Some of the more iconic imagery that arose from the 2009 ‘Pots and Pans Revolution’ featured police tangling with protesters, whether involving riot shields, pepper spray, or a physical confrontation within parliament itself. It is, of course, the duty of police the world over to help maintain order and protect people from harm. Iceland’s police force enjoys some of the highest levels of public trust of any government institution. But now, with Iceland’s police force demanding a pay raise, some are questioning whether or not the police are over-reaching.
A statement from the Police Federation of Iceland (LL) recently stated in part that it is “tragic” to “have to be a human shield between parliament and the people” on the first day of the new session. This remark was made after Left-Green MP Árni Þór Sigurðsson was pelted in the face by an egg on his way into parliament. As columnist Guðmundur Andri Thorsson pointed out in a recent column, “In reality this statement means that the police regret having to defend the citizens of this country from violence. What are they taught at the police academy?” How did things get to this point?
Your average police officer makes about 350.000 ISK per month. The chief of police, meanwhile, makes 600.000 ISK. Outgoing police superintendent Geir Jón Þórisson recently told Pressan that he believes the starting salary for a police officer should be 500.000 ISK.
The problem? Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir says there’s no money to provide these salaries. “[The police] are very important to society and of course we want to see if anything is possible,” she recently told RÚV. “But it is not possible to meet the demands of a pay raise or anything like it in the wake of arbitration. I don’t think it will work.”
The response from the police was immediate and strong. Members of riot squads in Eyjafjörður and Selfoss have walked off the job, and the riot squads in Suðurnes and Akranes are considering doing the same. While having riot squads in small country villages might seem like a wasteful expenditure, they are in fact the back-up force for the capital’s riot squad.
When this didn’t get the salary ball rolling fast enough, LL kicked it up a notch: LL director Steinar Adolfsson told Vísir there is a strong demand within the police force to have the right to go on strike again, in the realist sense of the term. In expressing regret that some essential officers would be required to stay on the job in the event of a strike, he quite clearly wishes the police had the right to strike as an entirety.
Which isn’t going to happen. The Boston Police Strike of 1919—which was also over a wage dispute, as well as the right to unionise in the first place—saw the city thrown into lawlessness for a few days. Volunteer militias were required to restore order. This is why police officers cannot go on strike.
On the other hand, the strike has always been labour’s go-to last resort weapon in negotiations. It could even be argued that without even the implied threat of strike lurking in the shadows of possibilities at the negotiations table, it’s very unlikely management would be more cooperative with labour.
Trust the police
The police likely don’t need to go on strike, however—they have the public trust. A Gallup poll from 2010 showed that 81% of respondents said they trust the police a great deal. This made them the second-most trusted institution in the country, right after the University of Iceland, ahead of the banks, the church, and parliament. It is unlikely that this popularity has waned significantly. And this is probably why, when LL wanted to meet with Finance Minister Steingrímur J. Sigfússon over a wage agreement, they got their meeting, and the promise that a government work group will be assembled to try and find a solution somehow.
But LL may be pushing their luck. Many Icelanders don’t earn 350.000 ISK, and there have been grumbles that the police are engaging in emotional blackmail to get their demands met. Journalist Illugi Jökulsson recalled the story of seeing an officer on the news use, as an example of the demands of his job, having a young boy die in his arms at the scene of an accident. He disclosed both the boy’s age and where the accident took place, leaving little mystery as to who the victim was. “If I had been the father of this boy,” Illugi wrote, “I would not have chosen that [the boy] be presented to the media as an example of the struggle of police wages.”
As it stands now, the police are waiting to hear what the government’s work group will come up with by way of a solution. Should the offer not be to their liking, Iceland’s police force could end up joining the same protesters that their union regrets having to protect parliament from. But as public patience wanes, Iceland’s police force may find itself on neither side of the divide, but wedged between a government that cannot pay them as much as they’d like, and a nation growing increasingly weary of their demands.