Weeks of escalating strike action by Finland’s 10,000 postal workers came to an abrupt end on the morning of Wednesday, 27 November. The postal and logistics union, PAU, reached an agreement with the semi-privatised national postal company, Posti, to maintain the salaries of 700 parcel sorting workers in a new two-year agreement.
Posti had threatened to undermine the postal workers, their collective bargaining agreement and the principle of collective bargaining, in one fell swoop, by using a bureaucratic loophole to cut the workers’ salaries by up to 50% before Christmas. PAU members responded to the outrage first with spontaneous walkouts, then with the promise of postal strikes continuing throughout the Christmas rush.
But the postal workers knew they must not stand alone. Last week, on the steps of the Parliament, PAU members put out a public call for a general strike, which would have been Finland’s first since the 1950s. Other unions meanwhile carried on escalating solidarity action. Helsinki’s buses and ferries were shut down and many flights cancelled on Monday. More transport unions were promising to shut down travel across the country with rolling action. Even mainstream news sources quickly began to take the possibility of a general strike seriously.
Many in Finland thought no union would take decisive action with a Social Democratic-led government in power. The Rinne government’s ineffectiveness in handling the strike has astonished the country. For months, ministers talked in circles, refusing to commit to supporting the postal workers, instead only offering meaningless “exploratory commissions” and floating bizarre deals which would see the majority of Finland’s postal services fully privatised.
PAU’s local victory comes with a shortcoming. While the union won its immediate demand, the fundamental problem – privatised public services run by millionaire bosses – remains unresolved. PAU’s leaders were willing to use the threat of a general strike but refused to turn the action into a truly political strike, which would have brought the whole working class together against austerity and privatisation.
But Finland’s workers have learned important lessons: militant demands and the credible prospect of militant action gets results. A government which calls itself “centre-left” is not, when it comes down to it, on the side of the unions. But also bureaucratic union leaders can be pushed into action from below, by shop stewards and other rank-and-file workers.
More strikes on horizon
More and bigger strikes are on the horizon. City service workers in Turku, Finland’s third-largest city, will strike for three days next week over the administration’s failure to provide a new contract. Electricity workers will take action on the 5 December, in a strike already delayed since November, by the government arguing it might “threaten society.” Just as the postal workers were celebrating their victory, news broke that the bosses in the logging and forestry industry will be retaliating for three days of wood workers’ strikes by locking them out of work for a week, starting on 12 December.
As national collective bargaining continues, more and more workers are realising that Finland’s bosses are colluding behind the scenes in a coordinated attack on pay, working conditions and union rights. A general strike, workers standing together as a class, is one of the most powerful tools workers have with which to fight back. Moreover, each of the three general strikes in Finland’s history has led to a reshaping of the country’s political landscape in favour of the unions.
Every working class person in Finland should look to the solidarity offered to the PAU as an inspiring example for action. And ready their unions for fighting together in a struggle against privatisation, against attacks on workers’ rights and against the logic of the capitalist system itself.
Postscript 29 November
The Minister for State Ownership, Sirpa Paatero, resigned today as a consequence of what happened in the Posti dispute. She had done nothing to stop Posti, the employer, from switching the parcel sorting workers to the lower-paying portion of the contract. The dispute has been putting parliamentary pressure on the government. The opposition is using the dispute to make the case that the Social Democrats are incompetent at managing the labour market. But with the Left Alliance part of the government, and so keeping opportunistically silent, all the parliamentary opposition is coming from the right.