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..

Thursday 22 December 2016

Iceland's fishing workers vote and strike again

Iceland's fishing workers have voted again to reject the deal negotiated between the employers' association of fisheries companies, SFS and the unions in Sjómannasamband Íslands.

On a 67.7 percent turnout—743 of the 1,098 members of Sjómannasamband Íslands eligible to vote, over 75 percent (562 members) voted to reject the deal. Some 23.82 percent—177 voted to accept it and the indefinite strike restarted from 8pm, 14 December.

The issues at stake include crew levels, the cost of work clothing, holidays, accident and sick pay, the price paid for the sailors' share of the catch and the amount of the value of the catch that the employers are able to keep to cover fuel costs. And the trawler owners do not want to pay for the workers to travel home when they land away from their home port.

The next negotiation meeting is expected to be on 5 January 2017. 

If the strike were to continue, fish workers in factories in Iceland and the Westman Islands could be laid off, although they will be able to get unemployment benefit to tide them over. 

But the factory workers and the fishers have the same interests against the owners/employers, because their work is the source of all the profit made by the fisheries companies from fish on the world market. We should remember just how rich their work makes the owners, as I noted in an earlier post
An article published in Iceland last month says that Þorsteinn Már and his and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir have been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji..this amounts to nearly 6.5 percent of last year's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik..or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.
So it would be in the interests of both the fishers and the fish factory workers for the factory unions to ballot and the workers to come out on strike in solidarity with the sailors and to improve their own pay and conditions.

Anything is possible. Solidarity and victory to the strikers. Áfram sjómenn!

Sunday 27 November 2016

If workers were to punch their weight - Iceland's fishing strike

Just four days after Iceland's fisheries strike began on 10 November, articles reported that deals had been agreed and the strike was off. Iceland's National Broadcasting Service, RÚV reported that a contract had been signed between the Icelandic Fishermen’s Association, Sjómannasambands Íslands and the employers association, Samtaka.

Immediately, a furious row broke out as two of the largest fisheries unions - vélstjórafélag Grindavíkur and Sjó­manna­fé­lags Íslands (SFÍ) refused to sign the deal. Jón­as Garðars­son, head of
S­FÍ accused Valmundur Valmundsson of Sjómannasamband Íslands of breaking unity by meeting secretly with the employers.

The members of Vélstjórafélag Grindavíkur and Sjó­manna­fé­lags Íslands made up some 40-50 percent of the striking seamen and they stayed out. But because trawlers are often run by workers in different unions, some boats went back to sea leaving the strikers behind.

The proposed deal involves better money for protective clothing, holidays and guaranteed wages but Jón­as said that his union's lawyers were sure that the deal cut sick leave in half. Sjómannasambands Íslands denied this saying that sick leave is regulated by law. This matters so much because fishing is dangerous and it is easy to get injured. 

The fish dealers were enormously relieved.

Martyn Boyers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises, which operates Grimsby Fish Market, said,

"I'm reassured about the coming week's supply now... It was never going to be a long strike, they need to work."

Yet only a few days before in the Grimsby Telegraph, he had been explaining how contingency plans had been made and the strike posed no threat to the market's supply. So employers and markets insisted that the strike would have no effect, but they were ready to send representatives to Reykjavik to get the government to lean on trade union negotiators.

Negotiations continued between the employers and the two large unions that hadn't signed up. There was also the problem of too few crew on herring and other pelagic trawlers. This appears to have been kicked into the long grass with a proposal for an independent study that will be carried out over a year into the numbers, safety and the length of hours worked by crews on these boats.

By 16 November, Sjó­manna­fé­lag Íslands and vélstjórafélag Grindavíkur had also signed a deal that would be binding for two years and suspended the strike. Sjó­manna­fé­lag Íslands said it was able to sign as the sick leave for its members would remain unchanged.

The seamen - fishers and engineers are now being balloted on the deal, with the results due on 14 December.

This strike had been building for a long time, with no negotiated deal since 2011 and 90 percent of those who voted, voted to strike indefinitely. This suggests a level of dissatisfaction among the fishers and trawler engineers that is unlikely to be solved by these deals. But even if the deals are accepted by the majority, much more could have been won by these workers who have barely flexed their muscle and yet whose fishing make billions of krona in profit for the employers and dealers.

