Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Thursday, 16 March 2017

When news of the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution reached Iceland

Copenhagen 15 March 1917[1]
Last Sunday revolution began in Russia. Parliament refused the Emperor’s order to dissolve. An elected committee of 12 MPs declared itself the new regime in Russia. The new government arrested all politicians loyal to the Emperor. Thirty thousand troops and people of Petrograd support the new government. In three days the new government has taken power in Petrograd and announced nationwide that the revolution is necessary to secure transport and a national food supply. Petrograd's food shortages have caused the revolution. The Duma (Russian parliament) established an executive committee with Rodzianko as chair. General strike in Moscow.

Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið published the telegram with news of the first victory of the Russian Revolution—the fall of Tsar Nicholas—on 17 March 1917, two days after the bloody dictator abdicated. That day, the most radical left wingers of the Social Democrats in Reykjavik set up the Reykjavik Union of Socialists, Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavikur to work for socialism in Iceland.

The fall of the Russian dictator (left) and the price of bread (right),
push adverts off the front page

Socialist ideas were not new idea in Iceland. The first left wing paper published there— Alþýðublaðið, The People's Paper—edited by Pétur Georg Guðmundsson, came out in 1906 and socialist newspaper Dagsbrún, edited by Ólafur Friðriksson, started in 1915. Dagsbrún was bought in 1917 by Iceland’s Social Democratic Party, Alþýðuflokkurinn which was set up in 1916 to represent the trade unions, but almost immediately some of its members were discussing setting up a more radical group of socialists within it.

Russia’s revolution was the impetus they needed. Einar Olgeirsson says in his memoir, Kraftaverk Einnar Kynslóðar that the founding meeting of Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavíkur was held in Bárubúð, the hall owned by the Seaman’s Union, Báran, on Vonarstræti, where Reykjavik City Hall is now. The group grew rapidly with a mixture of people who called themselves social democrats, communists and others who were somewhere in between and included lots of seamen[2].

Many of those joining Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavíkur went on to become leading socialists nationwide and in the trade unions. Einar Olgeirsson who was then 14 years old, became a leading member of Iceland’s Communist Party (ICP) founded in 1930 and was elected an ICP member of parliament.

The First World War

Despite the initial popularity of the First World War in Europe, its reality—the mass slaughter of young working class men, hunger and the indifference of their rulers meant that socialist ideas were spreading. In Iceland, news of the war was followed closely in the newspapers and newsreels in Reykjavik's cinemas, such as Gamla Bíó where the film, Battle of the Somme was shown three times a day from Sunday 11 March 1917. The film was made in 1916 shortly after the battle by Britain's War Office official photographers as propaganda for the Allies, but it shocked its audiences with the reality of the slaughter.

The war was also a disaster for ordinary people in Iceland. By 1914 the country’s economy was integrated into the world markets that the war had smashed up. Salt fish exports to Spain were disrupted, unemployment, hunger and shortages of essentials including heating oil, grew with the British and German attacks on shipping.

Morgunblaðið reported the calculations of the quarterly statistical paper Hagtíðindin of the price increases in Iceland's staple goods—80 percent on average, since the beginning of the war.

Price rises July 1914 – January 1917

65 %
Garden fruit & vegetables
Other fruit
Tea, chocolate, cocoa
Butter and fat
Milk, cheese and eggs
Bacon & salted lamb
Soda and salt

As the war dragged on, Dagsbrún, defined cheap as "an ancient word, no longer in use" and buying sugar as, "to stand about idly without success".

Thousands of Icelanders were colder and hungrier and wanted to change their lives.

News of the first week of the revolution reached Iceland in bits and pieces—the Russian emperor was in prison, his brother Michael had taken his place, an article considered the profound effects this must have on the Duma, the token parliament, which now, it said, held power. What about Russian politicians, Rodzianko, the serious thinker and his enemy the reactionary Protopopov? And Nicholas wanted to hand power to his young son.

In the first weeks of the revolution it appears that Icelanders didn't know that women in Russia marching for peace and bread on International Working Women's Day had sparked the movement that toppled the Tsar. Icelanders in Denmark may have heard, but letters home were censored by the British military. Still a Reykjavik newspaper quoted the paper of the Young Socialists in Stockholm saying Russia wanted to make an independent peace with Germany and had sent officials to Switzerland to negotiate.

Then the provisional government announced that political prisoners were to be freed, there was to be free speech and freedom of the press. A representative government would be established with free general elections and the old police force would be replaced by a citizens militia answerable to parliament. 

Kerensky, the minister of justice said that the old government would be held accountable for their crimes against the people but none of them would be condemned without a trial.

