Turn Off the News: Tikkurila Is Lying

Turn Off the News: Tikkurila Is Lying

What would you think if you saw a news report on TV claiming that Citizen A. was engaged in a “dirty campaign” against Citizen B., who in turn was presented as an utterly honest man, but the evidence against Citizen A. took the form of quotations from anonymous sources? If a report like that were shown on Russian TV, any viewer with an ounce of common sense would deem it the product of the “black PR” techniques common in our country and would suspect that the journalists who filed it had sold out. Although they rightly do not trust their own mass media, Russian citizens customarily believe that the mass media in western countries are independent. Reporters at the Finnish channel MTV3 have managed to discredit that opinion.

“A Strange War”

On October 13, viewers of the MTV3 news and analysis program 45 minuuttia (“45 Minutes”) were told about a “strange war” being carried about “by a tiny group of [Russian] activists” against the Finnish company Tikkurila. According to the report, Tikkurila management is perplexed by the “dirty campaign” that has been organized against it and informs the Finnish audience that other Finnish firms have been “attacked” in this same strange manner. Viewers are told that that fourteen lawsuits are currently under review in the courts in connection with this campaign, a video detailing the horrible working conditions at the company’s Petersburg facilities has been uploaded to the Internet, and numerous negative articles have been published in newspapers. However, “according to Tikkurila management, the unpleasant video is for the most part fabricated. The shop floor [in question] was shut down half a year ago, and now it looks like this [we are shown a pleasant picture].” Sergei Kruglov, chair of the trade union committee at Tikkurila Petersburg, tells viewers that management is pressuring the union. Tikkurila Petersburg’s managing director, Simo Laitala, comments on Kruglov’s remarks: “It would be interesting to know what pressure he’s talking about. At our company, one can freely join a trade union or leave it.” This is followed by a brief prehistory of the conflict as interpreted by management: “The problems began when Tikkurila purchased TEKS [a similar paint-manufacturing plant in Petersburg] in 2006. A portion of the jobs at the plant was eliminated after production was automated. Later, problems began with a small local of the ITUA [Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers], which complains of harsh working conditions, bad wages, and bad management.”

All that the Finnish audience is told about the trade union is that it is small and “marginal,” but that it has a “large leadership”: “When it was founded, all ten members were appointed either chairs or vice chairs.” “In practice, this means they’re all protected by the law, that none of them can be fired,” comments Mr. Laitala. In its protests, the trade union “has gone surprisingly far,” says Mirja Tiri of the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce: “Trade union activists have carried out actions against Tikkurila products at retail outlets. This is not normal trade union activity, but something else… The motives for such actions are not clear; we do not know who is behind them and on what principles this trade union operates. It is not known who is financing them.” Simo Laitala again comments: “I first learned about their demands through the media. They’re constantly demanding the dismissal of two people – the personnel manager and the head of security. And that the pressure against them be stopped. But outsiders cannot hire or fine anyone… There has been no pressure [on the union] on the part of company management.”

Viewers are then treated to excerpts from comments given by anonymous “experts,” “who did not consent to appear on camera.”

A representative of the Finnish Foreign Ministry: “There have been protests at certain foreign firms [operating in Russia], but there are no clear demands for improvements. The organizers [of these protests] might come from the outside or this activity might have been commissioned from outside ‘consulting companies.’”

General director of a Finnish company: “I’ve also heard that when the protesters were asked why they were participating in pickets, they replied that they didn’t know, that they’d been paid to do it.”

An employee of a Finnish company who is in charge of operations in Russia: “In Russia, there are two types of trade union organizations – those that sincerely try to improve working conditions, and those that create the problems themselves and then offer to solve them.”

