France, Finland and the ‘repertoire of contention’

Another thought regarding this news.

The article mentions that the protest movement of the workers of the paper mills has been ‘tough and diverse’. They organized blockades, an occupation of the mill, demonstrations locally and in Paris and ‘other stunts’. And yes, they also resorted to ‘light vandalism.’

In the study of social movements, to which we can also add labour unions and their protests, Charles Tilly talks about ‘repertoires of contention.’ Simply put, this means the diverse ways of expressing discontent with issues, whether they relate to local politics or work.

In interviews with various officials and shop stewards in the Finnish Paper Workers’ Union, the view has emerged that quite generally speaking, shop stewards see strikes in the paper industry as futile. This has apparently two major reasons: the first is that employers can relatively easily transfer production abroad in case of a strike threat, and second, employers are very quick to label any industrial action as illegal (whether it actually is or not). The latter issue is obviously aimed at removing any credibility and public support from the union’s action and surely also changes the focus from the company actions to the labour union actions. In any case, already since 1995, according to statistics from METLA (the Finnish Forest Research Institute) strike levels in the pulp and paper industry have been very low, rarely even as much as ten strikes a year (with the exception of 2005, which is a different story).

All in all, given that the labour union can’t be very happy about the constant decline of employment in its sector, may have lost a previously useful instrument of ‘contention’ – the strike. Why does employee resistance work in France and not in Finland?

One reason might be the right to strike. According to Warneck (2007) in a very useful overview of European strike rules, different countries have dramatically different rules for what is acceptable industrial action. In this comparison (p. 8) it is clear that Finland actually has – in a legal sense – a more admissive set of rules concerning strikes than France. It is interesting to note that one of the forms of collective action mentioned in the news article, road blockade, is illegal by French law. Also occupation is an illegal means of collective action.

In France, the right to strike is an individual right, and there is not an actual definition of a strike in French law, which allows for many varieties (e.g. demonstrations in Paris even though the paper mill is elsewhere). In Finland, by contrast, the right to strike is only implicitly acknowledged through the right to association, which means only a strike organized by a labour union can be legal, if the conditions are met (e.g. not breaking the peace clause etc.) Other than that, many forms of collective action are allowed by law.

So, it seams that the French union at least highly creatively interpreted the law. In theory, Finnish employees and their labour union branches should have better possibilities to resist e.g. closure of a paper mill. Also M-Real in France could have transferred production elsewhere. The crucial difference might nonetheless be that in France the decision to close was heavily criticized by the French minister of regional policy and a former Prime minister. In the Finnish context, no (former) political heavyweights have criticized the decisions of the Finnish paper companies to close mills around the country – even though Stora Enso is partly owned by the Finnish state.

Does the Finnish Paper Workers’ Union need more instruments of collective action, international solidarity (e.g. from the Swedish Paper Union) or more allies in the Finnish state? How can it be, that French employees which are so much less organized than their Finnish counterparts, achieve the results that would have been desirable in Myllykoski, Summa and Voikkaa?

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