Thousands Attend Protest Rally, But Strike Is Far From ‘Slam Dunk’ Success

Unions say up to 10,000 people attended Senate Square protest rally.

Thousands attend a rally in Helsinki's Senate Square in January to protest the government's 'active model' of tackling unemployment / Credit: News Now Finland.

Thousands of people gathered in Helsinki’s Senate Square today, to protest against the government’s so-called ‘active model’ for tackling unemployment.

The event was organised by trade unions, who called for a day of action with strikes. But if their aim was to paralyze the country, it fell short of the mark.

In Helsinki, around a quarter of buses were running, and while trams and metros were stopped, ferry and commuter trains were unaffected. Work halted or was slowed down at Finland’s ports; and businesses were affected either through strike action, or with employees not being able to get to work.

Chants of ‘down with the government!’ rang around Senate Square, as protesters brandished signs and waved flags. On stage, Left Alliance leader Li Andersson gave an impassioned speech which drew enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

When National Coalition Party MP Juhana Vartiainen gamely took to the stage he was met by a loud chorus of boos and jeers. A strident supporter of the government’s ‘active model’ measures, Vartiainen previously told News Now Finland “the signal to the unemployed is that we support your income but we don’t want you to stay on income support, we want you to get a job”.

‘Active Model’ Explained

The ‘active model’ is just one part of the government’s overall plan to raise the employment rate to 72%. It currently stands at just under 71%.

Other measures to tackle unemployment include tightning up laws on zero-hours contracts and more opportunities for job seeker education. But it is the ‘active model’ which has provoked a strong response from unions.

The new law cuts 4.65% – roughly one day’s money – from unemployment benefits if claimants don’t find a job or go on a training course within a certain period of time.

According to 2016 statistics from the OECD, almost 30% of unemployed Finns are considered long-term unemployed: that is, they have been unemployed for more than one year. Finland’s long-term unemployment figures are higher than Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but considerably lower than the EU28 average.

When the new ‘active model’ measure was brought before parliament for a vote, the decision was split entirely along party lines.

The three parties in the ruling coalition – Centre Party, National Coalition Party and Blues – voted in favour of imposing the new sanctions on unemployment benefits.

Opposition parties – Social Democrats, Greens, Left Alliance, Swedish Peoples’ Party, Christian Democrats and Finns Party – voted against the new bill. The government won with their slim majority.

Henrik Haapajärvi (L) and Antti Malste (R) from the white collar workers union Proliitto / Credit: News Now Finland

Striker Reactions

In Senate Square today, protesters came from the capital city region and further afield, bused in by unions.

The Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions SAK estimates up to 10,000 people attended the rally.

“We are satisfied with the number of participants […] it’s great that people attended from all over Finland” says SAK’s Eija Harjula on the union’s website.

Protesters today voiced their strong support for the unions’ stance against the government on the ‘active model’ issue.

“The government sucks!” says Minna Savilahti, a member of the Industrial Union Teollisuusliitto.

“Doing what they do for the unemployed it’s not very good, because you have to be so active to find work, and even if they want to work and make many applications it’s not enough” she says.

Savilahti explains that in her case, if she was unemployed she wouldn’t be able to afford day care for her 18 months old child – which would be required if she had to take a job in order to keep her benefits, or to go on a training course.

“It’s a question of principals” says Antti Malste from the union Pro, which represents white collar workers.

“The government promised that there wouldn’t be any more cuts to the unemployment benefits, and now the ‘active model’ has cut the benefits, and also the model is something that doesn’t encourage you to take a job that you’re offered, it forces you to work in order to get the benefits” he adds.

Opponents of the ‘active model’ cite many reasons why an unemployed person might not be able to meet the criteria required to avoid having their benefits cut.

Common arguments are looking after children or being a carer for a sick relative; living outside of a large city where there are no jobs or educational opportunities; or living in communities which don’t have the sort of jobs you want or are qualified for.

“The government has been cutting services for the unemployed for a long time. And if you compare to many other countries, for example the Nordic countries, they have much better services for the unemployed. They encourage people to find jobs, or encourage people to train themselves to get a new job. So in a way that’s a much better system and that’s part of why we are here, the whole political thinking is wrong” says Pro’s Henrik Haapajärvi.

Government Response

Finland’s Minister for Social Affairs & Health Pirkko Mattila (Blues) says the aim of the active model “is to increase employment opportunities”.

In a Friday blog post, the Minister wrote that ‘active model’ penalties can’t be applied retroactively, and if someone is receiving another benefit like a disability, rehabilitation allowance or accident benefits, then the model won’t be applied to them.

“Work is part of a good social policy. The aim is for everyone to be better able to participate in work, depending on their ability to do so” writes Mattila.

The strike continues only until 18:00 on Friday evening, when buses and metro services should start to return to normal.

Unions say 10,000 people joined a protest rally in Helsinki’s Senate Square / Credit: News Now Finland