Bread And Roses: Iceland’s Labour Struggle In High Gear - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Bread And Roses: Iceland’s Labour Struggle In High Gear

Bread And Roses: Iceland’s Labour Struggle In High Gear

Published March 1, 2019

Andie Fontaine
Photos by
Selena Phillips-Boyle

Last February, four labour unions— Iceland’s general labourers union Efling, the Store and Office Workers’ Union (VR), the Grindavík Labour Union, and the Akranes Labour Union—announced that collective bargaining talks with management’s Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA) had broken down, and the unions were, therefore, preparing to go on strike. The next day, Efling announced they were also proposing a one-day work stoppage that would encompass hundreds of workers in capital area hotels and restaurants (which has subsequently been approved).

In many ways, Efling’s more proactive approach should be entirely unsurprising. Last year, the union held board elections, in which a block of more radically-minded workers managed to win by a substantial margin over the incumbency. Since then, they have stepped up efforts for more substantial gains for their workers—and not just when it comes to wages.

More than a pay rise

Maxim Baru, the head of Efling’s organising division, told the Grapevine that the union’s demands go beyond their proposed minimum wage increase from 300,000 ISK per month to 425,000 ISK.

“We’re demanding access to Icelandic language classes paid by the employer during working hours,” Maxim told us. “One of the demands I’m excited about is having specified that, for every worker in the workplace, the shop steward would get a specific amount of hours per month expressly for doing union work. There are also demands we are working on through the Icelandic Confederation of Labour towards the government around tax relief and rent controls. People abroad don’t know just how little rent control there is here.”

Tax relief is especially timely, as the government recently unveiled a new tax plan, that Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson contended this would provide relief to Iceland’s lowest paid workers. A closer look at the exact numbers showed it in fact put them in a worse position.

“The best thing we can do is organise people at the point of production to be in solidarity with one another, with the prevailing philosophy of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’”

Another major theme of Efling’s demands is accountability. This need was highlighted by Kveikur, an investigative news programme on Icelandic public broadcasting, which recently revealed numerous foreign workers being subjected to inhumane conditions by the labour rental company Menn í vinnu.

“We are also demanding that there be penalties for employers who violate the collective bargaining agreement,” Maxim says. “Right now, if we catch an employer breaking a collective agreement, we can win that person’s wages back, but there’s no penalty for the company. They’re not even fined. So we want there to be concrete repercussions such as fines for companies who break the agreement.”

The solidarity influence

The subject of Efling now being “politicised” has been raised by critics and supporters alike. Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, the director of Efling, is also on the managing board of the Socialist Party, who have been very open about being allied with Iceland’s labour unions.

Another influence on Efling’s strategies and goals is the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a solidarity union originating in the United States over a century ago, with an established branch in Iceland for several years now as Heimssamband Verkafólks á Íslandi. A few of Efling’s workers have either come from or are current members of this union—again, something those involved in Efling have been very open about.

“The IWW has informed the practice of getting workers to meet, discuss their demands, organise an agenda for action through the union’s resources and channels, and to participate,” Maxim tells the Grapevine. “The role of the IWW here has been to inject that knowledge and that know-how. This philosophy places action and democratic participation at the heart of union activity. It’s not that it shuns negotiations or contracts; rather it emphasises workers forming their own action plans by and for themselves. The day before the current industrial dispute began, the collective agreements were being broken, and the day after we sign the new collective agreements, they will be broken. So workers must be prepared for intellectual and industrial self-defence on the job.”

” We’ve already heard from our members that they’ve been threatened, directly and indirectly, encouraged to vote against the strike.”

A long fight ahead

Maxim believes that the upcoming strike and work stoppage—if approved by the union’s workers—could be just the beginning of a prolonged struggle, as management is pushing back hard.

“I’m not at all confident that management will respect people’s rights,” Maxim says. “As we’ve seen through the lifetime of the collective agreement, and during the negotiation phase, people have faced horrendous breaches of the collective agreement and the law, as well as basic morality. We’ve already heard from our members that they’ve been threatened, directly and indirectly, encouraged to vote against the strike. It seems to me that companies are battening down the hatches. Over the past month several businesses have announced ‘reductions in staff’. To me, as an experienced student of strikes, these things are not unconnected, even though there’s no official connection.”

Nonetheless, Maxim remains confident the unions will prevail, as they are actively organising workplaces with the prevailing philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to all”, he says, citing a classic IWW slogan. While management—and most recently, hotel owners—have contended that there is no room to pay a living wage to many of these workers, this in itself raises the question if one has a “right” to own and operate a business if they cannot afford to pay full time workers a living wage. Iceland’s unions are certainly putting that question to the test.

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