Finnish Stevedores Clash With Operator Trying to Break Strike

March 18 (Bloomberg) — Striking Finnish stevedores clashed with non-union workers at a harbor on the southeast coast as an operator moved to open a terminal closed by a continuing nationwide walkout.

“Traffic in and out of the port was being disturbed and stopped by about 100 people,” said Mika Kuitunen, police superintendent in the city of Kotka, where the incident took place. No one was injured and “the situation is now over and the people have left,” he said.

Port operator Container Finance Ltd. Oy today brought in about 30 non-union workers to load 1,000 containers stuck at a Kotka terminal since the beginning of the strike, Managing Director Harri Nordstroem said.

Tensions between the two sides have escalated as the walkout enters its third week today, cutting off 90 percent of the Nordic nation’s foreign sales. Lost exports now total about 1.54 billion euros ($2.11 billion), the Confederation of Finnish Industries estimates.

Hiring untrained workers is “dangerous” and “totally irresponsible,” said Hilkka Ahde, the Transport Workers’ Union spokeswoman, adding the move to block the non-union workers wasn’t organized by her union directly.

“I have always disapproved of violence, but on some level I understand them,” Ahde said in an interview. “Rather than recruiting workers to break the strike, they should be concentrating on reaching an agreement fast.”

Marathon Talks

Broader union and employer umbrella organizations joined the negotiations yesterday between port employers and workers in an effort to end the stalemate. They are set to resume talks today after failing to reach a deal during talks that lasted until 2 a.m. Stevedores walked out on March 4 to win better severance pay for workers who lose their jobs.

Finland’s 3,400 port workers, whose last strike in 1991 went on for four weeks, earn an average of 37,000 euros a year by working a mixture of day and evening shifts. Finland’s 24 ports service about 100 ships daily.

Nordstroem said he used the social media site Facebook Inc. to recruit workers to open the terminal and that the page had 2,000 supporters as of yesterday. Over 100 people applied to help load the stalled containers and all the people selected had previous port work experience, he said.

“The idea started from a group of guys who were astonished to see how one key group of people can bring Finland down on its knees,” Nordstroem said, adding the strike has cost his company tens of thousands of euros per day.

Recovery Threatened

The strike is threatening a recovery in the euro region’s northernmost economy. Finnish output last year slumped the most since the 1918 civil war, plunging 7.8 percent, Statistics Finland said on March 1. The economy has yet to show signs of expansion after fourth-quarter output stagnated from the prior three months and industrial output fell 1.8 percent in January.

About 60 percent of Finnish papermaking capacity is halted due to the strike and 3,700 forest industry workers are laid off, the Finnish Forest Industries Federation estimates. Boliden AB, Europe’s second-largest zinc producer, plans to close its smelter and refinery in Finland beginning today because the strike has blocked copper concentrate imports.

Stora Enso Oyj and UPM-Kymmene Oyj, Europe’s two largest papermakers, estimate the strike will cost them upwards of 5.5 million euros daily after having to close Finnish paper mills because they are unable to export finished products.

As the strike drags on, some consumer goods in the Nordic nation may soon start to become scarce, retailers said. Customers at Alko Oy, Finland’s state-owned alcohol monopoly, may begin to see a more limited selection of wine available within two to three weeks, spokesman Mika-Pekka Miettinen said.

Wine Imports

“All wines are imported to Finland and all wine imports are shut off currently,” he said, adding that the problem would already be more severe if the strike had taken place during the busier summer season. “We have no problems with spirits and beers because these are made in Finland.”

Finland is one of the most strike-prone countries in Europe, lagging behind only Spain, France and Italy, according to the European Union’s statistics office. Strikes cost Finland an average 71 working days per 1000 workers each year between 2000 and 2007, compared with 137 for Spain and 83 for Italy. Neighboring Sweden lost just 20 days a year.

Retailers meantime are turning to alternatives to import goods to the country. Inex Partners Oy, the logistics unit for one of the country’s retail chains, and Stockmann Oyj, a Finnish department store group, said they are using heavy trucks to carry products from European ports on passenger ferries.

The option has proven so popular among Finnish companies that “it’s caused congestion and changes in timetables,” Jorma Vehvilaeinen, Inex managing director, said. “If the strike continues there will be a lack of transport capacity and drivers and the normalization after a long strike will be slower.”

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