Solidarity Forever: An Interview With Union Organiser Vilhjálmur Birgisson

Solidarity Forever: An Interview With Union Organiser Vilhjálmur Birgisson

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Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published December 9, 2016

Meet the union leader pushing for radical changes within the unions themselves.

Vilhjálmur Birgisson is the head of the Akranes Labour Union (Verkalýðsfélag Akraness). His background is decidedly working class, including stints working everywhere from fish processing plants to the ferry between Akranes and Reykjavík. Today, he is one of the most critical voices of not just employers, but union leadership. We met with Vilhjálmur to learn more about what the unions are doing, and what they could be doing better.

We continue to see union leaders signing collective bargaining agreements with management that the workers end up rejecting. The ongoing teachers’ labour conflict is a good example of this. Why is there this gap between what workers want, and what union leaders agree to with management?
That’s a good question. What matters most to any union leader having the trust of their workers; that union members believe that you are doing your absolute best to defend their interests. That you don’t bring the workers an agreement until you believe that you’ve managed to get everything that you could for them. But there is a lack of trust in union leadership. You need look no further than the president of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour [Gylfi Arnbjörnsson]. I’m one of those who have criticised him harshly, because I think he’s on the wrong track. He doesn’t base his decisions on what his own union members want. I think his fight is more about taking away people’s rights, instead of increasing them. Like when he said that the teachers “have gotten theirs.” What do you hear when you hear the head of all the unions talking like this? This is why I’ve said, to his face even, that he seems to be on the wrong team. He’s more on the side of management than us.

Do the unions need structural changes to bridge the gap between workers and union leaders?
I think the workers need to exert more influence on their union leaders. When you’ve got your members behind you, you’re in a much stronger position. Workers need to get involved, and let us hear what it is they want to see in their contracts. And then we, as union leaders, need to be able to tell our workers which demands are fair and realistic. It doesn’t mean anything to promise your workers to raise their salaries 100%, and then come back from negotiations with 5%. You need to show workers that you can deliver what you promise.

But for workers to take part in their unions, they need to be well informed.
Very well informed, and that falls on us, the union leaders. But also, with the way social media is today, now people can get much more involved in these discussions and have easier access to information. Facebook, Twitter, the homepages of unions, along with the traditional media, has helped tremendously in this area.

Workers need to get involved, and let [union leaders] hear what it is they want to see in their contracts.

And of course, it isn’t just Icelandic workers who end up subject to exploitation.
No, definitely not. We imported some 26,000 foreign workers before the crash. The employers who exploited them didn’t just do damage to them; they did damage to the rest of us, too. Because these foreign workers were being paid minimum wages for their jobs, and very soon, these wages became quite common for workers in these industries. So we have to watch out that workers are not just not having their contracts violated; we also need to raise these wages. And it’s still going on today. The tourism industry is a horrifying example. And I would encourage anyone who believes their employer is exploiting them to come to us. In order for us to combat this abuse, we need to know about these cases. Icelandic society in general condemns this kind of treatment of workers. You need only see the reactions of people when a case of worker exploitation hits the news to see that.

We’ve been reading that the unions are starting to increase their strike funds for the coming year, and there are a number of contracts that will have to be re-negotiated. What do you think the next year will bring?
Whenever I see unions in the capital threatening to go on strike, I don’t put any particular stock in it. Unions in the capital haven’t gone on strike in 40 years. They can talk about doing this or that, but they never go through with it. It has only been the unions in the countryside that go on strike in recent years. I don’t think there will be strikes next year.

In your utopian Iceland, what fundamental changes would you see happening in the Icelandic labour movement?
I think we have a really good labour movement in Iceland. Nowhere in the world are more workers registered in a labour union, about 90%. We’ve recovered over 400 million ISK in lost wages for our workers. But we can always do better. How? We need to stand together better. And by that I mean Icelandic Confederation of Labour. They need to listen to their people; not just a closed group of men who make decisions amongst themselves. They need to listen to the grassroots.

So if I were a regular worker in the Icelandic market, can I take part in the elections for a new president of the Confederation?
If you’re in the Confederation Council. And as I’ve said many times, it’s easier to become the president of North Korea than it is to be the president of the unions. Members of the council are chosen. This is usually a group of people around the president. These people are hand-picked, and do not necessarily reflect the demands of workers out in the country. If we had general elections within the Confederation, the president would never get the votes. This needs to change. I’ve put forward proposals within the Council to hold a general election, but it was rejected with an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, a Capacent polled showed that 80% of union workers want the president to be elected in a general election.

How then can a regular worker change the system?
I managed to get here, but it took me many years, and a tremendous amount of work. If you or anyone else wanted to get more involved in their unions, there’s a lot of work ahead of you. But if you believe in something, anything is possible.


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