The allied powers, the news said, welcomed the revolution because they wanted to see Russia waging the war efficiently. The London papers embraced the new developments and only saw a risk in riled up Russian workers being distracted from war production. Leaders in England sent telegrams to the provisional government about it.

Women march for bread and peace in Russia 1917
on International Working Women's Day,
23 February Old Style and 8 March New Style 

The shock waves from revolutionary Russia in that first week gave millions of people the hope that life could be better than poverty and endless work. In underdeveloped Iceland, with its few small towns, isolated farmsteads and fishing stations, the revolutionaries' ideas and victories were to become the catalyst for trade unions, socialist and communist groups to mushroom in its poor soil.
In future posts, I'll be looking at the Icelanders who travelled to revolutionary Russia to learn from it and how their experiences came to shape generations of militant workers in Iceland.

[1] Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, which was 13 days behind, so 15 March in Europe and the United States was 24 February in Russia. To change to the Gregorian calander or New Style, add 13 days. 
[2] One Miraculous Generation, Kraftaverk Einnar Kynslóðar, Mál og Menning, p30.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Eight week fisheries strike bites hard as Iceland's establishment gets rattled

Icelandic fishers have been striking for two months and a report published yesterday by Iceland's Fisheries minister, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir shows just how much fishing is really worth to the government and employers.

Fisheries minister Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir

The report notes that since the start of the strike on 14 December 2016:
  • The production and export of fresh whitefish has dropped by 40-55 percent and export revenue is down by 3500-5000 million Icelandic króna (ISK)
  • Some 312 million ISK in unemployment benefit has had to be paid out and contributions to the unemployment fund paid by workers are down by 126 million
  • The treasury is losing tax and fishing fees
  • Central and local government income has been hit by 3,565 million ISK, of which 2,998 million would have come from fishers and 567 million from fish processing workers 
  • If the strike were to continue over the capelin fishing season it would cost the economy a further billion ISK
The report also notes how much fishing workers are sacrificing to fight for their terms and conditions, as their disposable income has dropped 3,573 million ISK and the fish processing workers' income is down 818 million. If the fishing unions had united and stayed out indefinitely as planned from 10 November last year, the workers' could have won weeks ago. But it looks as though Iceland's ruling class is trying to find a way to end the strike and save face.

Páll Magnússon, head of the parliament, the Alþingi, Industrial Affairs Committee was interviewed by state broadcaster RUV last week. It was remarkable enough that he said that the government could intervene without banning the strike. Iceland governments have made fishing strikes illegal before but it appears to recognise now that the well of bitterness beneath this strike is too deep to risk banning it. Instead he suggested that fishers' food allowance could partly be treated as a travel allowance and not fully taxed.

Former Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, also raised the idea of reinstating fishers' tax breaks. These tax breaks, before they were abolished, went some way to recognise that fishing is hard and dangerous and makes huge amounts of profit for exporters and processing plant owners.

Remember president of seafood producers Samherji, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson? He wrote an article saying Icelandic fishers earn £100,000s a year and are better off than their Norwegian counterparts. He was also Chair of Glitnir investment bank when it went belly-up in 2008 and an article published in Iceland last year said that Þorsteinn Már and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir had been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji. These enormous profits, journalist Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson said amounted to nearly 6.5 percent of 2015's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik and almost 65 percent of the revenue of Iceland's National Radio or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.

The CEO of Grimsby fish market Martyn Boyers knew this strike would hit profits quickly, back in November 2016 he said,
It is not permanent, but it is a bad thing. Because of the way the system works we have fish on its way. It won't affect this week but it will the week after. The biggest issue is we don't know how long it will be. Will it be a day and they'll be back fishing tomorrow? Could it be a week?, A month? It will not be permanent, but the way business works now there won't be a really good period to cover the bad.
Boyers also pointed out that Norway, Ireland and Scotland would not be able to fill the gap left by the strike and said that the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association would be trying to put pressure on the Icelandic government to get the employers and unions to end the strike. 

Whatever pressure they have tried has not worked. Boyars was quoted in an article in British newspaper The Guardian yesterday.
Since January we have had virtually no Icelandic fish. We are currently down 75% on Icelandic fish in weight terms over the last five weeks. It’s putting pressure on jobs in the supply chain and availability in shops.
The Guardian is a middle class newspaper, which explains why the article is mostly most worried about the price of fish and the shortage of courgettes in Britain due to cold weather in Spain. Leaving aside this editorial idiocy, Fisheries minister, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir's report may have be intended to load pressure on the strikers but it also clearly shows that this strike can be won.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Iceland's fishing workers vote and strike again

Iceland's fishing workers have voted again to reject the deal negotiated between the employers' association of fisheries companies, SFS and the unions in Sjómannasamband Íslands.