Potemkin Villages

Before we evaluate this report, we have to discuss how it was filmed. In late September, ITUA activists were contacted by a group of Finnish TV journalists interested in the conflict at Tikkurila’s Petersburg facilities. The reporters simultaneously asked company management permission to film at the company’s plants. On September 28 and 30, a TV crew visited the production facilities in Obukhovo (the “old” Tikkurila plant) and on Utkin Prospect (the former TEKS plant). However, Sergei Kruglov, chair of the ITUA Tikkurila local, was able to accompany the TV crew only at the Obukhovo facility. None of the trade union’s activists was admitted into the former TEKS facility along with the TV crew. In fact, there were no other workers at the plant, either, because an inventory check had been (accidentally?) scheduled for the day shooting took place. Journalists were shown empty, ideally clean shop floors.

At the Obukhovo facility, Ms. Rennblad, director for production, proudly demonstrated to her guests a showcase shop floor that had been outfitted with recently purchased, up-to-date equipment. However, the toxic warning labels on the containers used to store harmful raw materials had been removed beforehand. Sergei Kruglov’s attempts to lead the “tourists” away from the management-approved route were peremptorily nipped in the bud. Ms. Rennblad thus categorically refused to show the journalists Shop Floor No. 1, where, according to the trade union, occupational safety rules are crudely violated (the quantity of hazardous substances present there surpasses all imaginable norms, there are no exhaust fans, etc.)

Along with detailed commentary, trade union activists supplied the journalists with a number of documents backing their accusations against Tikkurila. However, as the broadcast report shows us, all this evidence was ignored.

Lie No. 1: “A Conspiracy against Finnish Companies”

Tikkurila management declares that not only has it fallen victim to a “strange attack,” but “other Finnish firms” have been attacked as well. The anonymous spokesman for the Finnish Foreign Ministry claims that “there have been protests at certain foreign firms” without clear demands; moreover, “this activity” has been commissioned by outside forces. That is, there is a certain conspiracy against Finnish or foreign entrepreneurs in Saint Petersburg, and the ITUA’s campaign at Tikkurila is part of this conspiracy.

In reality, these claims are absolutely groundless. Tikkurila is the only Finnish company in Saint Petersburg (and, as far as we known, in all of Russia) that has sparked protests this year in connection with its violations of labor rights. The pickets held this past summer at the building supply supermarkets in the K-Rauta chain (a subsidiary of the Finnish concern Kesko) were meant to inform consumers about the exploitation of workers at Tikkurila’s Petersburg facilities and the persecution of the trade union local at the plants. It goes without saying that no complaints were directed against K-Rauta or Kesko. We requested only thing from the management of these supermarkets: that they express their displeasure over what is happening at the plants to Tikkurila management. We held exactly the same pickets outside supermarkets in the French chain Leroy Merlin. Whether a company is Finnish- or foreign-owned has never made any difference to us. We do not divide workers by nationality or race, nor do we divide employers in this way either.

When we held pickets outside the Finnish consulate in Saint Petersburg and the local office of the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce, we submitted written appeals in which we asked them to put pressure on Tikkurila management. In these letters, we invariably underscored the fact that the vicious practice of repressing trade unionists harmed the reputation in Russia of the Finnish business community, which has traditionally been considered socially responsible.

Aside from Tikkurila, the ITUA has a local only at one other Finnish production facility in Saint Petersburg, Nokian Tires. In addition, there is an independent trade union at Fazer Amico (which operates cafeterias); like the ITUA, this trade union is a member of the Russian Labor Confederation (KTR). It would be wrong to say that the situation with the observance of trade right union rights is trouble-free at either of these companies, but neither the ITUA or anyone else is engaged in protest or informational campaigns against management there. Or could it be that Mr. Laitala and the anonymous commentators who support him view the very fact of a trade union being organized as a declaration of war? If that is so, then in Finland itself, with its strong, massive trade union movement, this “strange war” has already been going on for many decades.

