Three labour leaders sat down with Icelandic public broadcasting to discuss their aims, and what step they are willing to take to achieve them. While they would like to raise the minimum wage, Icelandic employers have pushed back against the idea, prompting these labour leaders to explore their options.
Kveikur, an investigative news programme on Icelandic public broadcasting, met with Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, the chair of the labour union Efling; Ragnar Þór Ingólfsson, the chair of the labour union VR; and Drífa Snædal, the president of the Confederation of Icelandic Labour Unions.
All three of these labour leaders represent a new wave in Iceland’s labour movement, focussing on more radical advancements for Iceland’s working class than previous union leadership. Iceland has no minimum wage laws; rather, individual unions negotiate for what the minimum wage will be for their respective trades. As Efling and VR both comprise the majority of workers in Iceland together, unity in their demands would have dramatic effects for most working people in Iceland, and they would like to see the minimum wage raised by about 40%, to 425,000 ISK per month before taxes.
While many Icelandic employers have expressed strong reservations against raising the wages of the lowest paid workers in the country, Ragnar told Kveikur that the demand is simply to meet the cost of living.
“What does it cost to live in Iceland?,” he asked rhetorically. “What does it cost to live with dignity on a day-worker salary? And when we calculate the costs, we have to account for the cost of housing as well. And that’s the amount, 425,000, that it costs to live.”
They believe that they are up against powerful special interests, who would like to keep the salaries of Iceland’s lowest paid workers down, while executives have freely awarded themselves generous bonuses.
“It is in itself impossible to understand that we have to respond to some of the rhetoric that has been going on over the past months and year, in relation to the demands that we have,” Ragnar said. “And it is very clear, to my mind, that we are in a kind of war, that the labour movement is in,” with Sólveig adding, “Class war!”
“A class war, you could call it that,” Ragnar agreed. “With certain special interests in this country.”
Drífa said that she believes the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations will be difficult at best without the intervention of the Icelandic government, emphasising that “these demands that merchants and labourers have put forward, they demand that people can live on their salaries. And it is naturally a rather pointless labour movement that does not make such a demand.”
Housing plays a big role in these negotiations. As Ragnar pointed out, the current minimum wage of 300,000 ISK comes to about 248,000 ISK after taxes. At the same time, the average two-bedroom apartment rents for 250,000 ISK.
Sólveig believes that the income inequality in Iceland is both severe and obvious, saying, “I think a person would have to be in some kind of denial of reality if they don’t want to confront the fact that in Iceland there is a great deal of class difference.”
In addition to the possibility of going on strike if these demands are not met, other measures can also be taken. For example, labour unions are also involved in pension funds, and could exercise considerable leverage through them.
Collective bargaining negotiations will be coming up after the new year. As it stands now, it appears highly likely that Iceland’s labour movement and business leaders will be in for a hard road ahead, with or without the involvement of the Icelandic government.