Over the past six weeks or so, more and more unions have been joining the fray of demanding living wages for their workers, striking or threatening to do so to get there. The demand is so great, in fact, that even the normally cautious, much larger umbrella organisations of unions are joining in. By the beginning of June, close to half the country’s entire workforce could be engaged in work stoppages or strikes. One of the principle demands – to raise the minimum wage to 300,000 ISK – has the support of over 90% of the country.
To read the daily news in Iceland, though, you would think everyone was tail-spinning into a state of hair-ripping panic.
When strikes are imminent or ongoing, not a day goes by that you don’t see some news story pointing out how you, the consumer, are being inconvenienced or endangered by striking workers. The stories run from the light to the serious (the chicken shortage got many times more press than growing waiting lists at clinics), but all carry the same message: consumers of goods and services cannot get those things because the people who produce said goods and services are striking. In other words, people who buy things are one kind of people, and people who make things are another.
I submit – and I know this might sound nuts so bear with me – that consumers and workers are actually the same people. Almost every single one of us buy goods and services, but we also work at a job, which in turn also provides goods and services to others. There is, in fact, no distinction to be made between workers and consumers.
Nobody likes strikes; least of all unions. I’m an organiser, as was my dad and his dad before him. Organised workers do not actually gather in smoke-filled rooms, cackling over the prospect of crippling the economy and blowing up inflation like a beach ball. Workers want to keep earning, they want to keep working, but when you’ve exhausted asking, pleading, cajoling, negotiating and demanding in order to get a fairer shake for what your labour is worth, you’re not left with a lot of other options but to strike. Essentially, it’s management that causes strikes to happen, as has been the case throughout history.
The long, long list of things we enjoy today – minimum wage, weekends, overtime pay, sick leave, an end to child labour, and so much more – would not have been possible had it not been for workers who went on strike. You don’t think bosses just altruistically and heroically let rain down their generosity over the toiling masses out of the goodness of their hearts, do you? No, working people had to strike, fight, sometimes even die for all the awesome stuff we take for granted today.
There is absolutely no reason why workers should have to go on strike to earn a minimum wage that pretty much the entire country agrees they deserve they should get. And yet they have to, while companies that boast rising billions in revenue offer a pittance in return. Is this the fault of the workers? Hardly. And yet these same billionaires whine that giving their workers a fairer deal would force them to have to raise prices; basically extorting you into accepting that a guy sitting on top of a mountain of cash has literally not a single coin to spare and will have no choice but to take his workers’ raise out of your pocket.
But what about the small business owner? Surely the guy who owns a little hole-in-the-wall café isn’t sitting on billions. How can he afford to meet these demands and keep his business running? Consider the following: the two US cities with the highest rate of job growth by small businesses are San Francisco and Seattle. They also happen to have the highest minimum wages in the country. In turns out that when you pay people a living wage, they become a lot more likely to be able to afford to do things like go to little hole-in-the-wall cafés. Fancy that!
Iceland’s workers have clearly had enough, and the general public is on their side. Fortunately, “scabbing” (i.e. replacing striking workers) is illegal in Iceland. Striking has been the primary reason why anything ever got better for working people, and it will be the primary reason again. But in the meantime, when you read a news story about how the strike hurts consumers, bear in mind that the people who put us in this situation are the same people telling you that their billions are holy and untouchable, and that you and your fellow workers are the real problem.
History will prove them wrong again. We can live a better life, and so can our children. Part of this means we don’t accept the narrative of those who have too much that those who have too little are asking for too great a share.
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