all workers. In the most important issues we will win. Even lower ranking managers are talking about striking out of support”, says Annikki Kronbäck. She also told us that the trade unions of the Metal, Transport and Chemical workers have declared they are prepared to take support measures. However, the pulp and paper industry workers’ union, Paperiliitto, has not asked for any support actions yet.

Erkki Hakala has worked for 31 years at Stora Enso in Kemi and tells us about the profits of the industry:

“In ten years, the number of workers in the Kemi factory has almost halved, from 1,800 to 1,000. Yet, we are producing much more today”. The workers believe that this attack originates from the EK, the national employers’ federation in Finland.

“Even if our union is not the biggest, it’s the strongest and that’s why they are attempting to break us first”, says Juha Veittikoski. This struggle could be compared to Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the strong British miners’ union NUM in the 1980s. To defeat the miners’ strike was a precondition for further attacks on the British working class, including privatisations and anti-union laws.

The trade union leadership has strong support and the workers do not think they will give in. At the same time, they feel no support from the political parties.

“None of the workers’ parties (social democrats and the left party), takes any responsibility”, says Hakala Erkki.

When we tell them about the sharp move to the right of social democracy in Sweden and why Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) argues for a new workers’ party, the workers’ response is that the situation is similar in Finland.

So far, the union in Kemi has not organised any demonstrations or public actions.

“We’ve had enough to do, organising the strikes (before this strike, they have been out on several one-day strikes), but we need to do something now”, says Annikki Kronbäck.

She and her colleagues are very careful in thanking the Swedish unions for their overtime ban in support of the strike.

“The pulp and paper industry director, Arto Tähtinen, didn’t believe that we would get international support and threatened to move production abroad if we didn’t give in. It is important that Swedish workers support us. If we don’t stop these attacks they will spread to Sweden and Stora Enso everywhere. And not only in the pulp and paper industry”, says Annikki Kronbäck.

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May 2005