The strike

Issue 4/1980 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Täällä Pohjantähden alla (‘Here beneath the North Star’), chapter 3, volume II. Introduction by Juhani Niemi

With banners held aloft, the procession of strikers moved towards the Manor. It was known that the strikebreakers had arrived early and that the district constable was with them. Just before reaching the field the marchers struck up a song, and they went on singing after they had halted at the edge of the field. The men at work in the field went on with their tasks, casting occasional furtive glances at the strikers. Nearest to the road stood the Baron and the constable. Uolevi Yllö’s head was bandaged: someone had attacked him with a bicycle chain as he left the field at dusk the evening before. Arvo Töyry was in the field too, the landowners having agreed that those who had got their own harrowing and sowing done should lend the others a hand. Not all the men in the field were known to the strikers. The son of the district doctor was there they noticed, and the sons of several of the village gentry, as well as the men from the smallholdings.

When the song came to an end Halme told the marchers to remain together in a group, and not to shout at the people in the field. Summoning up all his moral and physical courage, he walked over to where the Baron and the constable were standing. They came forward to meet him, and both greeted him politely, the constable’s manner appearing almost friendly. Quite apart from the disturbances arising out of the strike, he had been having rather a difficult time lately. The workers’ organizations, and some of the employers too, had been pressing for his dismissal; in the opinion of the local population he had been somewhat over-zealous in the service of “the oppressors”. So far thanks to influential connections, he had succeeded in keeping his job, and when the strikes began the employers were only too glad to have him around. Greetings having been exchanged, he enquired as to the purpose of the demonstration, adding that he had no objection to a demonstration as such, provided that it did not interfere with the work of the men in the field.

“The demonstrators will behave peacefully, but I have to make my protest to his lordship here. It is extremely unfair of him to bring in strikebreakers who have never worked before in their lives. That is what the workers resent more than anything else.”

“I not use any but own employees if they willing work” said the Baron in his rudimentary Finnish. “If they not work, must use they men what can get.”

“If only your lordship had agreed to the workers’ very reasonable demands in the first place,” said Halme, “the strike would have come to an end and there would now be nothing to worry about. The cost to you would have been minimal.”

The Baron’s thoughts on this subject were all clearly worked out in his mind: he had gone over them very carefully many times, they summed up his whole case. But the words in which they were now expressed emerged in a series of angry splutters.

“How look after cattle with fix working hours, how do all urgent jobs? Town man, work in factory, short hours possible, what? He need short hours, no sun, no fresh air. Country man, always out in the nature, short working day not necessary. Myself, always out of door, never in house, healthy, fit. Myself when young man, work all the time, what? Lazy man, do no work, get sick, no good for work. Not good, not good.”

The argument went on. Meanwhile the demonstrators stood and watched the men in the field. Their comments grew steadily louder.

“Look at that fellow there. Anyone can see he’s never handled a pitchfork before. What’s that young Yllö up to, is that fertilizer he’s putting on? He’s coming over this way, let’s speak to him.”

Uolevi was moving in their direction, scattering handfuls of fertilizer from a tray strapped in front of his chest. Someone struck up the Internationale. After they had sung a verse of two of this, sounds of singing began to be audible from the field, one of the young strikebreakers having led off with:

Now to Finland we must offer all our toil, whate’er betides;
Knowing that the nation’s welfare, and our own, in work resides.
No time now for strife or discord, none must now his duty shirk;
Loud and clear the cry re-echoes: “Countrymen, to work, to work!”

When the strikers, coming to the end of a verse, heard that the men in the field were singing too, they began to sing more loudly in an effort to drown the sound of the rival song. This was not difficult since not only were their numbers greater but they were standing all together in a group, whereas the strikebreakers were scattered all over the field and were not just singing but working as well. Some of the strikers were yelling out the words with such energy that their eyes were practically popping from their heads, with the result that the song began to lose its normal character and could only be described as a ferocious bellow:

We toilers from all fields united
Join hand in hand with all who work.
The earth belongs to us the workers,
No room here for the shirk…