On a 67.7 percent turnout—743 of the 1,098 members of Sjómannasamband Íslands eligible to vote, over 75 percent (562 members) voted to reject the deal. Some 23.82 percent—177 voted to accept it and the indefinite strike restarted from 8pm, 14 December.

The issues at stake include crew levels, the cost of work clothing, holidays, accident and sick pay, the price paid for the sailors' share of the catch and the amount of the value of the catch that the employers are able to keep to cover fuel costs. And the trawler owners do not want to pay for the workers to travel home when they land away from their home port.

The next negotiation meeting is expected to be on 5 January 2017. 

If the strike were to continue, fish workers in factories in Iceland and the Westman Islands could be laid off, although they will be able to get unemployment benefit to tide them over. 

But the factory workers and the fishers have the same interests against the owners/employers, because their work is the source of all the profit made by the fisheries companies from fish on the world market. We should remember just how rich their work makes the owners, as I noted in an earlier post
An article published in Iceland last month says that Þorsteinn Már and his and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir have been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji..this amounts to nearly 6.5 percent of last year's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik..or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.
So it would be in the interests of both the fishers and the fish factory workers for the factory unions to ballot and the workers to come out on strike in solidarity with the sailors and to improve their own pay and conditions.

Anything is possible. Solidarity and victory to the strikers. Áfram sjómenn!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

If workers were to punch their weight - Iceland's fishing strike

Just four days after Iceland's fisheries strike began on 10 November, articles reported that deals had been agreed and the strike was off. Iceland's National Broadcasting Service, RÚV reported that a contract had been signed between the Icelandic Fishermen’s Association, Sjómannasambands Íslands and the employers association, Samtaka.

Immediately, a furious row broke out as two of the largest fisheries unions - vélstjórafélag Grindavíkur and Sjó­manna­fé­lags Íslands (SFÍ) refused to sign the deal. Jón­as Garðars­son, head of
S­FÍ accused Valmundur Valmundsson of Sjómannasamband Íslands of breaking unity by meeting secretly with the employers.

The members of Vélstjórafélag Grindavíkur and Sjó­manna­fé­lags Íslands made up some 40-50 percent of the striking seamen and they stayed out. But because trawlers are often run by workers in different unions, some boats went back to sea leaving the strikers behind.

The proposed deal involves better money for protective clothing, holidays and guaranteed wages but Jón­as said that his union's lawyers were sure that the deal cut sick leave in half. Sjómannasambands Íslands denied this saying that sick leave is regulated by law. This matters so much because fishing is dangerous and it is easy to get injured. 

The fish dealers were enormously relieved.

Martyn Boyers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises, which operates Grimsby Fish Market, said,

"I'm reassured about the coming week's supply now... It was never going to be a long strike, they need to work."

Yet only a few days before in the Grimsby Telegraph, he had been explaining how contingency plans had been made and the strike posed no threat to the market's supply. So employers and markets insisted that the strike would have no effect, but they were ready to send representatives to Reykjavik to get the government to lean on trade union negotiators.

Negotiations continued between the employers and the two large unions that hadn't signed up. There was also the problem of too few crew on herring and other pelagic trawlers. This appears to have been kicked into the long grass with a proposal for an independent study that will be carried out over a year into the numbers, safety and the length of hours worked by crews on these boats.

By 16 November, Sjó­manna­fé­lag Íslands and vélstjórafélag Grindavíkur had also signed a deal that would be binding for two years and suspended the strike. Sjó­manna­fé­lag Íslands said it was able to sign as the sick leave for its members would remain unchanged.

The seamen - fishers and engineers are now being balloted on the deal, with the results due on 14 December.

This strike had been building for a long time, with no negotiated deal since 2011 and 90 percent of those who voted, voted to strike indefinitely. This suggests a level of dissatisfaction among the fishers and trawler engineers that is unlikely to be solved by these deals. But even if the deals are accepted by the majority, much more could have been won by these workers who have barely flexed their muscle and yet whose fishing make billions of krona in profit for the employers and dealers.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Iceland's fishing strike casts a wide net

We are often told that workers have less power and their jobs are more precarious because of globalisation. Employers, whether banks, car factories or call centres frequently insist that if a government doesn't give them tax breaks and the workers won't work for the least they are offering, then they will simply move their business and infrastructure to another, cheaper part of the world. But the current fishing strike in Iceland of around 3,500 workers shows that globalisation can mean that workers have more power, not less.