Monday 14 November 2016

Iceland's fishing strike casts a wide net

We are often told that workers have less power and their jobs are more precarious because of globalisation. Employers, whether banks, car factories or call centres frequently insist that if a government doesn't give them tax breaks and the workers won't work for the least they are offering, then they will simply move their business and infrastructure to another, cheaper part of the world. But the current fishing strike in Iceland of around 3,500 workers shows that globalisation can mean that workers have more power, not less.

The fish landing dock and market in Grimsby on the east coast of Britain is open 24 hours a day, all the year round and some 75 percent of the fish auctioned there is caught by Icelandic boats. So as the Grimsby Telegraph newspaper reports, if Iceland's fishing strike continues it will quickly starve the market of the fish it must have to make money. There will be fish arriving tomorrow that have already been caught, but on Monday 21 November there will be a serious shortage if the strike continues.

Grimsby's refurbished fish market

The Grimsby Telegraph says that representatives from the North East are already planning to go to Reykjavik if the dispute isn't settled quickly.  It quotes the Chief executive of market operator Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises, Martyn Boyers, 
"This will resolve itself, 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 points out that Norway, Ireland and Scotland won't be able to fill this gap. And the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association will be trying to lean on the Icelandic ambassador to put pressure on the Icelandic government to get the employers and the unions to end the strike.

Various Icelandic companies operate in Grimsby including Icelandic Group which owns Coldwater, and Saucy Fish Co., and the shipping companies Eimskip and Samskip. Icelandic Group also owns Seachill which is based in Grimsby and claims that the situation has been developing for a long time so it has made contingency plans and the dispute will have no affect on them. It will be interesting to see where its fish is going to come from if the strike continues for any length of time.

Grimsby fish market

Fresh and frozen fish is enormously valuable and each fisher makes large amounts of profit for the owners. But you wouldn't know it from listening to the owners who whine that fishers and trawler workers are extremely well paid and have nothing to complain about.

The president of seafood producers Samherji, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson has written an article here in which he explains that many Icelandic fishers earn £100,000s a year and are better off than their Norwegian counterparts. He has less to say about how hard they have to work to earn the money, how long they are away from their families and how tough the conditions can be. He has nothing to say about the long boring trips when little fish is caught, which will happen more often as fish stocks suffer from environmental degradation and the effects of global warming.

It is also worth knowing that Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson was Chair of Glitnir investment bank when it went belly-up in 2008. And an article published in Iceland last month says that Þorsteinn Már and his and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir have been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji. Journalist Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson points out that this amounts to nearly 6.5 percent of last year's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik, almost 65 percent of the revenue of Iceland's National Radio or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.

We can be certain of two things here - that whatever the fishing workers want the employers can certainly afford and that they won't stop squealing about it until they are forced to pay up.

Áfram sjómenn!

Thursday 10 November 2016

Áfram Sjómenn - The indefinite trawler fisheries Strike in Iceland is on

Iceland's trawler fishers and marine engineers began an all-out strike tonight at 11 pm after talks broke down a little after 9 pm this evening without a new deal between the fishing unions and employers.

In this video tonight Valmundur Valmundsson of Iceland Seamen's Union, Sjómannasamband Íslands announces that the strike is going ahead. He thanks everyone for their support and says they must stick together in this fight.

Sjómannasamband Íslands (SSÍ) and Marine Engineers in VM Félag vélstjóra og málmtæknimanna rejected the deal proposed by the Association of Fisheries Companies in August this year. This deal meant trawler workers could get wage cuts of up to 15 percent as the ship owners offloaded new taxes and fuel charges onto the fishers and engineers.

An agreement has been reached on the prices to be paid for fish but not on the numbers of crew on each vessel. The Union says there are already too few crew and any fewer would be dangerous.

Last month, fishers in the Iceland Seaman's Union voted by 90 percent to strike indefinitely, if the employers didn't come up with a better deal.

When the ballot ended, 339 members of VM, the Icelandic Union of Marine Engineers and Metal Technicians had voted, a 71.8 percent turn out. Some 90.8 percent voted to strike with only 26 members voting against.

Fishers in the Iceland Seaman's Union, SSÍ voted by almost 90 percent to strike on a 56 percent turn out.

Áfram Sjómenn

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Celebrating a militant workers movement, Gúttóslagurinn 9 November 1932

Eighty four years ago today when Iceland was in the grip of the world economic depression, an explosion of working class anger that became known as Gúttóslagurinn - the battle of Gúttó, erupted at a Reykjavik town council meeting.