Uolevi, with his tray of fertilizer, was now nearing the end of the strip. He had joined in the singing and was tossing out the fertilizer to the rhythm of the tune. His head bandaged after the blow with the bicycle chain, his eyes red from lack of sleep, and his face drawn with fatigue, he sang loudly and defiantly. Throughout the past week or two he had been hard at work day and night, first at his home and then all over the parish, for he had the entire team of strikebreakers to organize and lead. It consisted of the sons of the local farmers and gentry, and in cases where some of the older farmers were afraid of trouble and dared not do their own harrowing and sowing, Uolevi brought in his team undeterred by the strikers’ menaces. After almost a couple of weeks of such work, interrupted only by snatches of sleep taken in the small hours of the morning, not to mention the painful blow to his head and the continual insults and threats directed at him, his nerves were on edge, and it was with a sullen gleam in his eye that he moved towards the strikers, still singing:

Crops may fail through storm or tempest, or a single frosty night:
Now ’tis time for all to labour, building up the country’s might.
No time now for strife or discord, none must now his duty shirk;
Loud and clear the cry re-echoes: “Countrymen, to work, to work!”

The strikers’ singing died away.

“Put a sock in it, scab! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You know what scabs are made of, mister gentleman Yllö? Well I’ll tell you – when God finished creating the world he had a bit of slime left over so he made the frog. And then he found he still had a bit left so he made a scab!”

Hearing the singing give way to shouting, Halme, the Baron and the constable went up on to the road, but before they could reach the strikers they heard Uolevi shout:

“Who threw that? What bastard threw that stone? If anyone does that again, I shall shoot.”

A hubbub of angry shouting broke out. The men in the field began running towards Uolevi and the strikers.

The stone had been thrown by Arvi Laurila. It had not hit Uolevi but his tray, which had indeed been Arvi’s target. It had been knocked sideways on its straps, and the fertilizer spilt on the ground. Uolevi had taken a pistol from his pocket. Tempers were rising, and another stone flew in Uolevi’s direction. Uolevi fired a shot into the air.

Halme ran towards the group, his stick upraised. Breathless from running, he tried to shout but could not make his voice heard amid all the excitement.

“Bloody hell,” said someone, “we’re being shot at.”

Seeing Akseli, Halme hurried over to him. “Do something,” he panted. “Quieten them down. Stop them –.” Akseli turned towards the noisiest group. “Quiet!” he shouted. “And drop those stones. And put that fucking gun away, whoever fired it.”

This had no effect whatever. As if in reply, Anttoo Laurila was heard to shout: “Lousy bastard! Using a gun – all right, we’ll lay him so flat he won’t know how to get up again.”

By now the strikebreakers had come to Uolevi’s aid, and now there was shouting on both sides. Another stone was thrown, and what followed was complete chaos. Fortunately there were few stones on the road and even fewer in the field, so that they had to be hunted for. When someone found a stone, someone else, in his excitement, was liable to snatch it from his hand. Those who could not find a stone resorted to fisticuffs, and soon the two groups were merged in a scuffling, struggling mass, from which arose a confused hubbub of shouts and curses:

“Is that so, you bloody … If I’m hit again I’ll shoot to kill … Break it up, in the name of the law … God, you little bastard … Get off me … Go away … Not good … Comrades, control yourselves, think of your honour as workers … Remember you’re social democrats … Akseli, stop them … Otto, do something … Knock that upper-class grin off his face, he threw a fucking rock at me … Go and poke your mother’s kitchenmaids, that’s all you’ve ever done so far … What do you think you’re doing? … Knock his bloody teeth down his bloody throat … Comrades, listen to me … Sing … Through the night of dark oppression … Jesus, who threw that? … I’ll kill the bastard … Think of your honour as workers … Social democrats …”

Halme, still panting, went from man to man, brandishing his stick or spreading out his arms imploringly. A stone hit him in the back, doubling him up for a moment and drawing from him a sharp cry of pain, but he straightened himself up and went on, flourishing his stick and shouting in a cracked voice. Akseli was making his own efforts to calm the men, but since he had no hope of making his voice heard above the din, there was nothing for it but to try and restrain them physically. He grabbed Elias by the shoulder just as he was about to fling a stone.

“Drop that,” he shouted. “Damn you, didn’t you hear the order?”

At that moment a stone struck Akseli in the ribs, taking his breath away and half-blinding him with pain. When he recovered his voice it was to utter a yell of rage. “Who the hell – ?”