The fish landing dock and market in Grimsby on the east coast of Britain is open 24 hours a day, all the year round and some 75 percent of the fish auctioned there is caught by Icelandic boats. So as the Grimsby Telegraph newspaper reports, if Iceland's fishing strike continues it will quickly starve the market of the fish it must have to make money. There will be fish arriving tomorrow that have already been caught, but on Monday 21 November there will be a serious shortage if the strike continues.

Grimsby's refurbished fish market

The Grimsby Telegraph says that representatives from the North East are already planning to go to Reykjavik if the dispute isn't settled quickly.  It quotes the Chief executive of market operator Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises, Martyn Boyers, 
"This will resolve itself, it is not permanent, but it is a bad thing. Because of the way the system works we have fish on its way. It won't affect this week but it will the week after. The biggest issue is we don't know how long it will be. Will it be a day and they'll be back fishing tomorrow? Could it be a week?, A month?
"It will not be permanent, but the way business works now there won't be a really good period to cover the bad."
Boyers also points out that Norway, Ireland and Scotland won't be able to fill this gap. And the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association will be trying to lean on the Icelandic ambassador to put pressure on the Icelandic government to get the employers and the unions to end the strike.

Various Icelandic companies operate in Grimsby including Icelandic Group which owns Coldwater, and Saucy Fish Co., and the shipping companies Eimskip and Samskip. Icelandic Group also owns Seachill which is based in Grimsby and claims that the situation has been developing for a long time so it has made contingency plans and the dispute will have no affect on them. It will be interesting to see where its fish is going to come from if the strike continues for any length of time.

Grimsby fish market

Fresh and frozen fish is enormously valuable and each fisher makes large amounts of profit for the owners. But you wouldn't know it from listening to the owners who whine that fishers and trawler workers are extremely well paid and have nothing to complain about.

The president of seafood producers Samherji, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson has written an article here in which he explains that many Icelandic fishers earn £100,000s a year and are better off than their Norwegian counterparts. He has less to say about how hard they have to work to earn the money, how long they are away from their families and how tough the conditions can be. He has nothing to say about the long boring trips when little fish is caught, which will happen more often as fish stocks suffer from environmental degradation and the effects of global warming.

It is also worth knowing that Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson was Chair of Glitnir investment bank when it went belly-up in 2008. And an article published in Iceland last month says that Þorsteinn Már and his and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir have been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji. Journalist Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson points out that this amounts to nearly 6.5 percent of last year's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik, almost 65 percent of the revenue of Iceland's National Radio or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.

We can be certain of two things here - that whatever the fishing workers want the employers can certainly afford and that they won't stop squealing about it until they are forced to pay up.

Áfram sjómenn!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Áfram Sjómenn - The indefinite trawler fisheries Strike in Iceland is on

Iceland's trawler fishers and marine engineers began an all-out strike tonight at 11 pm after talks broke down a little after 9 pm this evening without a new deal between the fishing unions and employers.

In this video tonight Valmundur Valmundsson of Iceland Seamen's Union, Sjómannasamband Íslands announces that the strike is going ahead. He thanks everyone for their support and says they must stick together in this fight.

Sjómannasamband Íslands (SSÍ) and Marine Engineers in VM Félag vélstjóra og málmtæknimanna rejected the deal proposed by the Association of Fisheries Companies in August this year. This deal meant trawler workers could get wage cuts of up to 15 percent as the ship owners offloaded new taxes and fuel charges onto the fishers and engineers.

An agreement has been reached on the prices to be paid for fish but not on the numbers of crew on each vessel. The Union says there are already too few crew and any fewer would be dangerous.

Last month, fishers in the Iceland Seaman's Union voted by 90 percent to strike indefinitely, if the employers didn't come up with a better deal.

When the ballot ended, 339 members of VM, the Icelandic Union of Marine Engineers and Metal Technicians had voted, a 71.8 percent turn out. Some 90.8 percent voted to strike with only 26 members voting against.

Fishers in the Iceland Seaman's Union, SSÍ voted by almost 90 percent to strike on a 56 percent turn out.

Áfram Sjómenn

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Celebrating a militant workers movement, Gúttóslagurinn 9 November 1932

Eighty four years ago today when Iceland was in the grip of the world economic depression, an explosion of working class anger that became known as Gúttóslagurinn - the battle of Gúttó, erupted at a Reykjavik town council meeting.

It was the second of two decisive events that year which meant that for the rest of the 1930s employers and state authorities in Iceland were on the back foot against a militant workers' movement.

