Strike action is rocking Finland, with 300,000 workers across almost all major unions taking action between 31 January and 2 February. The cause of the strike, the first explicitly political broad strike wave since 2015, is firstly against a government plan to cap pay rises across all sectors at whatever amount is won by the export sector in collective negotiations. Anger at cuts to practically all forms of support for workers and attacks on practically all working rights is providing an additional and pervasive drive for workers to take action.
But while the strikes are broad, union leaders across all sectors are holding the action back. While the strikes are somewhat coordinated, they are piecemeal. Around 300,000 workers is only a fraction of the millions of unionized workers in Finland. Eighty-two percent of teachers’ union OAJ’s members said they were ready to strike — but OAJ’s leaders called only one sector, early-years childcare, out on strike, for less than one day.
Union leaders have been explicit about what they are not trying to do. White-collar union confederation STTK’s leader Antti Palola has stated, “Our aim is not to bring down the government or to be an extra-parliamentary opposition force, but to protest against the government’s programme on labour market laws and cuts to social security.” Pointedly, union leaders have been clear that they are not organizing a general strike.
The unions are acting because of pressure from below: the government attacks on pay and benefits are hugely unpopular across the working class, and the leaders of the unions would lose all credibility if they failed to act. But at the same time, Palola’s statement is quite telling: those same union leaders know that if they called a general strike, then any escalation from there would call upon them to bring down the government, to form an extra-parliamentary opposition. The top of the trade union movement is telling workers and capitalists alike that this is exactly what they will not do.
An escalation to a general strike is not ruled out, and it would be welcome. But a general strike must pose the question of an ideological alternative to the attacks on workers offered by the Conservatives and the Social Democrats alike. Workers will ask “why are our unions not opposing all cuts?” and “why are our unions not trying to bring down this racism-riddled, worker-hating government?” and the union leaders will have no answer.
Thus we see evidence of the total ideological brain-death of Finland’s parliamentary opposition parties. Even self-proclaimed socialist Li Andersson, self-proclaimed communist, Veronika Honkasalo and Left Alliance organ Kansan Uutiset, while saying they oppose the cuts, cannot bring themselves to actually articulate any competing plan beyond “higher taxes.” None will say what millions of workers in Finland are openly saying: ‘the capitalist system demands workers suffer and will not be negotiated into a state of equity’.
No wonder so many are being fooled into seeing the racist, far right Finns Party as an alternative, even as that party eagerly backs the government’s whole plan.
The Finnish working class needs a mass socialist party to advance its interests. Coordinated efforts by activists in the unions could throw out the current, bureaucratic leaders and cut their ties to the thoroughly-neoliberal SDP. A socialist leadership for such a party would not be afraid to use every tool the working class has access to. The ballot box would be one of these, when useful, but it is through strikes, civil disobedience, and ultimately the running of society without need for capitalists or bureaucrats that the working class expresses its true potential.
And in this week of action across Europe, we remember that a socialist leadership looks internationally. That major strikes and protests are taking place at the same time in the UK, France and Germany while Finland goes on strike is coincidence, not coordination. The European Union and NATO offer a “European” or “Western” identity based in racism and religious nationalism while splitting workers of one nation against another, banning comradeship and fanning militarism. Socialists raise our banner in solidarity with the oppressed everywhere, whether in Finland or Gaza, against the wars of the wealthy against each other and against all attacks on the working class.