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 31 August 2011

Following the Herring


I arrived in Breiðdalsvik, East Iceland, in October 1987 with a gaggle of young men and women to work the herring for the next eight months. Like the herring workers who arrived in Siglufjörður, North Iceland, in the summer of 1919, we had free return travel from home and free accommodation and heating. In 1919 they had also had free food.

The herring shed
We stood at the troughs in a shed open to the winter at one end as the fish poured down the belt towards us. We learnt to gut herring with one stroke of a short knife taking the head and guts together. We mixed the fish in the clove-spiced salt that stang broken skin through a torn glove, and listened to the stories of the old days. Then, the women had worked outside on the dock with strips of cloth wrapped round their fingers to protect them from the salt, cold and slipped knives. 

We filled the barrels, shook them to settle the fish and added a neat final layer before they were filled with brine. When the older women were young they had had to layer the herring from the bottom of the barrel all the way up and the barrels were checked.  
We worked standing for hour after hour laughing, flirting and filling barrels. In breaks we ate fried dough kleinur and I learned to drink coffee. When the fish was finished we could go. That could take 10 hours sometimes 16, and once after 22 hours the village women decided they had had enough and weren’t coming back for 8 hours. We followed them out.

We lived in the foreigners house, an old hotel with a rusty roof and a gap under the front door that let the snow in. When the wind blew the lino in the kitchen billowed and we sat on the countertops with our feet up on chairs and the oven full on to keep warm.  On New Years Eve it started snowing and didn’t stop for two weeks. We all went to the dance. Like tens of thousands of herring workers before us, we were young and free and earning much more money than we could have at home.

Before foreign capital brought herring work to Iceland there was occasional work for a merchant paid in credit at that merchants shop. Before that there was Vistaband service, the obligation to stay with an employer usually a farmer, for a year and not to leave without another job to go to. When no longer legally enforceable, poverty and the threat of starvation tied landless labourers to farms where they dreamt of 'the free life of the coast'. A few made it to America.

The new industry created a working class in this remote impoverished Danish colony and drew in thousands of workers from countries already convulsed by class struggle. A class born in internationalism in boomtowns that became centres of combatative trade unionism and strongholds of communists, and the herring is where it all began.