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..

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Starting Where We Are: Early attempts at workers organisation in Iceland

In the late 19th cent & early 20th cent, the biggest problems for the emerging working class were unemployment, underemployment, seasonal and casual work. Terrible working conditions and pay were ‘normal’, but 1880 to1910 were the prime years for Icelanders to work aboard the decked fishing boats, þilskip.[1] This work was more dangerous than the old open oar-powered fishing boats because they could cope with worse weather and deeper water and so went out further from the coast. What’s more, the risks were increased by employers and members of Parliament (Alþing) who showed they were willing to restrict the number of life boats to only half the crew to maximise productivity.[2] Presumably the others were meant to swim home. The MP’s and the ship owners thought one pair of drowned hands could easily be replaced by another and the more space aboard for working, the higher the profit - no matter how much fishermen’s lives were insured for.
In 1893 the first group to organise a union for better pay and conditions were not ordinary deckhands but skippers and mates who formed The Wave¸ the Ship Officers Union.[3]

Then on 30th September 1894, the ship owners formed their own association, Útgerðarmannafélagið, because of ‘the stroppiness of the seamen’, as one of the organisers put it.[4]
This Ship Owners Association immediately tried to lower the wages and conditions of workers on their decked fishing boats in Faxafloí, north of Reykjavík. These rules were agreed just a week later [5] and were meant to be binding on all ship owners concerned until the AGM a year later.

The conditions for crews [6] were;

1. A seaman gets half his catch and has to pay the owner for the salt used for the seaman’s half of the catch.
a.       The half-catch will be paid at a fixed rate, whatever the market price.
b.      Salt for the trosfiskur [7] is free.
c.       The fixed price is 0.9 kr - every cod over 18 inches.
       0.3 kr - 12/18 inches & all haddock.
d.      The owner and crew are to divide the trosfiskur between them.

2a. If a monthly wage is paid it will be 30 kr and 0.3 kr - each cod 18 inches
b. The crew can keep, with the Captain’s permission, up to a quarter of the guts, stomachs and livers of the catch.[8]
c. It is permitted to take fish to eat, from the undivided Trosfiskur.

3. The choice of crew is at the discretion of the Owner regardless of the regulations and customs of the ports covered by the Navigation Act.

4. Captains will get 70 kr per month and 5% of the entire catch or 2 kr for every skippund [9] of the catch.

5. Payment will be in agreed currency.

6. The owners will provide everything on board necessary to fish, including cooking fuel and shall choose the crews food.

7. The crew are to provide their own clothes including wet weather gear.

8. For each transgression of these regulations the fine is 10 kr to be paid into the (owners) Association fund. Though not every ship owner is in the Association, they can still be fined as though they were.

The seamen responded five weeks later [10] with their own Deckhands Union, Sjómannafélagið Báran, wave, a different wave, to ‘maintain and increase the prosperity and rights of seamen’.[11]

Pushed by two students at the Reykjavík College of Navigation (Stýrimannaskólinn) the union started with a foreman, secretary and thirty members including Jón Jónsson, Chair, Hafliði Jónsson and Geir Sigurðsson, Secretary. Then a month later,[12] 80 members agreed and sent their demands to the Ship Owners.

The editor of the magazine Þjóðólfur [13] reported that they had received a letter from the editor of Fjallkona magazine. It said that the deckhands who lived in Reykjavik had joined together to squeeze ‘the higher wages and better conditions out of the ship owners that they used to have’. The editor of Fjallkona asked the editor of Þjóðólfur to print the agreement - that the deckhands would not accept worse wages for the coming year - so that everyone would know how fair the demands of Seaman were! 

    Deckhands     Versus     Shipowners

At least Half the catch/wage paid in money rather than goods

Owners tried to pay the crew mostly in goods, at prices they set themselves

0.10 kr for every cod over 18 inches     0.4 kr - 12/18 inches

0.9 kr for every cod over 18 inches    
0.3 kr - 12/18 inches

Or 0.8 kr for cod over 12 in (winter)
0.7 kr  in (spring/summer)

Owners must cover all the crews living/working costs on board as stated in the Navigation Act

        See points 6 & 7 above

Our lives worth more than your profit

More work space = more profit =fewer life boats

The seamen knew just how profitable their work was to the owners who squealed about not being able to afford higher wages. Even the banker Tryggvi Gunnarsson, writing in 1902 admitted that the ships were in profit with only half the fishing done. The owners also argued they needed the high profit margins to develop agriculture so it couldn’t be frittered on the seamen. In fact Ship owners were also trying to redress the balance power for themselves against agricultural interests, particularly the farmers who sat in the Alþing.