Lie No. 2: The “Fabricated Video”

Mr. Laitala claims that the video showing the horrible working conditions in the No. 2 water-based paints manufacturing shop floor at the Utkin Prospect facility is “for the most part fabricated, [and] the shop floor was shut down half a year ago.” Tikkurila Petersburg’s managing director is lying; moreover, his lie is amateurish. As he accuses the ITUA of fabricating the video, he does not explain to a curious TV audience what exactly was fabricated and what he means by “for the most part.” Perhaps the “unpleasant video” was shot at some other company’s production facility, not at Tikkurila? Perhaps it is not Shop Floor No. 2 we see in the video, but something else? Then why does Mr. Laitala try to justify himself by claiming that the shop floor was closed half a year ago? Or are we dealing here with a clever editing job in which real footage has been mixed with faked footage? We would not advise Mr. Laitala to make such a claim, because the ITUA has the original footage in its possession and we are prepared to hand it over to independent experts for verification. Or, when he says that the shop floor was closed, is Mr. Laitala trying to accuse us of covering up certain facts?

The facts, however, are as follows: a trade union activist shot the video in question on a mobile phone on January 29. At that moment, the ITUA was fighting to have a workplace safety inspection carried out at the plant and conditions there declared hazardous; it had asked the State Labor Inspectorate and other monitoring agencies to inspect the company’s facilities. This, apparently, was the main reason why Shop Floor No. 2 was closed in February 2010. The video was edited in March, when the ITUA had launched a campaign to get fired activists reinstated to their jobs. (This is when subtitles and music were added to the documentary footage.) This is quite easy to verify because the text accompanying the video ends with the following phrase: “Since February 2010, the shop floor has been closed, and the equipment shut down […] but not disassembled. Operations in the shop floor can be resumed at any moment […] and the modern, hi-tech production process at the plant will start up once more.” That is, what Mr. Laitala claims in the given instance was something we never questioned. However, the head of Tikkurila Petersburg is merely trying to pass off one of the ITUA’s victories as evidence of the humaneness of his company, which allegedly improves the conditions of its workers of its own free will. And he tries to use this fact to discredit his opponents. Very clever!

If we had been in the shoes of the Finnish journalists, we would have asked Mr. Laitala tougher questions. For example, is it true that Tikkurila employees work with ethylene glycol, a substance that can cause severe poisoning whose symptoms include loss of consciousness, respiratory problems, and convulsions? And what about the other toxic materials used at the Petersburg facilities, such as dibutyl phthalate (whose fumes damage the mucous membranes in the gastrointestinal tract and the liver), preventol (headache, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, rapid pulse), Dowanol (headache, dizziness, weakness, palpitations, eye irritation, watery eyes), and Varsol 40 (which, besides causing dizziness, a feeling of intoxication, weakness, eye irritation, coughing, and itchiness, is also potentially explosive)? Do workers at Tikkurila receive the required extra pay for hazardous work? Have work-safety inspections been carried out at the plants? Are workers informed about risk factors?

The most amazing thing is that the Finnish TV journalists could have asked all these questions: ITUA activists presented them with the draft of an occupational safety instruction manual that was compiled in 2008 by V.K. Vasilenko, head of the laboratory at Tikkurila, but which company management did not sign off on. However, for some reason the journalists did not ask these questions. Why didn’t they?

Lie No. 3: “Freedom”

“It would be interesting to know what pressure he’s talking about. At our company, one can freely join a trade union or leave it,” Simo Laitala cynically declares. In this case, why has practically the entire core of ITUA activists at Tikkurila been thrown out on the street, while those who remain employed at the company are being blackmailed by management into quitting the ITUA? Why has trade union committee chair Sergei Kruglov been on forced downtime since February and making only two thirds of his normal wage? Why was Igor Ramko fired as the result of a criminal investigation that began with a “tip-off” from Tikkurila and reinstated to his job (by court order) only four months later? Why is management trying to instigate a similar case (involving an allegedly faked medical certificate) against another union member, Nikolai Chuvilin? Why have five of the six disciplinary actions taken against members of the trade union committee been thrown out by the courts as unfounded? Why was Igor Tyabin forced to quit the trade union after management threatened to hold him liable for damages in the amount of 300,000 rubles? Why was Alexander Kalnyuk, a top-grade specialist and presidential medal winner who has trained more than one generation of young workers, among those who were laid off? We could continue this list of questions ad infinitum.

