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There Is Power In The Union: Iceland’s Labour Revolution

There Is Power In The Union: Iceland’s Labour Revolution

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published March 16, 2018

Earlier this month, Icelanders witnessed a bloodless revolution. Efling, one of Iceland’s largest labour unions and comprised of some of the lowest-paid workers in the country, held elections for their board. Although voter participation was around 15%, some 80% of these voters chose B-list, a group of workers led by socialist Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir and comprised in large part by immigrants. They ran on a platform based on worker control, transparency, and improving the housing situation. It was Efling’s first board election in 18 years and marked a revolutionary turning point for them.

But this revolution isn’t confined solely to Efling, nor did it just begin yesterday. It arguably began more than a decade ago, and it likely will not stop with Efling. In a way, this revolution was incited by a distant and immutable union leadership that is seen as being more friendly with business interests than its own workers, as well as a government that is eager to award itself benefits and pay raises that exceed what the average working Icelander can expect.

The union makes us strong

Ragnar Þór Ingólfsson, the chair of VR, the Reykjavík merchant’s union, led a revolution of his own within that union, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. He brought a similar platform as B-list’s in that union’s elections in 2009, winning the chair in 2017. Ragnar told Grapevine that he was “In the clouds” over the Efling election results.

“It was so decisive,” he said. “There has been so much disappointment lately, of people getting elected and then doing something different than from what they promised. We’re just not used to seeing people saying they will do something, getting elected, and then actually doing it. A lot of expectations are resting upon us now.”

“The current command structure of ASÍ has been based on a lack of interest or participation in the needs of its own members.”

Ragnar is also absolutely certain there is a revolution going on.

“It’s hardly possible to call it anything else, in that we have overthrown a certain power structure in the labour movement that has been there for decades,” Ragnar explains, but he credits the start of the movement to Vilhjálmur Birgisson, chair of the Akranes Labour Union, who was swept to victory in 2004 on a platform that can be seen reflected in both Ragnar and B-list. But for Ragnar, the leadership of the Confederation of Icelandic Labour Unions (ASÍ) has only itself to blame.

“The current command structure of ASÍ has been based on a lack of interest or participation in the needs of its own members,” he says. “When the workers within Efling and VR rise up against what is actually a small group of people in power, it comes to light that there is actually nothing behind these powerful people.”

A “wake-up call” to the people

For his part, Vilhjálmur described the election results as “a wake-up call to the people that they can take the power back. That they can make a difference. This was shown in a very decisive matter while sending a very clear message that the old platform [of the union] has been rejected once and for all.”

Vilhjámur also sees a revolution going on, and believes both the top of union leadership and the Icelandic government left working people with little choice but to take over their own unions. Vilhjámur has been a very vocal critic of ASÍ leadership, in particular of ASÍ president Gylfi Arnbjörnsson, about whom he said in 2016 “this man cannot call himself a labour leader”, in response to Gylfi’s dismissal of the demands of striking teachers. Vilhjálmur has also likened ASÍ leadership to North Korea.

Ragnar agrees with the impotence of top union leadership, saying, “While grassroots political groups began to spring up and move to action within Parliament, the labour movement sat on their hands with nothing new to offer. They did nothing while people found they weren’t making enough money to live on. It hasn’t [until now] been able to step forward in a credible way to fight against this.”

“Now there’s a movement going on to ensure that everyone can live with dignity; not just some people.”

Even those immersed in business interests have been forced to recognise this worker’s revolution. Styrmir Gunnarsson, the former editor of Morgunblaðið, recently took to roundtable news discussion show Silfur Egils to admit frankly that “the main reason for this shake-up within the labour movement is because of what is happening in society; that very few people have taken more than their share, at the expense of others.”

Indeed, recent news that members of Parliament have awarded themselves pay rises that raise at a greater rate than the wages of working people, in addition to having their travel and phone expenses paid off by the Treasury, tax-free, has caused considerable outrage in the general public.

We’re just getting started

Ragnar is certain that the revolution spread.

“This is just the beginning,” he says, citing upcoming movements with the Suðurnes labour union and the Icelandic Union of Marine Engineers and Metal Technicians (VM). It should also be added that Vegbúar, a semi-official labour union for professional drivers, have been very vocal supporters of Efling.

“These are unions currently led by people who refuse to face what’s going on in the movement,” Ragnar says. “If these people continue to push back against the will of the people to put a new emphasis in the movement, to have a more active movement, with greater and deeper solidarity, then this leadership is just going to fall. This is a very strong message from the workers. And if they don’t change their tune, they know they won’t last long.”

“There are entirely too many people who are working for very low wages, can’t make ends meet from month to month, and have been left behind by Icelandic society,” Villhjálmur says. “These people have now risen up, and said, ‘Help us improve our conditions’. And now there’s a movement going on to ensure that everyone can live with dignity; not just some people.”


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