Finland: Nurses rally against social democratic government’s “forced labor” law

Workers in Finland taking action in 2019 (Photo: Sippo Kähmi)

Finland’s nurses are outraged at government plans to take away their right to strike as a dispute over salaries continues. Early this month, nurses’ unions, Tehy and SuPer, announced plans to return to strike action after suspending it in April. The government, led by the Social Democrats, and with the backing of all its coalition partners, has rushed a bill to Parliament that will allow employers to force nurses back to work even if they resign from their jobs. Nurses are calling the bill, the so-called “Patient Safety Act,” a “forced labor law.”

Hundreds of nurses demonstrated outside the Parliament building on Friday 16 September. Many carried handmade signs reading simply, “We are nurses, not slaves.” Tehy and SuPer correctly point out that this extraordinary attack on industrial rights is being deployed first against a sector traditionally dominated by women. The government, led largely by women, is cynically relying on sexism to set a precedent undermining the position of the entire working class.

Finland’s shortage of nurses is over a decade old, with some 25,000 people working as nurses while the country needs over 30,000. The explanation is simple: while the public health care system in Finland has historically been robust, nurses’ pay seriously lags behind that in other countries. Even the UK, notorious for neglect of its health care staff, pays nurses 10% better compared to the country’s mean salary. Finnish nurses are proportionally among the worst-paid in Europe.

Yet Family Affairs and Social Services minister, Aki Lindén, who has repeatedly said that “all stones must be turned” in resolving the shortage, has consistently, missed the most important stone: raising nurses’ pay. Tehy and SuPer have proposed a modest pay rise plan which would close the salary gap over five years but the government, currently in the midst of deciding its final budget, refuses to consider the option. Under normal circumstances, this response would be frustrating and laughable. Coming just weeks after the government’s draft budget proposed billions of euro increases for military spending, and an additional 10 billion euro line of credit for energy companies was opened, the idea that the money for nurses isn’t there is beyond belief.

Instead, the Finnish government is turning purely to intimidation. Not only is the law restricting industrial action being rushed through against popular opinion and basic human rights, but the courts are once again being deployed against workers in motion. On Wednesday 14 September, Helsinki District Court blocked the union’s strike, ostensibly to give more time for negotiations. While such a move has become increasingly common under the SDP government, with courts or ministers also blocking strikes by electricians, teachers and heating workers, the Helsinki court’s ruling took a new tack: the right of nurses to strike, they claim, is overcome by the constitutional “right to life” and “right to health” of hospital patients.

Such a precedent lines up with employers’ and the government’s propaganda that health care strikes are somehow irresponsible. However, as nurses are quick to note, the risk to patients comes not from industrial action–and indeed, the nurses’ unions negotiate minimum staffing levels for strikes with employers to keep intensive care units open–but from the chronic under-staffing and under-resourcing of the healthcare system. No amount of blunt-force tactics will bully more health care capacity into existence.

EU’s approach

The precedent also lines up with the EU approach toward “rights,” and indeed the court cited the European Convention on Human Rights in its decision. Namely, under the EU, lip service is paid to ideas like the freedom from slavery and forced labour — but these freedoms are always, in practice, made secondary to an employers’ “right” to exploit workers.

Strange how the “right to life” and “right to health” seem not to obligate the state to guarantee the good operation of its health care system! The law is already causing damage even before its passage: 3% of Finland’s registered nurses have asked this month to be voluntarily struck off the nursing register in order to avoid being forced to work against their will.

SuPer and Tehy are in a difficult position strategically. In April, when the forced labor law was first mooted, public sector units were all in dispute at the same time. However, the unions failed to work together to coordinate actions–a critical mistake. The nurses’ unions also took the strange step of suspending strike action and instead telling their members to prepare to resign from their jobs. While this might be a good tactic under rare circumstances, in this case the result was a huge loss of momentum. Now, the other public sector unions have concluded contracts and are demobilized, and the nurses are isolated and vulnerable.

It will take solid, militant industrial action to push back against this “center-left” government that has picked a Thatcheresque fight with its workers. It will also take broad popular support. Thus the Left Alliance’s choice to back the law, announced after a few ill-defined and abstract concessions, is all the more revolting. To their credit, two Left Alliance MPs say they will vote against it, but this act of opposition is just a token. Party leader, Li Andersson, who came to power on the back of members’ disgust at the party having supported the Conservative-led Katainen government, has consistently sold out her members. Her party’s platform, as the Rinne and Marin governments betrayed postal workers and rail workers, pushed ahead with cuts and privatization, and rushed the country into NATO.

That’s why workers need an unambiguously socialist voice, based in the unions and the working class, and independent of big donors and career bureaucrats. Workers deserve better than the choice of either staying in a workplace, or a party that holds them in contempt, or quitting and finding themselves alone and adrift. We need a mass socialist party to unite the working class and fight back against all forms of discrimination and oppression.

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September 2022