In Reykjavik 1932, with 28,000 inhabitants, where 25 percent of working men were unemployed, the town council included some of the establishment's most important people; the Chair Petur Halldorsson, Jakob Moller the Bank Inspector, Jon Olafsson, the bank manager, the doctor Maggi Jul Magnusson and the only woman on the council Gudrun Jonasson. The council intended to rubber stamp its plan to slash the wages paid out for dole work and abolish the hard won coffee break.

Outside Gúttó, possibly on 9 November 1932

Working class anger and organisation in Iceland had been growing for years and by 1932 the communists were leading a united campaign against wage cuts and poverty involving trade unionists, the Social Democrats, Alþýðuflokkurinn and a mass of ordinary workers. Wages had fallen in rural areas where organisation was weak but in 1930 to 1931 communists had organised against violent employers to establish union wage rates.

In July 1932 the town council decided that wages would have to be cut despite months of protest. They had to make some concession to popular anger and a "dole work" programme began in the summer. But it was only for 200 men and was mostly pointless quarry work without any thought of building anything, or even repairing existing roads. The men worked for around six hours a day for an hourly rate of 1.36 krona (kr), but only men with the largest families got work most days in the week. Even with work, 8 or 9 kr a day meant slow starvation.

Militant Trade unions
Dagsbrún, the Reykjavik General Workers Union and the Seaman's Union presented the council with their demands, including a scheme for work creation and infrastructure development and for free food, gas and electricity for the unemployed, who should then not have to pay tax. With an argument that sounds familiar today, the council's majority response was to insist that wage rates were too high and men were unemployed because the unions were preventing them from taking the available jobs at reasonable wages. One very rich councillor, like an aged Marie Antoinette, helpfully added that when he was young and times were hard he had managed by eating catfish instead of cod.

Outside this meeting police battered people struggling to get in to hear what was happening. To add insult to injury the authorities were using the hated Extras, so-called "white troops", unemployed workers hired as police assistants to attack picket lines. Half starved men demanding a right to live fought back.

In the following days workers were jailed for riot, incitement and refusal to answer the court's questions. A Danish King's Decree of 1795 was used against five trade unionists and communists to jail them "at his majesty's pleasure on bread and water". One of the five, Indriða Garibaldardóttir, refused to recognise the court's legality as it was being used by the ruling class as a political weapon against the working class. She pointed out that in the recent banking scandal, government ministers had investigated and then found themselves not guilty. She refused to eat any king's bread, started a hunger strike and was joined by the other four.

Hundreds joined a protest march and every night there was a mass meeting outside the jail with a further march of 4,000 people. A few days later the authorities, too nervous to hold them any longer, released the five into the seething atmosphere of Reykjavik.

The campaign continued through the summer at union meetings and in the communist and SDP newspapers. Dagsbrún and other unions - including Framsókn, the Reykjavik women workers' union, held a mass meeting and protest march. Speakers from both the Social Democrats and Iceland Communist Party urged workers to go to Gúttó, the Good Templars House where the council was to meet, to block the plan on 9 November.

Communist paper, Verkamaðurinn The Worker
describes the police attack on the crowd

The council was so sure that the meeting was only a formality that the wage cards were already printed up with the new, lower dole work rate.

Shocked ruling class

By ten in the morning thousands of angry people filled the square and the streets outside Gúttó. SDP councillors spoke against the wage cut and the Conservatives were heckled and jeered. When lunchtime was called Guðjón Benediktsson, the leader of the Communist Unemployed Workers Committee, demanded that the wage cut be thrown out and the councillors stay until they agreed. The police escorted the Tories out with the promise that everyone in the building would be allowed back in after the break. The only woman councillor, Guðrún Jónas, did not come back, nor did the despised Extras who had been deployed in the morning and seen that they were massively outnumbered.

After lunch only a few of the protesters got back into the building before the meeting restarted. A loudspeaker had been set up outside to relay the meeting so people outside could hear when the police attacked the audience "to clear the entrance". The response that followed shocked Iceland's ruling class. In an explosion of anger the protesters chased the councillors out, smashed the windows of government buildings all over town and fought pitched battles against the police. Gúttó, as the symbol of the authorities' class hatred, was wrecked. Hundreds came to a meeting that night to hear that the wage cut had been overturned. At that moment of victory they did not press their demands, but the arrests made after 9 November had to be abandoned a few days later.

The day after, Tory paper Morgunblaðið reports
Gúttóslagurinn as a mindless attack on cops and councillors 

The authorities spent the rest of the decade blaming each other for the battle of Gúttó. A united front had "stood up in the hair" of the Conservatives and beaten back a government that argued financial crises had a life of their own, were not an inherent characteristic of capitalism itself and meant working class people to pay for them,

Material in this article originally appeared in Socialist Review Iceland's bosses in hot water