From Iceland — Union Heads Resign: Conflict Between Leadership, Current And Former Members

Andie Sophia Fontaine
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Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, the director of labour union Efling, announced she was resigning from her position yesterday, RÚV reports. Shortly thereafter, managing director Viðar Þorsteinsson said he was doing the same. Sólveig has publicly spoken on the matter on social media that she was effectively driven from her position, and has been threatened with violence. Both current and former members of Efling headquarters have described a culture of bullying and sudden firings, and have said that contrary to wanting Sólveig to resign, they rather wanted to see substantial changes to work practices within the union.

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Attempted to resolve matter in-house

Efling employees approved a memo last June regarding changes they wanted to see in work practices within union management. This memo was sought after by board member Guðmundur Baldursson, who ultimately spoke to RÚV about the matter last week. RÚV reached out to Sólveig for a statement last Friday, but did not receive a reply. However, the news agency was sent an e-mail from a shop steward that stated that the matter did not belong in the media; rather, they sought to resolve the matter in-house.

This e-mail was sent shortly after an employee meeting within Efling. Sólveig said that at this meeting, she gave attendees two options: to withdraw the resolution regarding their experience of work conditions within Efling, or she would resign. In response, shop stewards drafted a statement, one to RÚV and one sent to Efling management, the latter of which said in part:

“In the opinion of the employees, it is unfair for the management to transfer responsibility for these internal matters to the staff. We declare that there was a reason for the original resolution and we still want the management to respond to it. We require managers to acknowledge, take responsibility for and solve the problem.” They added that a large portion of workers within Efling did not feel secure in their workplace.

In the wake of this, Sólveig announced on social media that she was resigning from the board. Viðar’s announcement followed shortly thereafter. Sólveig has added that she has reportedly experienced threats of violence against her, which she says she has reported to the police.

Worker response

Many Efling workers were taken aback by Sólveig’s statement yesterday, Vísir reports. They say that they have experienced substantial online bullying on social media following the announcement, and took issue with being characterised as having pushed Sólveig out of her position. While these workers were unwilling to be named in the Vísir story, one described feeling afraid in the workplace of ever speaking up, offering criticisms or raising issues at meetings, as when this has happened before, people have been fired without notice.

In a statement that shop stewards from Efling sent the media, they emphasised again that they never wanted Sólveig to resign, saying:

“It was not the intention of the staff meeting on Friday that the chairman of the organisation resign. The union’s staff has worked wholeheartedly in accordance with the policy that the union’s leadership has set in recent years.”

“It was not the intention of the staff meeting on Friday that the chairman of the organisation resign. The union’s staff has worked wholeheartedly in accordance with the policy that the union’s leadership has set in recent years. Many of the union’s employees work here due to the fight that Sólveig has led. The problems that the staff discussed, the staff wanted to solve in cooperation with the superiors. Friday’s statement was not made for the purpose of expressing distrust or dismissing anyone. It was conceived as a first step towards a solution.”

A longer history

This is not the first time that workers within Efling have raised concerns about work practices within the union. As the Grapevine reported in October 2019, all of the organisers who went on the record with us were non-Icelanders hired to organise workers.

Maxim Baru, who led the organising division for Efling in 2018, said that he had been suddenly fired, without ever having received any written or verbal warnings.

No reason was given for Max’s firing in a letter from Sólveig Anna to him, dated March 29—two days before Efling announced that strike actions were being postponed—only that his firing was effective immediately. The rest of the organisers presumed their work of organising workers would continue, but the group was dissolved by Efling leadership shortly after Max was fired.

In a letter from Sólveig Anna to the organising group dated March 31, she gave no further explanation for his firing apart from “a serious breach of trust”, without divulging any further details.

“Their quitting is damaging to the union movement, especially with negotiations for new collective agreements in the future.”

In a letter Christina Milcher, who also worked in the organising division, sent to Sólveig Anna on April 4, she expressed the concerns that many people within Efling regarded Max’s firing as a power struggle that could make the union look bad. Shortly thereafter, she met with Viðar, and was fired in the wake of this meeting. Ani Mărincean, who was also a part of Efling’s organising division, spoke of “bullying and abuse from the leadership”, saying that they have “slandered me and accused me of trying to harm the union with some outside agenda”, along with some points of criticism for how the union is being run.

