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..

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Freedom to be a Wage Slave

Siglufjörður 1903
A Norwegian ship, the Marley arrived with about 65 tonnes of herring, salt, barrels, and everything needed to salt the herring, except rubber boots. The Captain hired men and women, of all ages to salt the herring and load it into the barrels. This was the first time that women had salted herring in Siglufjorður.

The District Officer and the Priest dropped by to visit and were refreshed by Norwegian ale and Aquavit, their caraway flavoured potato schnapps. Then a messenger turned up from the manager of the local merchant company, Gránufélagið, who offered to take responsibility for the business. For a ‘very small sum’, the merchant would pay all the preliminary costs and then pay the workers.

Captain Ole Myrset sent his compliments to the merchant but made it very clear that he had hired the workers and therefore intended to pay them. In fact he had no intention of relinquishing any aspect of the business and he added that it was none of his business how his workers chose to spend their money.

At one o'clock in the morning the first ocean caught herring to be salted in Siglufjorður was finished. The workers were cleaning themselves up when the Captain came down with two little pouches. He sat down on an empty crate and used a clean full barrel as a table and for the first time ever in Siglufjorður workers were paid in hard cash.[1] 

As I mentioned in my previous post merchants usually had no competition in their geographic area. As well as being traders they were employers and agents for farmers which meant they could decide who got work and how much they were paid.

The entry of foreign capital meant a further loosening of the hold of landowners and merchants over Icelandic workers, and although poverty was still the norm and work conditions were appalling, this was progress.

Generally speaking women’s wages varied from half to 2/3 of men’s which made life very difficult for single mothers or women trying to live independently. In 1903 women’s wages were as low as 10 aurar an hour[2] and by 1914-15, 15-17 aurar an hour. However, Salting work was 25-30 aurar per hour or 35-50 aurar per barrel and if workers salted herring aboard the trawler, in the fjord, they were paid an extra 5-10 aurar per barrel. Once a woman was trained and skilled at salting her wage would be 50 aurar per barrel or 20-30 kr day rate at 300 herring per barrel. [3]

In the spring of 1913 men were paid 30 aurar an hour for herring work and in the beginning of July that rose to 40 aurar an hour. This meant that they could earn 100 kr a month when for the hay-harvest farmers were offering 18 kr and free food.

An advert in the Women’s Paper, Kvennablaðið, from a farmer in East Iceland in April 1915 offered the following terms to young woman;

20 kr per month, 35 kr for field work or 40 kr if she can mow.
Or 120-30 kr for the length of the summer with half the cost of her travel included.
Or 80-90 kr and work clothes if she will commit to 1 year.
In addition there would be a good bonus for a good worker.
10-12 hours per day, a short distance to the meadows, No weaning nor milking.
Good quality tools. Deep in beautiful country.[4]

Theoretically young people without skills could live very cheaply and save their wages. It also made sense that the farmer should want all his workers to be happy and productive but inevitably the process of maximising profit put them at odds with their workers. Word travelled fast about bad food, conditions and sharp practices. Farmers and merchants would be satirised in poems and stories and occasionally revenge could taken by releasing animals from their sheds to cause trouble and expense to a landowner. [5]

And not every job was as advertised. In the summer 1916 Guðrún Þorleifsdóttir sent a complaint to the District Magistrate about her former employer in Árnessýsla in the South West. He had sacked her for refusing to act as an unpaid servant to the local merchant in her free time. Guðrún had been hired to work in the hay and had brought her very young baby with her as was usual, and so argued that at the end of her working day she could expect to be free look after her child and herself. The farmer argued that she had to serve the merchant because the farm women had always done so. Guðrún was clearly unimpressed and said that if the merchant couldn’t sort out his need for a servant it wasn’t the farm women’s job to do so. The farmer threatened to take her to court but let her off with just being sacked and turned out of the house. In January 1917 the Court found in Guðrún’s favour and the farmer had to pay her severance compensation. This caused an almighty stir and effectively ended the practice of women servants being expected to work unpaid overtime.[6]

1919 was a bumper year in the herring but fewer people than usual were even looking for the work because so little had been caught in the previous couple of years. The price of herring was sky high particularly in the countries that had fought WW1 and whose shattered economies could not meet the demand for food. So in Siglufjörður in the summer of 1919, wages were very high and eyewitness Dr Guðmundur Finnbogas fortunately made detailed notes.

There were then 22 herring stations in the fjord.
There were 363 men and 669 women, of whom 22 were foremen, 116 coopers [beykja & dixilmenn] and 225 were general workers.

Monthly wages for a 10 hours day were for the coopers, divided by the wood workers (Beykja) from the barrel assemblers (Dixilmen)[7] 

Beykja - 350 kr + food

               350 - 480 kr without food

Overtime - 1.50-2.25 kr per hour

Dixilmen - 300-350 + food

                   265-400 without food     

Overtime - 1-2 kr ph

General Workers - 180-350 + food

                                200-400 without food

Overtime - 1-2 kr ph

Foremen - 400-500 

Generally all workers got free housing and travel to and from home. Those that didn’t get housing nevertheless got free food

Women all got free return travel from home, housing and fuel. They also got 10 kr per week and were assured 200-300 kr for the whole herring season.[8]

But herring work wasn’t available nor suitable for everyone and indoor servants were always poorly paid with very long hours. Rannveig Eiríksdóttir, a young woman began working at the newly opened Laugarnes School. She began at half seven with another young woman making breakfast for those who lived in the School Warden’s house and then cleaned their rooms and their bedding. After that they made the mid morning snack and coffee for the teaching staff and children and then cooked the hot lunch. Then there were towels to wash, clothes to mend, errands to run and afternoon coffee to prepare for all the staff, then dinner to cook and the washing up and various other jobs til 9.50 pm when they made the final coffee or tea. Then they had to lay out the bedding for the staff. After that they were free to go back to their lodgings. They got every Wednesday and Sunday afternoons off. For this they were paid 30 kr a month with bed and board in 1936.

What really matters of course is not just the level of a wage but what it can buy.
When we worked in the herring in 1987 we could earn 30,000 krona a month after tax or £3000[9] but a Coffee in the factory (smoked lamb on flatbread, Meat Soup[10], with cream cakes and coffee) cost 3000kr and so was a rare treat. It was affordable to those whose partners were on the trawlers or some other highly paid work or the older single men who ate many of their meals there. The rest of us ate lots of potato, fish, buttermilk and curds (súrmjólk and skyr, see picture above), in fact the traditional 20th century diet of a relatively well paid Icelandic worker.

In my next post I’ll be looking at wage rates and food prices in Iceland today. 

[1] From the memoirs of Ole O. Tynes, quoted in Brauðstrit og Barátta, Benedikt Sigurðsson pg 22
[2] 100 aurar = 1 Icelandic krona (Isk)
[3] Brauðstrit og Barátta pg 40
[4] Íslandsdætur pg 114
[5] The Hidden Class, Finnur Magnusson pg 56-61
[6] From the memoirs of Ingveldur Gísladóttir, Íslandsdætur p114
[7] This division of labour (the makers of staves and assemblers) may not be totally accurate.
   Please let me know if you have further information.
[8] Brauðstrit og Barátta pg 40
[9] In Oct 1987 100 Icelandic krona (Isk) = £10. In Sept 2011 100 Isk = £0.55
[10] Icelandic Meat Soup is made from salted lamb with finely chopped vegetables in stock.
  Later, in the 20th century when available a handful of rice was added.

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