Of course, Tikkurila dreams up the most varied excuses to rid itself of undesirable employees. However, Mr. Laitala amusingly lets the cat out of the bag when he says, “When [the ITUA Tikkurila local] was founded, all ten members were appointed either chairs or vice chairs. […] In practice, this means they’re all protected by the law, that none of them can be fired.” Actually, if you were to take on faith Laitala’s assertion that trade union members at Tikkurila are in no way threatened, then such precautions would seem utterly superfluous. But then why have all those members except for local chair Sergei Kruglov been fired? The answer is simple: because the precautions taken by the trade union committee were not superfluous but too late. Amendments introduced late last year to the Russian Labor Code have abolished the “immunity” of elected trade union officers. Employers are now required to get approval from senior trade union officials only when they want to fire chairs of local trade union committees.

How things stand with “rights and freedoms” at Tikkurila is vividly demonstrated by an order that Mr. Laitala issued on March 22, a photocopy of which is in our possession. It reads as follows: “I hereby order that: 1.  Operating procedure (no. 2) for employees be followed in cases where requests are made to publicly comment in the mass media on events/news at the company. 2. All employees must promptly (within one working day) report requests made by journalists/media representatives to the communications director of Tikkurila, Ltd., at his work phone/mobile phone, as well as by e-mail. 3. It be considered inadmissible for employees to make public comments on corporate events/news (that have not been approved by the communications director).” Mr. Laitala might also call this document a fabrication, of course. But should we believe people who instigate fabricated criminal cases against trade union activists?

Lie No. 4: “The Trade Union Doesn’t Want Dialogue”

Simo Laitala has on more than occasion stated that he found out about the trade union’s demands from the mass media, that the trade union rejects dialogue with management, etc. Our Pinocchio is lying once again. The ITUA issued its first request for negotiations on March 30. In his reply, dated April 12, Mr. Laitala thanked the trade union and apologized for the delay in replying due to a business trip abroad. He also informed the ITUA that he would “read [our] letter and tender a reply in the near future.” Unfortunately, we never got that reply. On April 16, Boris Kravchenko, president of the All-Russia Confederation of Labor, sent an official letter to Tikkurila management, but this was likewise met with no response. On August 6, after Mr. Laitala stated in an interview with a Finnish business publication that the ITUA showed no desire to deal with company management, we sent him another appeal for negotiations. Our copy of the letter contains a notation that the letter was received at 3:20 p.m. on August 9, and recorded in the registry under No. 78 by a secretary, Ms. Suldina. Are you not ashamed, Mr. LIEtala?

Lie No. 5: “Non-Trade Union Methods”

“Trade union activists have carried out actions against Tikkurila products at retail outlets. This is not normal trade union activity, but something else,” says Mirja Tiri from the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Tiri’s comments might make one think that she is talking about “terrorist strikes” organized by the trade union or deliberate damage inflicted on the company’s products. In reality, the “actions against Tikkurila products” were peaceful, officially permitted pickets outside shopping centers during which activists handed leaflets to shoppers asking them to boycott Tikkurila paint products until the demands of workers were met. In order to express their solidarity with the trade union’s struggle, leftist youth groups drew graffiti and distributed stickers criticizing Tikkurila. Commenting on these actions, the ITUA has invariably stated that it uses only legal methods.

If Ms. Tiri believes that pickets outside retail outlets are “not normal trade union activity, but something else,” then she is either deliberately distorting reality or she does not know what she is talking about. Trade unions all over the world resort to public boycotts against the products of companies that crudely violate the rights of workers. Examples include the boycotts against Coca Cola, Unilever, Nestle, and many other transnational corporations initiated by global trade unions. Nor is it a secret that many trade unions, including in Western Europe, resort to the radical methods of civil disobedience, which often escalate into violent confrontations with the police. It suffices to look at French and Greek trade unionists, whose radicalism the ITUA still has a very long way to go to match. But Ms. Tiri has apparently been transformed into a lowbrow Russian bureaucrat and thus approves only the style of trade union activity exemplified by “yellow,” management-run pseudo trade unions.

