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..

Saturday 17 December 2011

The Captain and the Wealth Creators: A seasonal Tale

This jolly tale of fishermen by poet, broadcaster and socialist Michael Rosen appears in this weeks Socialist Worker newspaper.

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

Saturday 3 December 2011

A Glimmer of good news in the financial gloom - Bankers arrested

The general response in Iceland to the financial crisis is muted at the moment. Politicians, ex-Prime Ministers and Central Bankers can roam the streets more or less unmolested. If justice were done they would be forced to wear bells and orange jumpsuits instead of getting cushy jobs editing right wing papers. This round of arrests isn't going to save anyones job or house but it may put some manners on them.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Uneven and Combined Development in Iceland: The privilege of historic backwardness

In 2009, as the financial crisis crashed over Iceland, Bourgeois Reykjavik was reassured that Harpa, the half built landmark Concert and Cultural Centre was to be finished despite the country’s effective bankruptcy.

Harpa being built
The housing developments such as Vatnsendi and Flétturvellir were not so lucky, as seen here in Íris Stefánsdóttir’s pictures. 
                                                                   Kópavogur 2009

Finished in May 2011 Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Iceland Opera and it reports 350,000 visitors so far. This is about 30,000 more than the country’s population and suggests there have been a great many foreign visitors. It also means that some Icelanders can afford to go back time and again, and further suggests that a layer of Icelandic society is doing well enough out of this crisis, as in the rest of Europe and America where the rich are actually getting richer.[1]

Harpa has effectively been subsidised by the slashed pensions, short hours and unemployment of those now least likely to be able to attend the cultural events in a space that has ‘produced a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved some performers to tears of joy.’[2]

Harpa opening night
Well that’s reassuring; nobody wants to think that their deferred wages for their old age have instead gone towards producing the effect of a karaoke machine in a scout hut. In this respect Iceland has benefitted from its backwardness. In the phenomenon that Leon Trotsky called Uneven and Combined development,

‘Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness — and such a privilege exists — permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning.’
Iceland ‘although compelled to follow after the advanced countries’ has enjoyed ‘the privilege of historic backwardness…which permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance’.[3] So Harpa is a State-of-the-art sound box.
Trotsky was talking about Russia, in the 19th and early 20th century, then famously the most archaic and repressive part of Europe. But Iceland too was peculiarly privileged in its historical backwardness for hundreds of years. The glory days of The Icelanders' sagas (Íslendinga sögur), the heroic stories recording the lives of ‘the most important families of Iceland’ from 930-1030CE[4] were written down between the 12th and 14th centuries.[5]

Over the next 400 years the country was periodically wracked by Black Death, smallpox[6], and the hardship of the Great Smog (Móðuharðindin) following the 1783 Laki volcanic eruption. In eight months Laki’s volcanic fissures threw so much ash  into the atmosphere as well as spewing out clouds of sulphuric acid that it destroyed the normal summer weather across Europe causing famine. At home over 1/5th of the population died from disease and hunger as the livestock died.[7] 

As a Danish colony under Danish monopoly trade, Iceland was only used as a source of raw materials with almost no capital invested. There were no public works, no large buildings, schools or university. Even in the fishing where Icelanders had exported fish products since the 14th century, simple lines were used and small open boats. A small development that improved the quality of life was when Icelanders learned to knit in the 15th century,[8] though handicrafts did not develop beyond the immediate needs of the homestead. The next major technological innovation was the introduction of the Scottish scythe in the 1860’s.[9]

The Icelandic landowning ruling class was most concerned to ensure that nothing interfered with the labour supply for the hay harvest which prevented any major technical improvements. This meant also that very few landowners would have had any capital to invest had they wanted to, until British dealers turned up in the 1860’s looking to buy hardy Icelandic sheep.[10] These of course were paid for in cash and this was only possible because trade restrictions were finally lifted in 1854.
Over the next 70 years British, Germans and most importantly for the development of herring, Norwegians with money began to see the potential for profit in Iceland. 

But development is not a smooth progression as Trotsky explained,
‘the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.’[11]

Rekjavik Museum 1910

This process explains Reykjavik’s astonishing museum built in 1910 whilst most the people lived in turf and stone houses that didn’t amount to much more than glorified holes in the ground.

A substantial farm but still cold and damp.
                       Around 1910

Finally this picture of Reykjavik harbour encapsulates the theory of Uneven and Combined development.

In the foreground the centuries old open rowing boats that used handlines and by the late 19th century, drift nets. Then, the decked fishing boats that used trawls. In their heyday, from 1890-1910 they could operate for about 28 weeks of the year, and the steam trawlers in the background that could operate all the year round and on which by 1920 each fisherman could catch 32 tonnes where the men in the small boats took 3 tonnes.
What Harpa demonstrates however is not the unevenness of the juddering bounds of a backward country catching up, but a society’s growing inequality. So how about free shows, concerts and opera tickets for the recipients of the food bank this Christmas.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/may/16/high-pay-commission-wage-disparity
[3] Peculiarities of Russia’s Development in History of the Russian Revolution, L Trotsky pg 4
[4] CE = Common Era, a designation of time that mirrors AD but acknowledges that most of the world is not Christian. BC is therefore replaced with BCE - Before Common Era.
[6] 1707 1/3rd of the population died, Iceland in Transition, Magnús S. Magnússon pg 37
[7]  1703 population 50,358. Population did not reach 50,000 until 1820’s Magnússon pg 38
[8] Íslenskur Sögu Atlas pg 45
[9] Iceland in Transition, Magnús S. Magnússon pg 31
[10] Gísli Gunnarsson, cited in Wasteland with Words pg 32
[11] Peculiarities of Russia’s Development in History of the Russian Revolution, L Trotsky pg 5

Monday 3 October 2011

1st Oct Iceland Protest update 2

Thanks to Resolute Reader for flagging up this lovely footage of Icelandic protestors egging the President, Prime Minister, Ministers & MP's outside the Althing parliament building in Reykjavik.


