Helsinki (24.02.1999 - Juhani Artto) A wide gulf exists between the social conditions of workers on either side of the Finnish-Russian border. The Finns enjoy the benefits of world-class enterprises while the Russians suffer from factory closures and other consequences of outmoded production facilities and the collapse of social structures.

The Finnish paperworkers are showing solidarity towards their Russian peers in this situation in many ways. While in earlier decades cross-border co-operation was mainly a matter of exchanging top-level delegations between Helsinki and Moscow, in the 1990s co-operation has taken another form.

This spring the Finns are showing their solidarity in a new way. The Paperworkers Union is financing and organising the distribution of basic foodstuffs to worker families in two towns, Läskelä and Suojärvi, where the forest industry factories closed down last year.

"Before reaching this point, we discussed thoroughly whether donating international humanitarian aid is any business of a trade union", explains Esa Mäisti, a planning secretary at the Finnish Paperworkers Union. We decided in favour of such an initiative and the union resolved to commit 100,000 Finnish Marks (FIM 1.0 = EUR 0.17 or USD 0.19) towards food aid. It was also argued that we ought to concentrate on helping our Russian peers to reinforce their trade union organisations.

But who should be eligible for the aid packages? What should they contain and how should the distribution be organised to make sure that the aid reaches its proper destination? Mäisti stresses that such questions had to be studied seriously before preparations for concrete action could begin.

At the first stage 15 tonnes of flour, macaroni, edible oil and sugar will be distributed. The beneficiaries will be more than 500 unemployed forest industry workers and 450 schoolchildren. Läskelä School will also receive milk powder because the protein intake of its schoolchildren tends to be too low. At the second stage in April the food distribution will concentrate on helping families with children. Workers who belong to trade unions will get an extra two kilogrammes of sugar.

Although the union responded positively to the question of humanitarian aid, Mäisti stresses that the current effort is a once-off operation. "We want the beneficiaries to understand this and not to entertain unfounded expectations of continued food aid. In the coming season we want everyone to cultivate their own smallholdings, as they have done in the past."

However, some union activists feel that the paperworkers' initiative may encourage union organisations in other industries to follow suit. The humanitarian aid project of this spring is an exceptional operation for the Finnish Paperworkers Union. Other forms of solidarity spanning the Finnish-Russian border are more prevalent. Mäisti reminds us of the three most important forms of solidarity work. The Finns have donated PCs, copying machines, printers and other equipment to the forest industry workers' union offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk (the capital of the Russian Republic of Karelia, which borders Finland). Last year alone the value of donated hardware exceeded FIM 150,000.

A substantial sum is used every year for a week-long seminar for Russian union activists. Half of the seminar usually takes place in Finland and the other half in Russia. In Finland participants get concrete information on how Finnish union activists work, on what kind of employer-employee relations exist in Finland and on the role of trade unions in a market economy. In the last few years the Finnish Paperworkers Union has also contributed to an extensive union education programme in the Republic of Karelia. This programme is co-financed by European Union.

The Finnish Paperworkers Union spends one per cent of its annual membership fee income on international solidarity work. This amounts to some 300,000-400,000 Finnish Marks per year.