Other chapters of Báran, such as #4 of Eyrarbakki [14], also had some success. Its members were mostly ‘cottars’, men renting a house with a small patch of land, who fished on the large open rowing boats for the local Danish merchant. In 1905 they demanded hourly instead of daily wages and a minimum wage. They also wanted breeches of the agreement to be fined by the union. The merchant dug his heels in so members of Báran went to the District Governor, who lent on the merchant, who gave in.[15] Perhaps the employers and owners weren’t feeling the heat of the revolutionary mass strikes sweeping Russia in 1905, but they also had no Cossacks and often found themselves isolated in the face of angry half starved men.

Fishermen’s pay increased slowly despite the enormous profits they made for the ship owners. They worked very long hours for weeks at a time and faced ludicrously heavy fines - 100kr for not turning up to ship fit to sail. It was also difficult for the union to meet during the fishing season. Then there was the weather. In 1906 seventy seamen drowned in one great storm in Faxafloí and Báran never recovered. But in the same year Dagsbrún, the Reykjavík General and General Transport Workers Union was founded.

Then there was the Icelandic Printers Union founded 1897 with 12 members who probably held the first ever strike in Iceland in 1899. [16] This lasted one day which is how long it took the print shop owners to give in to all their demands.[17]

When capitalism is expanding employers may quickly agree to reforms because it costs so little but when the next crisis comes round they will do the utmost to maintain profitability by squeezing wages and conditions. The years of developing capitalism in Iceland as everywhere else were continuous class struggle, a ‘now hidden, now open fight’.[18] In this current crisis, the Great Austerity, Iceland’s National bank Landsbanki has just handed over 350 billion Isk or 2.2 billion Euros as the deposit for the Icesave debt. This comes only three days after the charities Help for Families in Iceland[20] and the much older Mothers Support Committee [21] reported that they expected to help at least 4000 families with food and clothing this winter. There is however another tradition in Iceland of mothers helping themselves, so in my next post I’m going to look in more detail at Iceland’s rich history of women workers in struggle from Salt fish workers to the Yarn Strike.

[1] French fisherman had been catching cod off Iceland for most of the 19th century but I’ll talk about them and their life in the East Fjords in a later post
[2] Iceland in Transition, Magnús S Magnússon pg 44
[3] Skipstjórafélagið Aldan
[4] ‘vegna heimtufrekju sjómanna’, Tíu Ára Starfssaga, Sjómannafjelag Reykjavíkur pg 13
[5] 7.10.1894
[6] Deck hands, hásetar.
[7] That is skate, pollock, catfish, redfish, etc
[8] 1916 during the First World War the cod liver oil became so valuable that crews struck to keep their right to sell it at market prices.
[9] 1 ship pound, skippund, =160kg, cited Encyclopaedia of Scientific Units, Weights and Measures, Francois Carderelli
[10] 14.11.1894
[11] Tíu Ára Starfssaga, Sjómannafjelag Reykjavíkur pg 15-17
All the union officers were elected annually, the members had to be 18 years old or studying seamanship, and you couldn’t vote if you turned up to meetings drunk. The Secretary had to provide detailed notes of all the decisions taken and the unions funds had to be kept in the National Savings bank. It cost 2 kr to join and 1 kr annually. The first meeting in the year would be held 1st Oct and weekly after, they could call extra meetings if at least ten members wanted to. The main meeting (AGM) would be the last one held in December.
[12] 10.12.94
[13] 14.12.1894
[14] Founded 1903
[15] Hidden Class, Finnur Magnússon pg 49
[16]Iceland in Transition pg 174
[17] Alþýðublaðið 05.04.1977
[18] Communist Manifesto, K Marx & F Engels ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles… oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’.
[20] Fjölskylduhjálp Íslands
[21] Mæðrastyrksnefnd

No comments:

Post a Comment