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Finnish paper strike solid as UPM refuses to negotiate

27 January, 2022The bitter dispute at the Finnish forestry, pulp and paper company UPM threatens to drag on as the strike, which began on 1 January, has been extended until 19 February. 2,200 workers at all UPM business units are on strike, with dockers and railway workers showing solidarity by refusing to handle the company’s goods.

Three IndustriALL Global Union affiliates, Paperiliitto (Paper Union), Teollisuusliitto (Industrial Union) and Proliitto (Pro Union) are affected. Work has stopped at all UPM sites in Finland, at a tremendous cost to the company at a time when demand for its products is high.

The dispute arose after UPM left the industry-wide bargaining that had been in place for decades and refused to sign a single collective agreement with Paperliitto, which represents the majority of its workforce. The company wants separate agreements for each of its five business units.

The company wants to recategorize the 500 white-collar workers represented by Proliitto as managerial staff to exclude them from collective bargaining, and Proliitto shop stewards will no longer be recognized. The company has also stopped the check off system for collecting union dues, which had been in place since the 1970s. The collective agreement the company has with Teollisuusliitto is still valid, but Teollisuusliitto supports the demand for a uniform agreement on working conditions.

In addition to undermining collective bargaining, the company wants to dramatically increase working hours without an increase in pay, resulting in an effective pay cut of 20 to 30 per cent for many workers. Unions believe that the company deliberately provoked the strike that it hopes to use to break union power.

Since Monday 24 January, dockers and railway workers have joined striking workers in solidarity by refusing to handle UPM goods.

Petri Vanhala, the Paperiliitto president said:

“We have proposed meetings to UPM but they have refused. Our only demand is to not break the collective bargaining system, and to stay at the industry standard that has been agreed with the other companies in the sector.”

This level of industrial action is unusual for Finland, which generally enjoys relative industrial harmony with industry-wide collective agreements. Unions believe that the attack on collective bargaining is ideologically driven and that the company is determined to undermine the unions even at the cost of economic harm to itself, setting a dangerous new precedent for industrial relations in the Nordic country.

Mediation has failed because the company refuses to meet with the unions. UPM has offered scabs a bonus payment 30 euros per day, and unions anticipate that the strike may drag on for some time. Key worker representatives in the European Works Council are refusing to cooperate with management, in solidarity with the Finns, and unions representing UPM workers in other countries are watching developments closely, with many sending messages of support and solidarity. World paper unions will meet shortly and further solidarity action will follow.

IndustriALL industry director Tom Grinter said:

“The stubborn intransigence of UPM, and its insistence on breaking collective agreements, undermines the company’s reputation everywhere. Shareholders should be concerned about long term reputational damage.”

UPM has always been an outlier in Finnish industry, taking a comparatively hardline anti-union stance. Although other pulp and paper companies in Finland have signed collective agreements with unions, UPM withdrew from the employers’ association in 2020.

Photo: Strikers at UPM Kymi Mill gate in Kouvola on 1 January. By Henri Koskela, one of the strikers and union members.