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, 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.

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