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..

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.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Earning Our Bread

A Merchant's store in 19th century Iceland was the pivotal point of its community. He or she was a shopkeeper, an international trader, an employer and an agent for any work available in the neighbourhood. They usually had a monopoly in their district and to maintain this happy state they issued their own credit tokens as payment for work done. In my next post I'm going to look at wages for agricultural workers, indoor servants and fishworkers, and the liberation of being paid in cash. In the meantime here's a token issued in the 1890's by JBR Lefolii, the Danish merchant operating in Eyrarbakki. It is worth 1 Ryebread. (Rugbrauð)

Thursday 8 September 2011

The Myth of Equality: the life of Icelandic agricultural workers

There’s a common myth about rural life in the history of Iceland, that claims the Marxist understanding of class cannot be applied to it until well into the 20th century, if at all, because before the industrialisation of the fishing everyone living on farms was roughly equal. This romantic notion was particularly promoted by nationalist writers before WW2 who described Farmers and farm workers living cheek by jowl in small damp houses, sharing the same food, hard work and living conditions. In the evenings, in egalitarian harmony they were supposed to have gathered in the living rooms to knit, whittle and tell stories from the Sagas and sing whilst the children played with small wooded toys and bones. It was claimed that poverty, hard weather, volcanic eruptions and periodic epidemics were great levellers.
If that were true 21st century Africa would be the most equal society ever known.
Class is not a matter of whether you doff your cap to a master or call the farmer by his first name; it is about your relationship to the means of production. You and the farmer both work the land but he owns and controls it. He and his immediate family benefit from the surplus produced. You can be turfed out if you argue or if there isn’t ‘enough to do’ (Nóg að gera - the Icelandic phrase for plenty of work).

Until 1863, every Icelander over the age of 15 who did not have access to enough land to support a family; was not living at home with their parents, nor apprenticed to a craftsman or merchant, had to offer themselves as a ‘servant’ for a year at a time. This usually meant being an agricultural worker. Once you were a servant you had no right to leave a job until you had another one lined up.

For the landowners this bondage law [Vistarband] meant a steady supply of cheap labour, essential for the hay harvest as the level of technology on Icelandic farms was so low. The law tried ensure that families did not become so poor that the district taxpayers had to provide for them, and the easiest way to do that was to prevent people forming families.  For the servants this meant the average age of marriage was about 30 and most never married at all. Parish priests acted as enforcers. When they visited every household in their parish twice a year they were to ‘pay close attention to the behaviour of the workers to their superiors’, to ‘report illegal cohabitation and to suggest measures which could effectively terminate such situations’[1] Priests would not marry a couple if either had received poor relief in the previous ten years .

However, people don’t have sex or love each other to suit their ‘betters’ and by 1870 over 20% of all babies were born out of marriage. In the district of Garðar and Bessastaðir in the south west the rate was 33%.[2] In this area was the largest number of ‘cottars’, people with a tiny rented cottage but not necessarily any land beyond a small garden. They lived by fishing and because its season was winter and spring they were free to work in the countryside for the hay harvest leaving their ‘wives’ behind with the children to look after their home and animals. In bad years the women would have to go looking for work as well and if a woman worked on a farm with her children it was usual for her to get little beyond food and somewhere to sleep.[3]

Children were often sent to the country during the summer from about 10 years old to work. They could take food to haymakers, help with haymaking or mind the sheep and even if treated harshly were usually well fed. In interviews recorded in the 1980’s, 80 year old men still recalled the remarkable feeling of a full stomach.

Farmers were acutely aware of the inequality between themselves and their workers. One landowner born in 1904 reported - ‘The hands did not even go out dancing without asking the farmer for permission…not even when they had time off. The farmer ran everything.’ [4]

Some would travel to market a day earlier or later than their workers. With farms near the coast agricultural workers could be sent to fish on the farmer’s behalf for the winter. This was popular as an exciting change from the same small group of people at the farm. But as late as 1925 when a young man were sent to Þorlákshöfn to fish by his farmer, he got 200 kroner as a cowman whilst the farmer got the 1000 kroner he had earnt from fishing. [5]

The sharpest inequality is always felt by the most vulnerable in society. Infant mortality rates in the 19th and early 20th centuries were much higher in Iceland than average in Northern Europe. This was probably due to poor housing, cold and damp, tetanus amongst the communities relying on seabirds for food, lack of health services and traditions of artificial feeding. But it was children born to unmarried servants living in a house without relatives, or the child’s father who were most likely to die. Their mothers were only 28% of unmarried mothers yet 45% of such children died before 1 year old.[6]

Just a month after the British riots when young people have been jailed for stealing water, trainers and ice cream, and politicians are spewing bile over the ‘feral underclass’ I will finish with a quote from a ‘respected’ historian and scientist Þorvaldur Thoroddsen. Writing in 1890 about the cottars of the south west coast,

‘People gathered at the coast… because they felt life was easier there. When the fishing went well, they flourished and lived in wastefulness and disorder…In the pauses in fishing they never took up new occupations, but got used to idleness and relied upon the councils, never thought of tomorrow but took each day as it came… Generation after generation had grown up in this irresponsible and wrong way of life, and as time passed, the descendents became worse and worse good-for-nothings, useless and mindless creatures.’

When serious class struggle happened in Iceland, the only wonder was that it took so long.

[1] Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930

[2] Ólöf Garðarsdóttir, The Implications of Illegitimacy in late 19th century Iceland, pg 450

[3] Finnur Magnússon The Hidden Class pg 89

[4] The Hidden Class pg 87

[5] The Hidden Class pg 89

[6] Ólöf Garðarsdóttir, The Implications of Illegitimacy in late 19th century Iceland, pg 452