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 4 November 2015

Fighting the cuts: The Slaughterhouse strike, Akureyri 1932

When the slaughter season began in Akureyri in 1932, women and men signed on to work for Kaupfélag Eyfirðinga (KEA), the Cooperative that owned the slaughterhouse, without knowing what they were to be paid.[1] They knew women would be paid much less than men and the men from the town would be undercut by the crofters—the poor tenant farmers who came to town every autumn to make the only cash many of them would see all year. The crofters worked for wages that were too little for the town’s workers to survive on—some 40 percent less than the Verkamannafélags Akureyrar—Akureyri Workers Union rate. The boss of KEA cynically insisted that these farmers were self-employed and chose to work for less. So it is not surprising that a Communist worker and trade union activist in Akureyri, Tryggvi Emilsson could describe in his memoirs how,
 “For a long time the town workers considered them tools in the hands of the employers who used them to keep wages down.”[2]
The original logo of Kaupfélag Eyfirðinga 

Paying the crofters starvation wages was only part of the town employers’ wider plan to lengthen the working day and cut wages. It had begun the previous year when some people in the slaughterhouse had been paid less than the union rate but the leadership of the unions had done nothing to challenge it, according to the local Communist paper Verkamaðurinn.[3]  

The paper set out the three main ways in which the union’s terms and conditions were being broken—although none of this had been announced officially by the KEA Coop but the paper had heard that;
  • Skinners—who had some of the heaviest work would only get 1.10 króna (kr)an hour, other men—0.90 kr an hour and women would get 0.55-0.60 kr an hour
  • The usual work day would run from 6am to 6pm with two hours of unpaid breaks. No food or coffee would be provided and any overtime or night work would be paid at the flat rate
  • Worst of all—until the slaughter season finished the Coop would not tell workers what they could expect to get for their work.[4]
If KEA got away with using unemployment and the worker’s poverty like this—when wages should be rising and the working day getting shorter, Verkamaðurinn said, it would pave the way for all of Akureyri’s employers to do the same. So this year some workers were determined to defend their hard earned wages and conditions.

The front page article of Verkamaðurinn dated 17 September said,
“Every worker, whether in the slaughterhouse or not, must unite to stop the wage cuts and fight to keep union rates. In each workplace workers must elect a fighting committee to work with similar committees outside. The fear of being locked out must not get the upper hand—everyone must remember that they are not just fighting for their own rights, but for all their class. If unity holds fast then no employer will be able to lock this or that worker out because he fought harder than others for the rights of his class. Men and Women workers! Unite and fight for your demands and first and foremost that your wages won’t be cut.”

Verkamaðurinn, The Worker 17 September 1932

A preparatory group had already been formed of five people, four of whom were Communists, to arrange a meeting in the union house on Sunday 18 September, write a leaflet and get people to the meeting. The meeting elected a ten person committee in addition to the leadership of the union, to focus on the coming fight with the Coop. The Social Democrats had also had a meeting that day and announced that they would, “take no part in the dispute because the Communists had control of the union.”[5] 

The crofters were already in town getting ready to do the heavy and dangerous slaughter work. Tryggvi Emilsson wrote, 
“I don’t know whether these “independent people” followed the union’s campaign against the wages and conditions in the slaughterhouse. But that summer a union meeting had decided to try to make a deal with the Coop and if that didn’t work, to use harder means to stop farmers working for lower wages than workers”.
Tryggvi called these crofters independent people—sjálfstætt fólk —after the title of the great Icelandic writer, Halldor Laxness’ 1930s novel.[6] In it, the crofter Bjartur Jónsson spends 18 years as a farmhand before he saves enough money to rent a small, poor farm and set up his own home and get married. Bjartur is drawn as a hard, single-minded man incapable of taking his wife’s feelings, or anyone else into account as he clings desperately to his dream of independence. But Laxness understood that as a farmhand Bjartur would have been hardly been allowed to be an adult. He would have had no personal freedom or privacy, very few possessions and even would have had to share his bed with another farmhand. For Bjartur, independence rested on his few sheep and a patch of boggy land that could be snatched away by bad weather and disease.

