Helsinki (09.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) Five years ago two State-owned companies, Finland's Neste and Norway's Statoil, merged their petrochemical sections and formed the new Fenno-Norwegian company Borealis.
In 1997 Neste sold its Borealis shares to Austria's State-owned oil company OMV and Abu Dhabi's IPIC.
A few months ago Borealis announced a plan to reduce its staffing by the end of the year 2000 by 850 employees, 140 of them at its plant in Porvoo near Helsinki.
The well organised and experienced Finnish workers did not accept the plan and began to fight back in various ways. They began by banning all overtime work, then refused to participate in any improvement discussions and added pressure with walkouts and protest actions at loading and unloading sites. Except for the highest ranks, salaried staff also followed the workers' example.
The Chemical Workers' Union threatened to organise a boycott of Borealis products in Finland, meaning that Borealis must also have been under pressure from its major industrial customers.
The mounting pressure made the company withdraw its plan and consider alternatives more acceptable to the Finnish staff. The cuts were reduced to 88 permanent and 35 temporary jobs. Employees aged 60 years or more will be offered a full pension and those born in 1941-1944 can choose a special pension package. Borealis will compensate younger staff quitting voluntarily by paying a severance bonus of 6-24 months' wages, inclusive of shift allowances. Two years wages will be paid for those with 20 years or more of service.
Borealis will also assist those seeking alternative employment by providing consultant services.
The workers approved the negotiation result unanimously. A few days later the offer was expanded to cover white collar staff.
If the voluntary approach does not lead to the objective agreed by the parties, then they will have fresh negotiations later to avoid dismissals. The deadline for such possible new negotiations is 1 March 2000.
The dispute has given a boost to the Finnish union activists' way of thinking internationally. They are now more than ever aware that employees urgently need cross-border co-operation.
Borealis also has production plants in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Austria and Portugal. There are large ethylene and polyethylene production units under construction in the Persian Gulf. In Brazil Borealis co-operates with OPP Petroquimica in production for Latin American markets. According to OMV's manager, China is at the forefront of Borealis' expansion strategy.
Borealis has had a European Works Council since 1994 but co-operation between the representatives of various staff groups has not been satisfying. A few members of the EWC do not even belong to a trade union.
The two Finnish unions organising Borealis workers and salaried staff plan to invite union representatives from all Borealis plants in other countries to Finland next autumn. A study of recent struggles within Borealis is underway and will be discussed at the coming meeting.
Source: Reaktio 6-99. The Finnish language magazine of the Finnish Chemical Workers' Union