Sunday 2 October 2011

1st Oct Iceland Protest update

3500 angry protestors[1] stood outside the Althing today, against the temporary security fence around Parliament. They set off flares, threw eggs and fruit and beat against the fence calling for the government to go, and an immediate election.
The new session began with the President and the Bishop walking the few metres from the Althing to the Cathedral, followed by the prime minister, ministers and all the mp’s. They walked across the square though another hail of eggs. One man interviewed on camera said he wasn’t protesting, he’d just come to say goodbye - he is leaving for Canada. Fishermen were also demanding quota changes because they can't live like this.

Out of town riot police protected the building as the local riot police have resigned. A statement from the Police Union said that the police are unhappy at being used as a shield between the government and the people but they could not refuse orders.
A petition of 34000 signatures has been handed in to the prime minister demanding the removal of index linking of mortgages which will only increase repossessions. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir says this will be top of her agenda next week.
Meanwhile there seems to be some confusion as Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, the finance minister said later today that it would not be a good idea to make more cuts. However he is going to save 1% through ‘streamlining’, whist the Welfare Ministry announced cuts of 2 billion Isk or 2.3%. Furthermore Steingrimur still says Iceland will pay off its deficit by 2014.
180 jobs were lost in September and more are expected to go soon. Fuel tax increases have also been announced.
If I were the Icelandic government I would keep those security fences handy. They are going to need them again soon.

[1] That’s over 1% of the population, equivalent to a demo of 600,000 in Britain.

Friday 30 September 2011

Into the Hurricane

Tomorrow in Reykjavik there is going to be a demonstration outside the Althing (Parliament) on its 1st day of the new session. Yesterday 300 coppers marched, four days after all 25 of the Suðurnes riot police resigned which they did ‘because our wages don’t reflect our duties,” Hjálmar Hallgrímsson, a police officer, was reported in Morgunblaðið newspaper. This is just a week after the Irish Times ran an article praising the Icelandic economic recovery
‘Three years ago Iceland led the way into an economic abyss. Now, by raising taxes, letting the banks go bust and protecting the public sector, it is showing a way out.’[1]

The basis of this optimism is apparently that inflation and interest rates are low, unemployment has stabilised, the Icelandic Krona is no longer worthless[2] and taxes have gone up so Iceland is paying off its deficit and presumably is on its ways to rejoining the financially respectable. 

The experience of ordinary Icelanders is very different.
Cars and homes have been repossessed, though the government has been shoring up mortgages to prevent mass defaults. Pensions have been wiped out; the real rate of return, measured by consumer price index is;

1999    -           12 billion Isk
2004    -           10.4 B Isk
2009    -           0.3 B Isk
Unemployment for 16-24 year olds is about 16% and overall 7.6%.
In the first quarter of 2011, 18% of the unemployed have been looking for a job for over 6 months. This figure does not reflect all the people working part time or more accurately, short hours. Unemployment would probably be worse but those who have other options have left.

10% of Icelanders have arrears of mortgage payments or rent, with a further 16% for whom housing costs are a heavy burden. 49.3% are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Inflation has been rising for all of 2011 to 5.7%.
Economic growth in 2010 was -4% on 2009 which was -6.7% on 2008.
Real wages dropped last year [3]
Then there are the incidentals like geography. Iceland has 2/3 of its population living in or around its capital, in the South West corner but the rest of the country is huge and goods and services can cost much more. Outside the reach of the Bonus supermarket chain, food will be at least an extra £500 a year. If you live outside of the towns and aren’t in a geothermal area for your electricity and hot water, you will spend 7 times more than those in the capital or 18.2% of household income.[4]
Icelandic poverty is real, not withstanding the efforts of the Presidents partner, Dorrit.  She turned up unannounced last week, in an expensive coat, to help at the charity-run food bank. She announced that Icelanders don’t know how to hug and asked a bystander if he had stopped drinking yet, his reply was much more polite than mine would have been.[5]

When Lehman Brothers crashed in 2008 I wrote an article in Socialist Review about the Icelandic history of militant resistance to attacks on their wages and conditions during the Depression years. Shortly after, the government of the then prime minister, Geir Haarde was thrown out by a rising tide of protest.

Popular feeling in Kolaport market, Reykjavik Feb 2009

Three weeks ago he was up in front of a court charged with ‘failures of ministerial responsibility’ which is ironic given that Davið 'getting away with it all' Oddsson was both prime minister and governor of the Central bank when he ‘liberalised’ and privatised the banks. Now Davið is editor of the right-wing daily Morgunblaðið when he should be in jail.

Things are bad now but it can get much, much worse. Greece is expected to default by December and the euro is looking into the abyss but there is resistance everywhere. From the Egyptian revolution to growing rebellion in Greece and workers joining the protestors camped outside Wall St. In Britain we will be marching against our government on Sunday 2nd Oct, who are preparing to cut our living standards by 15% and preparing for mass strikes on November 30th. They can be stopped.  Every victory starts somewhere, why not tomorrow, in solidarity. 

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.