It was the second of two decisive events that year which meant that for the rest of the 1930s employers and state authorities in Iceland were on the back foot against a militant workers' movement.

In Reykjavik 1932, with 28,000 inhabitants, where 25 percent of working men were unemployed, the town council included some of the establishment's most important people; the Chair Petur Halldorsson, Jakob Moller the Bank Inspector, Jon Olafsson, the bank manager, the doctor Maggi Jul Magnusson and the only woman on the council Gudrun Jonasson. The council intended to rubber stamp its plan to slash the wages paid out for dole work and abolish the hard won coffee break.

Outside Gúttó, possibly on 9 November 1932

Working class anger and organisation in Iceland had been growing for years and by 1932 the communists were leading a united campaign against wage cuts and poverty involving trade unionists, the Social Democrats, Alþýðuflokkurinn and a mass of ordinary workers. Wages had fallen in rural areas where organisation was weak but in 1930 to 1931 communists had organised against violent employers to establish union wage rates.

In July 1932 the town council decided that wages would have to be cut despite months of protest. They had to make some concession to popular anger and a "dole work" programme began in the summer. But it was only for 200 men and was mostly pointless quarry work without any thought of building anything, or even repairing existing roads. The men worked for around six hours a day for an hourly rate of 1.36 krona (kr), but only men with the largest families got work most days in the week. Even with work, 8 or 9 kr a day meant slow starvation.

Militant Trade unions
Dagsbrún, the Reykjavik General Workers Union and the Seaman's Union presented the council with their demands, including a scheme for work creation and infrastructure development and for free food, gas and electricity for the unemployed, who should then not have to pay tax. With an argument that sounds familiar today, the council's majority response was to insist that wage rates were too high and men were unemployed because the unions were preventing them from taking the available jobs at reasonable wages. One very rich councillor, like an aged Marie Antoinette, helpfully added that when he was young and times were hard he had managed by eating catfish instead of cod.

Outside this meeting police battered people struggling to get in to hear what was happening. To add insult to injury the authorities were using the hated Extras, so-called "white troops", unemployed workers hired as police assistants to attack picket lines. Half starved men demanding a right to live fought back.

In the following days workers were jailed for riot, incitement and refusal to answer the court's questions. A Danish King's Decree of 1795 was used against five trade unionists and communists to jail them "at his majesty's pleasure on bread and water". One of the five, Indriða Garibaldardóttir, refused to recognise the court's legality as it was being used by the ruling class as a political weapon against the working class. She pointed out that in the recent banking scandal, government ministers had investigated and then found themselves not guilty. She refused to eat any king's bread, started a hunger strike and was joined by the other four.

Hundreds joined a protest march and every night there was a mass meeting outside the jail with a further march of 4,000 people. A few days later the authorities, too nervous to hold them any longer, released the five into the seething atmosphere of Reykjavik.

The campaign continued through the summer at union meetings and in the communist and SDP newspapers. Dagsbrún and other unions - including Framsókn, the Reykjavik women workers' union, held a mass meeting and protest march. Speakers from both the Social Democrats and Iceland Communist Party urged workers to go to Gúttó, the Good Templars House where the council was to meet, to block the plan on 9 November.

Communist paper, Verkamaðurinn The Worker
describes the police attack on the crowd

The council was so sure that the meeting was only a formality that the wage cards were already printed up with the new, lower dole work rate.

Shocked ruling class

By ten in the morning thousands of angry people filled the square and the streets outside Gúttó. SDP councillors spoke against the wage cut and the Conservatives were heckled and jeered. When lunchtime was called Guðjón Benediktsson, the leader of the Communist Unemployed Workers Committee, demanded that the wage cut be thrown out and the councillors stay until they agreed. The police escorted the Tories out with the promise that everyone in the building would be allowed back in after the break. The only woman councillor, Guðrún Jónas, did not come back, nor did the despised Extras who had been deployed in the morning and seen that they were massively outnumbered.

After lunch only a few of the protesters got back into the building before the meeting restarted. A loudspeaker had been set up outside to relay the meeting so people outside could hear when the police attacked the audience "to clear the entrance". The response that followed shocked Iceland's ruling class. In an explosion of anger the protesters chased the councillors out, smashed the windows of government buildings all over town and fought pitched battles against the police. Gúttó, as the symbol of the authorities' class hatred, was wrecked. Hundreds came to a meeting that night to hear that the wage cut had been overturned. At that moment of victory they did not press their demands, but the arrests made after 9 November had to be abandoned a few days later.