Resignation will hurt the union

In a statement Christina sent to the Grapevine yesterday, she expressed solidarity with Efling workers, as well as disappointment with Sólveig’s decision.

“I am disappointed that instead of implementing the proposed solutions Sólveig and Viðar chose to quit instead,” she writes. “Their quitting is damaging to the union movement, especially with negotiations for new collective agreements in the future. My hope is this affair will lead to changes within Efling, as proposed by the staff, but will also be an opportunity for the whole union movement and ASÍ to take bullying within unions more seriously.”

Max also sent a statement on the matter yesterday, echoing sentiments that any criticism made of union leadership was taken too personally. He added that it is his sincere hope that Efling can still fulfill its goals.

“It is safe to say the membership of the union is still keen to see Sólveig’s ‘B-List’ campaign promises fulfilled,” he writes in part. “Namely, to reform the labour movement and to return it to relevance by democratizing one of the country’s most important unions. To create an environment inside the union that enables working people to take control of their working lives. To transform the union’s doctrine from one of managing social decline through bargaining to one that places action in all its forms at the heart of the union’s practice. A doctrine which affirms the preeminence of popular mobilization in the struggle for social justice, and against social regression.”

The culture needs to change

Anna Marjankowska, who was on the board of Efling from April 2018 until September 2019, told the Grapevine that she had been effectively pushed from her position after asking for evidence of the breach of trust levied against Max shortly after his firing was announced. Anna sent a copy of her formal request for said evidence. In the wake of this, she was called to a meeting in September 2019. Present at this meeting were Sólveig, Viðar, vice chair Agnieszka Ziółkowska and lawyer Karl Ó. Karlsson. Anna brought with her lawyer Helga Baldvins Bjargardóttir.

“What the workers did was a written warning. They all wanted her to stay, because a functional union is something that we are aiming for. The workers inside Efling, current and former officials, nobody wanted her to go.”

Anna has sent the Grapevine a copy of the agreement the leadership representatives wanted her to sign. This agreement outlined that Anna was to resign from the board. It outlined in detail the statement Sólveig would subsequently make, which stated in part that Anna had acted in good faith and had not participated knowingly or otherwise in any misconduct. It also stated that neither Sólveig nor Anna would discuss the details of the resignation publicly. This agreement was to be signed by both Sólveig and Anna, but Anna told the Grapevine that she refused to sign it. She resigned shortly thereafter.

Anna also provided documentation showing that she reached out to the Confederacy of Icelandic Labour (ASÍ) about this, seeking resolution. She says she has yet to receive a response.

Like other former and current members of Efling, she also emphasised that no one wanted to Sólveig to resign.

“When I read about the rhetoric that Sólveig uses that her workers fired her, she fired herself,” she told the Grapevine. “What the workers did was a written warning. They all wanted her to stay, because a functional union is something that we are aiming for. The workers inside Efling, current and former officials, nobody wanted her to go. But it’s easier to go then to say ‘OK I was wrong, let’s change’. If the same thing that was happening two and a half years ago is happening now, maybe some people cannot change. Or maybe this politics of bullying or hiding things if needed; not using transparency and democratic processes, maybe this is the policy that everyone in the labour movement in Iceland is using.”

She added that robust criticism is crucial for a healthy environment for any organisation.

“If we are talking about democratic structures, it is good to have somebody there who is not thinking alike, and who will check us,” Anna told us. “That’s how transparency works. If everyone’s on one side, there is no transparency and no democracy.”

What happens now?

Agnieszka will not be resigning from the board, and has said that calls to her to do so from Guðmundur to do so reflect xenophobia.

When asked whether she will take over as head of Efling, she said that next steps would have to be taken within leadership first. She is, however, effectively the acting chair of Efling; the first foreigner to do so in Iceland.

“We need first to call a formal meeting of the board before I can answer this question,” she said. “But I can say that I will not resign as vice chair of the union. … We need to get legal advice in light of the situation and use this time to gather more information.”

This article has been corrected to clarify the timeline of events.

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