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..

Monday, 1 May 2017

Happy May Day - the international workers holiday

Happy May Day everyone, here's a 1931 May Day march led by Iceland's Communist Party in Reykjavik.

Friday, 28 April 2017

International Workers Memorial Day - Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living

Today—28 April—is International Workers Memorial Day when workers and their trade unions round the world, remember everyone killed at work. It’s a day to mourn the dead and demand better health and safety, better conditions and that if the worst happens that employers accept responsibility and pay proper compensation to workers’ families.

The history of fatal and serious accidents for every countries’ workers is very long. In Iceland, the highest numbers of deaths were probably amongst fishers—men and women—who were most likely to drown or die of cold. But farm workers also got killed collecting “scurvy grass” from cliffs, which was needed for its vitamin C. Women, whose work was washing clothes in rivers or geothermal hot water pools, drowned or suffered fatal burns.

Terrible conditions and weather caused accidents and often people assume these are historical events and don’t happen now. But in February this year one man was hospitalised and another died when hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide got into their accommodation through the water supply of the fish factory that employed them in Reykjanes, South West Iceland.

A worker running the Bæjarins bestu hot dogs kiosk in Reykjavik last September narrowly escaped being crushed when a crane from the building site adjacent collapsed against the door of the small building. The timber that the crane was carrying landed in the carp park next to it and Bæjarins bestu’s staff member had to get out by climbing through the window.

And in April last year fisherman Ólaf­ur Jó­hann­es Friðriks­son died when he fell overboard from a fishing boat in Húnaflói bay, Northwest Iceland.

It is easy to say accidents will always happen, but they are much more likely where workers are pushed to speed up, where companies cut corners to save money or small fishing boats lack the latest safety equipment.  Internationally there is a growing problem of suicide among workers and small farmers driven to despair by overwork and too little pay.

Trade unionised work places are safer workplaces. But to drastically reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries suffered at work, we are going to have to challenge the system that puts profit before safety and ordinary people’s lives, wherever they are.

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.