He flung himself blindly into the crowd of strikebreakers and seized hold of the first man within reach, who happened to be the doctor’s son. Despite the fury that had seized him, Akseli managed to retain a dim consciousness of the fact that he was supposed to be keeping the others in order, so that instead of aiming blows he lunged at his opponents and sent them flying. Arvo Töyry ended up flat on the ground like the rest. The constable fired a shot in the air and ordered the strikebreakers to withdraw to the other side of the field. When they obeyed, the battle at last ended, since the strikers did not follow them. A cloud of dust hung over the scene of the fighting. On every side, men were panting, cursing and groaning. There were cut lips and bleeding noses. One man was hopping on one leg. Another sat by the roadside hunched up with pain, cursing: there were tears in his eyes. From both sides there still came an occasional shout, the expression of a final upsurge of anger.

The Baron had at first joined in the shouting in an effort to bring the men to order, but after a while he had stood aside and simply watched the proceedings with an air of cool contempt. Halme, panting heavily, addressed the strikers:

“Who was it that threw the first stone? Come on, stand forward the man who started it. Who began this? This is, this is–”

The constable, too, had dropped his friendly manner. “This is a serious business,” he said. “Disobeying my express orders. It was your side that deliberately… the workers were strictly forbidden to… you will be held responsible.”

“Devil take! No sense! All crazy, all sick in mind!”

Halme turned to the constable and the Baron. Trembling with emotion and transferring his stick to his other arm, he said angrily:

“I’ll thank you not to provoke the men any further, haven’t we had enough trouble?”

There came a final angry shout from the crowd of strikers:

“You keep your big trap shut, Big Man, what you need is a bloody good hiding.”

The Baron said nothing. Raising his chin, he walked away across the field, looking majestic and stern. Halme ordered his men to march on, and they moved forward a little way, some of them still shouting a final word of defiance. Halme marched for a while in gloomy silence then said to Akseli:

“You were supposed to be keeping order, but you were as bad as any of them.”

“Hell and damnation, nobody lands me a crack like that and gets away with it.”

Halme dropped the conversation. Staring straight ahead, he marched on behind the banner with his head held high, ignoring the muttering and cursing that was going on behind him.

“We should have gone for them harder… I gave that fellow such a crack on the jaw, it took the skin off my knuckles.”

When they reached the Workers’ Hall, the group did not disperse, and there was a fresh upsurge of feeling. Halme had gone home to make a telephone call, and on his return he announced that a group of M.P.s would be coming the next day for discussions with a view to ending the strike. Still stiff from his injury, he added tersely:

“And I warn all trouble-makers that if people want me to take any part in these discussions, there must be no more disorder of any kind. Surely this is something even the most simple-minded person can understand: that kind of behaviour reduces our chances considerably. How can we get up and talk about the rights of roughnecks and hooligans? Since it doesn’t seem to have been any use appealing to your sense of honour, I am putting this to you as a matter of ordinary common sense.”

The words sounded calm and restrained as they fell into the silence, but Halme’s anger was still evident in his stiff gait as he descended the steps of the Workers’ Hall, where he had stood to make his speech.

The news of the impending negotiations caused a change of mood. Before it there had been talk of going back to the field. “And this time anyone who sympathizes with the strikebreakers can stay away. This time we only need men who’re prepared to clear them right off the field.”

After Halme’s announcement even the angriest of them stopped making threats of this kind, though muttering still continued among small groups here and there. “What, go and stand there with our bloody caps in our hands, after being stoned and shot at? He’s been hobnobbing with the gentry for so long he’s not really against them when it comes to the point.” . . . “But if anyone points a gun at me again he’ll have something a bit harder than a stone to reckon with, I can tell you that. There’s going to be shots fired all right, and they’ll come from a six-shooter, and they won’t make holes in the empty air, I promise you that.”

But somehow there was a general feeling that the battle had been won, and the cut lips and bruises took on the character of honourable scars. “I copped a real beauty, right in the face”, said the young day-hand from the Manor. “Couldn’t see nothing but stars for a bit, three Great Bears and Orion with two belts.” The words came thickly through the split and swollen lips, but there was a swagger in them.

There was some boisterous singing in the village that evening.

Translated by David Barrett

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