Members of The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) in Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku are preparing to join other Akava unions for a walkout Tuesday, February 6 at 2pm. These actions are protesting the Finnish government’s attempts to weaken the terms of employment, to slash unemployment insurance, to restrict participation in political strikes, and to legislatively impose a new labor market model that would constrain workers’ salaries. As Akava has consistently argued, many of these reforms are likely to be counterproductive to the government’s own stated objectives in the long term. It is also clear that these changes would exacerbate the already precarious natures of academic careers, while weakening the position of all working people in society.
Such an aggressive government program demands a strong response from labor unions—and the government’s refusal to negotiate or to even consider alternatives to their plans has made FUURT’s actions—and a broad range political industrial actions carried out across the labor union movement in recent days—necessary and inevitable.
A key point of contention emerges, however, around the question of democracy. Being the winners of the last election, the current government claims a democratic mandate for their actions, and they have accused the labor union movement of seeking to subvert the choices democratically made by voters.
I would argue that the understanding of democracy implicit in this argument is an impoverished one. Almost any substantive account of democracy suggests that it cannot be just about occasionally showing up to vote and then shutting up until the next election—however much those in power might like such a model. Active engagement by those affected by government decisions is needed throughout, and certainly a broad range of powerful interests are not shy about making their own voices heard between elections. Democracy takes place in a complicated and uneven landscape shaped by inequalities of property, power, and influence. Strikes, in both their traditional and ‘political’ variations, have long been an important part of how ordinary people have been able to intervene in that landscape and influence the direction of society.
From this perspective, democracy is, in fact, a key issue in the current confrontation between the government and the labor union movement—just not the way that many supporters of the government program would have it. Instead, democracy is threatened by restrictions on the right to strike, by cuts that erode support for the most vulnerable, by changes that makes the lives of immigrants more difficult, and by reforms that would make work more insecure and uncertain for everyone. As academic workers and members of FUURT, we have a key interest in defending the conditions of academic work, which is central to the availability of researched knowledge and critical inquiry that are vital to any kind of democratic project. For us this means, among other things, opposing changes that would likely make fixed-terms contracts even more prevalent than they already are and that would diminish support for our members through the periods of unemployment that are all but a certainty in a sector already organized so heavily around fixed-term contracts.
Thus, in walking out on February 6, we have a chance to build on the democratic traditions of organized workers around the world making their voices heard and building a more democratic and fair society—all while taking a stand to defend the conditions of academic work. If you are in Tampere, Turku, or Helsinki, I hope that you’ll join us as we take these steps, and also invite along your colleagues and friends. It’s important that these walkouts send a strong and clear message, and, for that, everyone’s participation matters.
The writer is the Chair of Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers – Tatte