Laxness described the reality of farming for these crofters crushed by capitalism and the richer farmers who used them for their own ends.[7] He wrote a note on a draft manuscript of Independent People dated 1933,
"Sharpen the contrasts between the small and the large-scale farmer. Show how the large-scale farmer exploits the small farmer in his service both politically and economically, and dubs himself a knight at his expense with promises and flattering gifts—such as roads, a telephone and building loans—until the large-scale farmer has become a bank manager in Reykjavik and a cabinet minister, while the small farmer has become completely impoverished, has to leave his farm and joins up with the crowd of unemployed in the towns.”
This would not have been news to Tryggvi and his fellow workers who saw clearly how the crofters were used.
“They took work from unemployed workers and bread from the mouths of their half-starved children in the depression years. Of course, these needy farmers didn’t intend this. On the contrary, the power of the merchants and their hangers-on saw to it that small farmers were kept on the lowest rung.”
Now the men and women in what Tryggvi called the radical wing of the unions were working in the slaughterhouse that autumn and ready to start a strike if nothing was done about the conditions. They talked to everyone—the crofters, workers and those who were lukewarm about the idea of a strike on the first day of paid work—and they were listened to. After a few days they decided to act if the union could not wring a deal from the bosses. Tryggvi wrote,
"On the evening of 18 September Sigþór Jóhannsson came to let me know that the union now felt it was time to act. He said, ‘go tell everyone in the slaughterhouse that most of the workers will be in the union house in the morning’”.
Tryggvi shot off on his bicycle to tell everyone including the people he thought were at a loose end but up for a fight, as far out of the town as Glerárþorp. Next morning he went to the union house where he met union foreman Þórsteinn Þórsteinnsson and a few others. Tryggvi says Þórsteinn was quite pessimistic because most people were already in work, but other people were much more optimistic that the workers would come. Þórsteinn asked Tryggvi to go down to the slaughterhouse and stand watch at the outer door over midday while he tried one more time to get a deal from the Coop boss. Many men had arrived at the union house by then, both the unemployed and from other workplaces and were restless to see what would happen. 

Tryggvi Emilsson

Tryggvi went down to the slaughterhouse to keep watch in case management were preparing to bring strike breakers in the back as had happened in the herring dispute the previous summer. All he saw was the usual workers going to lunch at the usual time, but there was something happening around some men who went to dinner first. There Tryggvi met Egill Tómasson his old neighbour who told him that they were ready to stop work at one o'clock and they had sent a man up to the union house to ask people to meet at the slaughterhouse when it reopened after the break. 

The fifty men then in the union house walked down to the slaughterhouse and went in uninvited. Now the workers began to gather and it was clear the mood was mutinous. People got into groups to make it impossible for anyone to begin work and almost no one moved a muscle despite grumbling from individual farmers. Time passed but the union foreman hadn't arrived to announce a strike—it turned out Þórsteinn was still trying to negotiate a deal without any success. Eventually Vilhjálmur the Coop boss turned up at the slaughterhouse and was startled to see all the preparation. Immediately he went into the office and tried to speak to everyone individually. Tryggvi wrote that this just irritated the men who pushed their way into the office where Egill Tómasson told Vilhjálmur that he would speak to all of them at once or not at all.

Vilhjálmur argued that the farmers were self-employed and chose to work for less money than the men employed by the company. Then a young man stepped forward, Tryggvi Þórsteinnsson, who was there with his father from a farm. He stood up and shouted that none of them should agree to anything, except getting the same work and the same conditions for the same pay. He got such a good response that the Coop boss took to his heels, got in his car and fled. Before the meeting broke up, everyone was asked to meet at the union house at 8pm but many of the strikers and their supporters went straight to the union house and got strike leaflets from the men's union and the women workers' union Einingar—Unity.

