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In the year 1968 - on nationwide strike and university occupation in Helsinki

Imagine the following situation. Due to a strike, public transportation is paralyzed all over the country. Some restaurants and shops shut their doors and 30,000 people are gathered in Helsinki to oppose the current cabinet’s austerity measures, despite of wind and rain. This (18th of September - trans.) is the first joint demonstration by all the confederations of labor unions in Finland since the last depression 24 years ago. “And now we are here again” is said on stage at the demonstration. “It was so nice we should come back next Friday, am I right?” a speaker on the stage asks and tens of thousands of people reply with a roar: “Yes!”

The tumultuous weather doesn’t discourage the demonstrators, who shut down the entire Helsinki city centre and have stopped all traffic on Kaivokatu. Representatives from the cabinet parties have also been invited to talk at the event. Learning this, the crowd starts booing. When the rain starts someone notes: “OH, the government gets to speak. Immediately it starts pissing down!”

Near the end of the demonstration some of the demonstrators leave towards Porthania, a part of Helsinki University campus. “Down with the government, down with those thieves!” and “strike, strike, general strike!”, is yelled by the marching crowd equipped with banners and megaphones.

After entering the university they hang the banner on a handrail. “Porthania has been occupied, soon we will have a general assembly that is open for all and we will stay here at least through the night!” states the person speaking on the megaphone.

The planning of the occupation started only a day before at an open general assembly for university students. “The global student movement has gained its biggest victories by unifying strikes with occupations”, was noted at the meeting that lead to occupying Porthania as a part of Friday’s mass strike.

As soon as the building was occupied, there was an open-for-all general assembly. The largest auditorium was locked, but the janitors of Porthania offered to open the doors for the occupation. “This is a common struggle”, said the janitor who opened the door. The auditorium was filled by people and the assembly had more than 200 people attending. The assembly decided to use consensus decision making and none of the decisions went through voting during the three hour meeting.

The rigorous discussion raised many reasons for people’s participation at the occupation. In general this specific situation in the society was the reason for a lot of people to turn up. Some had been woken up by the university’s announcement that they would start co-operation negotiations of laying off 1200 employees. “The task of the university is to make class society a more equal one and now it is being demolished”, was said by one of the participants. Statements on giving the boot to head-master Jukka Kola and in favor of a general strike were voiced in many cases. “We have to start a general strike at the university", was said by one participant, followed by another one stating: “No, we need for it to happen in all of the society.” And the auditorium was burst with spontaneous applauds.

It was decided that general assemblies would be kept daily. At the same time the occupation was decided to continue at least until Tuesday. Were it to pan out, it would be the longest occupation of a university in the history of Finland - the longest one before being three days.

As soon as the building was occupied people started organizing a program, means of publicity and practical stuff from cleaning up to cooking. During the night there were documentary film viewings, live music and DJ gigs. There was an inspired atmosphere inside the building: celebrating and planning future action.

In the global scale universities have played a key role in general strikes. The occupation of Helsinki University and the mood in the general assembly supporting a general strike is a significant step forward. The spirit of 1968 is strong both in the society in general and at the Porthania occupation, and the occupation is an interesting turn of events in this constantly fluctuating situation.

Suvi Auvinen

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Антти Раутиайнен

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