Fisherman's Strike Ends: "We Had A Gun To Our Heads", Says Union Leader - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Fisherman’s Strike Ends: “We Had A Gun To Our Heads”, Says Union Leader

Published February 20, 2017

Photos by
Ragna Guðmundsdóttir/Guðmundur Guðmundsson

The strike that went on for about two months has finally drawn to a close, but one union official says the deal was reached after the Minister of Fisheries essentially threatened to enact a law forcing the fishermen back to work.

RÚV reports that the vote to go back to work was a close one: 52.4% voted in favour, with 46.9% voting against, and only 53.7% of eligible fishermen took part in the vote.

As to be expected from such a close vote, opinion was mixed amongst fishermen reporters spoke to. A great many were simply pleased to be back to work, while many others were still unsatisfied with the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Vilhjálmur Birgisson, head of the Akranes Labour Union, posted an explanation for the divisiveness on Facebook. Vilhjálmur contended that at last week’s meeting between fishermen, fishing companies and Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, she had submitted a proposal of her own. This much, Þorgerður disclosed with reporters at the time.

However, Vilhjálmur says that the Minister added that if the deal was not approved by the fishermen, she would then contact the President on the matter to put a law in place that would force them back to work – completely contradicting her opinion on the matter as of only a month ago.

“We were backed up against a wall,” Vilhjámur told Vísir. “I want to word this as I did at my introductory meeting on the matter, that we actually had a gun put to our heads by being told ‘Either you accept this deal as it is or we’ll put the law against you.’ No middle ground between the two.”

As reported, one of the more contentious parts of the labour dispute is the fact that management of Iceland’s major fisheries intend to offset added government fees by taking the needed funds directly from catch values. This essentially moves money away from the seamen and into the hands of management, to help cover costs that they need to pay for.

Fishing accounts for about 8% of Iceland’s GDP, and is one of the pillars of the economy. The strike had already started to have real effects on markets abroad, with The Guardian, amongst others, reporting that the dispute between Iceland’s fishermen and fishing companies had already started to have a real effect on the British supply of cod and haddock.

With the deal made, or compelled to be made, the strike is over for now. However, the low turnout for the vote approving the collective bargaining agreement, as well as the divisiveness of the vote itself, quite likely means this dispute is far from over.

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