The sheep waiting to be slaughtered got another day of life out on the grass, while strike wardens took up posts in the slaughterhouse itself, the various connected sheds and outside. Tryggvi Emilsson and a few others stayed there too, in case any of the "whites" the hated police-extras turned up, but there was no sign of them. These were unemployed men hired as assistant policemen to help break strikes or harass union meetings. They tended to be realistic about their position and leave whenever workers showed themselves to be organised and angry.[8]

Tryggvi stood watch until 7 o'clock when other men took over. When he got to the meeting it was already packed and, 
"Every face shone with enthusiasm for the fight because it was about much more than the wages, conditions and equality in the slaughterhouse. It was about the right of working people to have whatever work there was in town—badly paid or not—and the right to organise a union.”[9]
The meeting had just started when a messenger turned up from the Coop saying that the boss wanted the union’s foreman to meet him in his office to do a deal. Þórsteinn and some others from the union leadership left the union meeting immediately having been told to get the deal in writing. The result was a complete climb down by the head of the town's biggest employer;

·         Farmers and workers—men and women would be paid union rates—if they joined the union
·         The men would get between 1.10 and 1.25 kr an hour depending on the work and 1.9 kr for overtime and night work
·         Women would still be a long way from equality but would get the women's union rate of 0.70-0.77 kr an hour.
·         Everyone would get two paid 15 minute coffee breaks in every shift and wages would be paid weekly with hours and wages worked out daily.
·         No-one would be victimised so anyone working at the slaughterhouse when the dispute began could continue to work all of the season.

It was a great victory for unity in the face of the implicit threat of slow starvation that went with seasonal work and unemployment in Iceland.  Despite the behaviour of the Social Democrats, the working class in Akureyri showed that they were not afraid to unite with Communists to fight for their interests. The Communists proved that they were serious fighters for their class and gained a great deal of respect and influence. The victory also gave working class Akureyri confidence to fight its next battle for the right to work when just a few weeks later the town council tried to get unemployed men to work for a pittance in a profitable business. 
A post on this struggle and the boycott of the Nóvu coming soon.

The KEA Coop building in 1936 as the smart people arrive to celebrate its 50th anniversary

[1] Akureyri was and still is the largest town on Iceland’s north coast with a population of 4,503 in 1936. Iceland 1936, a handbook published on the fiftieth anniversary of Landsbanki Íslands, the national bank of Iceland. Edited by Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson, Director of the Statistical Bureau of Iceland.
[2] Ævi Minnigar: Baráttan um Brauðið, Vol II of Tryggvi Emilsson’s memoirs, The Struggle for Bread p262
[3] Verkamaðurinn, 24 September 1932 http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?issId=176204&pageId=2303426&lang=is&q=VERKAMADURINN; Verkamannafélagsins Akureyrar was a “red union” set up by Icelandic Communists to break from the Social Democrat-led unions they considered too right wing. The problem with the strategy was that most trade unionists were not revolutionary and would not be outside of a revolutionary period. By setting up a separate union, the most political trade unionists could cut themselves off from the mass of workers that they were trying to influence and left Social Democrats unchallenged in the mainstream unions. And it was no guarantee that the leadership would fight. For more on breakaway unionism see Ralph Darlington’s article from International Socialism Journal 142 http://isj.org.uk/the-rank-and-file-and-the-trade-union-bureaucracy/   
[4] Verkamaðurinn, 17 September 1932, Verkamaðurinn was published by Verklýðssamband Norðurlands, the federation of communist led red unions http://timarit.is/view_page_init.jsp?issId=176204&pageId=2303426&lang=is&q=VERKAMADURINN 
[6] Halldor Laxness was deeply influenced by socialism and communism and won the 1955 Nobel prize for Literature http://herringandclassstruggle.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-olympics-raining-on-their-parade.html
[7] One of the reactions to Independent People was Dalafólk—Valley People, by the popular romantic poet Unnur Benediktsdóttir Bjarklind, called Hulda. I shall return to Dalafólk in a future post.
[8] The Extras were also used at Guttóslagurinn in Reykjavik November 1932, http://socialistreview.org.uk/330/icelands-bosses-hot-water
[9] Tryggvi Emilsson’s memoirs, The Struggle for Bread p265