Lie No. 6: “Someone Is Behind” the ITUA

Ms. Tiri’s complaints to the effect that the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce does not know “who is behind” the ITUA, what principles it operates on, and who finances it are hypocritical, to say the least. If the leadership of the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce wanted to find out more about the work and principles of the ITUA, then there was nothing preventing them from contacting us: the trade union’s contact information is a matter of public record. However, the Chamber has done everything possible to insure that such contact has not taken place. On September 8, we held a picket outside the Petersburg office of this organization in order to draw the attention of the Finnish business community to the problems at Tikkurila. Before the picket, we sent a letter addressed to the head of this organization, Mr. Tiirikainen, requesting that he meet with the picketers, consider our appeal, and bring his influence to bear on Tikkurila management. Instead of this, however, we were confronted with the Chamber’s pointed unwillingness to engage in any dialogue whatsoever. A day before the picket, the ITUA was informed that the Chamber “cannot intervene in the activities of other commercial entities” and “is not empowered to receive official petitions” (which directly contradicted the information posted on the Chamber’s official web site). By a strange coincidence, the directors of the Petersburg office had gone on holiday the day before the picket, and we arrived to find the doors firmly locked during the height of a working day. Only after lengthy negotiations by telephone with Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy Vladimir Fyodorov did Mr. Garevsky, the chamber’s legal consultant, come out to meet with the picketers. He took our letter and promised to pass it on to his superiors.

It is telling how Ms. Tiri frames the question: “We do not know who is behind [the trade union].” Apparently, she has no doubt that, aside from its dues-paying members, there is someone else behind the ITUA. In polite society, it is customary to provide proof for such claims. But because there is no proof whatsoever, the libelous accusation is disguised as hypocritical bewilderment.

The anonymous commentators from Finnish companies and the Finnish Foreign Ministry continue the relay race of brazen insinuations. One of them claims that activists from the ITUA and organizations in solidarity with it are paid for their participation in pickets. Another commentator suggests that the ITUA local at Tikkurila “create[s] the problems [itself] and then offer[s] to solve them,” while a third alludes to certain “consulting companies” who, allegedly, were commissioned to organize the “war” against Tikkurila. It is beneath our dignity to refute such insinuations. We will ask our anonymous commentators only one question: what are you afraid of? Is the ITUA really such an ominous organization that you fear for your life or your wallet? Or maybe it is a lot simpler, and you hid your faces so that you could lie with impunity?

Unprofessionalism or Corruption?

So let us summarize. On October 13, MTV3 broadcast a flagrantly biased report based wholly on statements made by Simo Laitala, Tikkurila Petersburg’s managing director; Mirja Tiri, a spokesperson for the Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce (which serves the interests of Finnish companies); two anonymous businessmen; and an anonymous bureaucrat from the Finnish Foreign Ministry. What guided the journalist who filed this report, Mirja Sipinen, in her choice of experts? Why didn’t she include the leaders of the ITUA and other independent trade unions, independent analysts, and, finally, rank-and-file workers? What was the decisive factor here? The absence of elementary notions of journalistic ethics? Unprofessionalism? Gullibility? Class prejudices? Or was it something else, say, a direct payoff from Tikkurila?

We are no longer surprised when we see “socially responsible” European employers adopting the worst traits of “wild” Russian capitalism. But when the democratic Finnish mass media begin adopting the mores of the corrupt and subordinated Russian press, it is shocking. However, isn’t information really just a commodity like paint? Doesn’t freedom of speech just boil down to free trade? You paint one person black, the other person, white. Everything is done to please the client – the portly gentleman puffing a cigar and wearing a top hat marked with a dollar sign.

Editor’s Note. The original Russian text of this article was provided to us by the ITUA. We have translated  and published it in solidarity with their campaign.

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