The day after, Tory paper Morgunblaðið reports
Gúttóslagurinn as a mindless attack on cops and councillors 

The authorities spent the rest of the decade blaming each other for the battle of Gúttó. A united front had "stood up in the hair" of the Conservatives and beaten back a government that argued financial crises had a life of their own, were not an inherent characteristic of capitalism itself and meant working class people to pay for them,

Material in this article originally appeared in Socialist Review Iceland's bosses in hot water

Monday 17 October 2016

Fishers and marine engineers in Iceland vote for all out strike

Fishers in the Iceland Seaman's Union, Sjómannasamband Íslands (SSÍ) and Marine Engineers in VM Félag vélstjóra og málmtæknimanna have voted by 90 percent to strike indefinitely.  If their employers, the ship owners don't come up with a better deal the strike is set to begin on 10 November.

The trawler workers are angry that they haven't had a decent deal from their employers in the Association of Fisheries Companies since 2011. Ship owning bosses have been trying to shift the costs of taxes and fuel onto the workers by getting them to accept wage cuts of around 15 percent.

When the ballot ended at noon today, 339 members of VM, the Icelandic Union of Marine Engineers and Metal Technicians had voted, a 71.8 percent turn out. Some 90.8 percent voted to strike with only 26 members voting against.

Fishers in the Iceland Seaman's Union, SSÍ voted by almost 90 percent to strike on a 56 percent turn out.

Do you want a 15 percent pay cut? 

Sunday 9 October 2016

Icelandic fishing unions heading for all out strike?

This month's issue of British magazine Socialist Review has published my article on the crisis in the British fishing industry under the title, How fishing became a killer issue. Many of the problems described here are blamed on the Commons Fisheries Policies of the European Union (EU) but in Britain's case they have been exacerbated by years of neoliberal government policies and the lack of trade union organisation for ordinary fishers.

Iceland and its fishing industry is not in the European Union and its fishers are unionised but they have still suffered falling wages and are facing more cuts from a new decision agreed in September by the Appeals Committee of Seamen and Fishers, úrskurðarnefndar sjómanna og útvegsmanna.

But union members voted by 66.4 percent to reject this deal that means more wage cuts. The unions, including many in the Association of Seaman's Unions of Iceland, Sjó­manna­sam­band Íslands, (SSÍ) as well as VM Félag vélstjóra og málmtæknimanna, the Icelandic Union of Marine Engineers and Metal Technicians are now balloting on whether to go out on indefinite strike.

Icelandic trawler þerney

The ballot closes at 12 noon on 17 October and if it is agreed then the strike is set to begin on 10 November. The question will then be whether the Icelandic government outlaws the strike as it has done so many times before. If it does, then the workers will either have to put up with falling wages or defy the government, which workers in Iceland have also done before.

Sjómannasamband Íslands announces the strike ballot on its facebook page

Thursday 8 September 2016

Moonstone - the boy that never was

Mánasteinn, drengurinn sem aldrei var til, the novel by Icelandic author Sjón, was published recently in English, in Britain as Moonstone, the boy who never was. My review of it has just appeared in September's Socialist Review.

This short, beautiful novel tells the story of Máni Steinn Karlsson, a movie-obsessed teenager living with his one ancient relative in an attic in the centre of Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1918. Máni Steinn, roams the small town looking for the odd jobs available to a boy who struggles to read and planning which film he will see next. It is a story of young people struggling to be free in a small society under pressure from the shortages of the First World War, the eruption of volcano Katla and soon, from the lethal Spanish flu.

Read the review here. The book is currently available in hardback or ebook from Bookmarks the socialist bookshop and will be out in paperback in February 2017.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

The Northern Garrisons - The British Army writes from Iceland, 1941

Iceland occupied Part One

During the Second World War the British Ministry of Information published a series of pamphlets called, The Army at War. These were propaganda to inform and cheer the readers in an accessible, often witty way that was meant to show that the war effort was planned and coherent. The pamphlets were designed to keep people at home in touch in an official way, with what their loved ones were involved in abroad but could not discuss in letters home.

The Ministry of Information employed talented writers and these pamphlets can be moving and poignant. The Northern Garrisons by Eric Linklater is all this about the troops based in the Orkney and Shetland Isles and gives an honest sense of the terror of sailing in the Atlantic convoys being hunted by enemy U-boats. Linklater also, I think, tried to charm angry Icelanders who were deeply unimpressed at the British occupation from 1940.

