Finland: Viking Line shipping company flounders – Nationalise to save jobs and boost conditions!

A Viking Line ship in Katajanokka harbor, Helsinki (Photo: Edmund Schluessel)

The well-known shipping company, the Viking Line, employs 3,000 workers and is one of Finland’s 50 biggest companies. It has just announced plans to cut 200 jobs. The company, whose income has fallen by 89% as a result of the COVID crisis, says it is still operating major routes only because of a bailout from Huoltovarmuuskeskus – the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency.

Viking Line carries out cargo and passenger operations. Both are absolutely necessary for the Finnish economy – cargo shipping – because Finland’s industrial production is geared to the export of raw materials and manufactured goods. But Finland relies on foreign production for automotive and passenger transport because many workers in Finland live in Estonia and commute on a daily or weekly basis. As such, the case is obvious that Viking should be brought under democratic public ownership and control and operated democratically, for public benefit.

Viking’s particular circumstances also underscore how this nationalisation should be paid for only on the basis of proven need for stakeholders, rather than as a buyout with huge sums of money going to investors. The company, Viking Line ABP, bears responsibility for one of the greatest assaults on workers’ rights in the history of postwar Europe.

In 2007 it sought to re-flag one of its vessels from Finland to Estonia with an eye to paying its crew the far lower Estonian prevailing wage levels. Merimies-Unioni, the Finnish Seafarers’ Union, rightly worked with its partner unions to prepare for cross-border industrial action, and Viking took the matter to European Union courts. The EU courts ruled that Viking Line ABP’s abstract “right of establishment” was more important than workers’ material freedom to down tools and fight against a scheming employer.

Promises and reality

While there is a strong possibility that the Finnish state will bail out Viking again, there should be no illusion that the current Finnish government will implement any plan that will secure all Viking workers’ jobs. Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s government has received some positive attention this week as word circulated that it would consider establishing a working group to look at a long-term plan to shorten the working week with no loss of pay. If implemented this would be an enormous advance. However, in the here and now, that same government is signing off on layoffs in state-owned Finnair and Posti. While it has promised to “find new jobs” for just-laid-off UPM Tractor workers, it has no plans to use its investment powers to create new jobs, nor to save the ones already under threat.

The Viking case has exposed the European Union as an entity that fights solely for the interests of bosses. The decision has opened the way for companies across Europe to undermine workers’ wages and collective bargaining rights. A Viking Line run on socialist lines would be paying workers for the value of their work, not lining investors’ pockets. No Viking Line worker deserves to be punished for the drop in shipping due to the COVID outbreak – and no Viking Line investor deserves to get a single penny for their super-exploitation of Viking workers’ labour.

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September 2020