Finland Faces Biggest Strike in Two Decades Amid Austerity

  • Pulp industry says risks losing three days of production
  • Workers' rights ``violated in harsh way,'' union boss Says

Finnish workers are staging their biggest strike since 1993 to protest the government’s newest austerity measures that include cuts to overtime pay and holidays in an effort to bring down labor costs.

Finnair has canceled 15 domestic flights and authorities have warned more could be delayed. The paper industry has said that strikes will lead to a three-day loss in pulp output. Port workers walked off the job for 24 hours starting at 6 a.m. local time. The biggest unions expect tens of thousands to march in Helsinki Friday as protesters converge on the capital.

“The government intends, through coercive legislation, to weaken working conditions,” Lauri Lyly, leader of SAK, the biggest union, said in an e-mailed comment. The coalition has “violated in a harsh way” the rights of the labor market parties to set their own rules, he said.

The center-right coalition has proposed a swath of measures to bring down labor costs to make Finnish businesses more competitive internationally. The economy is set to contract for a fourth year as the country suffers from the demise of the consumer electronics industry, once led by Nokia, from shrinking demand for paper and a decline in trade with its struggling neighbor, Russia.

Pay Cuts

The government has sought pay cuts of 5 percent to boost competitiveness, a target the unions last month refused as they broke off talks.

Prime Minister Juha Sipila has since said that the government will go the legislative route to force down labor costs. His government has proposed cutting the compensation for working on Sundays, reducing sick leave to 80 percent of pay, limiting vacation for public sector workers to 30 days a year and scrapping the religious holidays, Epiphany and Ascension.

Finland, defined as the “sick man” of Europe by Finance Minister Alexander Stubb, is trying to narrow a competitiveness gap the government says has widened to at least to 15 percent compared with its main trading partners Sweden and Germany.

The second biggest union, STTK, said Friday it expects tens of thousands of people to attend the demonstration in Helsinki and has more than 200 buses bringing in people from across the country. 

“We don’t accept that people with small and middle incomes, of whom a majority are women working in the public sector, bear the highest cost in boosting competitiveness,” STTK leader Antti Palola said in an interview.

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