The Northern Garrisons pamphlet, published 1941

The British government had tried to recruit Iceland, "as a belligerent and an ally", from 9 April 1940 when Germany's forces under the Nazi's invaded Norway and Denmark. It said that Britain could help Iceland maintain its independence by providing an occupying force but Iceland was neutral and had just effectively declared its independence from Denmark after the Nazi's had over run Denmark, so its government refused to co-operate. That didn't stop the British Navy landing Marines in Reykjavik in the early hours on 10 May 1940.

Linklater was not in the landing force and says about his journey to Iceland, 
To travel speedily and well, one should attach oneself, if possible, to a General. There was a General, whose duty was taking him to Iceland when mine also pointed there, and being ordered to join him I crossed the Atlantic in the rapid luxury of a Sutherland flying-boat.
This journey with a three course lunch including steak and kidney pie, took six hours and 55 minutes. He notes that when Iceland Force, as the Allies named it, arrived in Iceland, "they were not received - as ingenuously they had expected - with open arms."
The Icelanders were displeased by the occupation of their country and, being unable to prevent it, they decided to ignore it. To ignore it as far as possible, that is. They assumed towards our troops an attitude of frosty indifference, and our troops, being friendly people, and so sure of the virtue of their cause that they could not see how anyone should doubt it, were sorely puzzled by this reception.
Linklater describes Reykjavik which then had a population of about 40,000 people and politely flatters the locals.
A generation ago the houses were nearly all of wood - farm buildings of turf -  but concrete has now taken the place of timber, and now there are rows of new houses all built according to modern notions of simplicity and functionalism, a rank of windowed cubes with a shelf on each to catch the sun.. There are little hat shops.. with an elegant sample or two of the latest fashions from New York; and there are book shops, half a dozen of them, that put to shame the illiteracy of many an English town of greater size; and there are flower shops where, you may discern a sheaf of roses, a pot of hydrangeas, that have been grown in greenhouses warmed by the hot springs of this icy and volcanic island.
An interesting town, with a brand new university of its own, a National Theatre - not wholly finished yet - and a statue to Leif Ericsson, the Icelander who discovered America.
The pamphlet describes Icelanders as having been flattered for some years by the attentions of German universities who studied Icelandic culture and the Sagas, For this reason, it says a previous generation of Icelandic students who studied in Germany had a nostalgic fondness for Germany with little idea of the realities of the Nazi state. The younger generation, it says, had been courted with cheaper university courses and there was a widespread admiration for German "efficiency". It is true that the relatively few Icelanders then able to go to university, considered Germany to be the European capital of culture, but most Icelanders knew precisely what the Nazi's regime was. Widely circulated leftwing Icelandic newspapers had reported the behaviour of the Nazis all through the 1930s when political polarisation meant some Icelanders admired Nazism and hoped to use it to contain Iceland's own trade unionists, socialists and Communists.

The thaw in relations between the troops and Icelanders, Linklater says, was due to the good sense of Icelanders, the good behaviour of the troops and the good market the British forces provided for Icelandic produce. Iceland had obviously lost it's European markets for fish and sheep produce and Linklater points out how much money the British Army poured into the country in one way or another, including the payment of overtime, for which Icelanders were presumably meant to be grateful.
All the local produce is bought - mutton and milk and fish - and local labour is paid high wages. In March of this year (1941) about £30,000 was paid out in wages; and like his British confrere, the Icelandic labourer is properly compensated for his wounded conscience when he agrees to work on the Sabbath day: 4.50 kronur an hour to be precise; three shillings and fourpence in English money.
This work on the army bases was known as Bretavinna - British work - although everyone agreed the money was good, it was also considered to be boring, menial and degrading to work for the occupiers. But the camp to the south east of Reykjavik was in an area where work was hard to find and people often had to take whatever work was available, even Bretavinna.

Linklater didn't see it that way as an apparent note of irritation crept in at Icelanders' lack of appreciation of the situation,
Camp after camp has been sited far less conveniently than it could have been had we shown less care and regard for the small and scanty fields of the Icelandic farmer.
Clearly, Linklater had no idea what those insignificant fields represented in years of labour, self independence and self respect to the farmers.

To combat boredom and loneliness and provided a bit of news from home, the Iceland Force bought an hour a day of its time from the Icelandic radio broadcasting service and made their own programmes. They also got the local brewery to make stronger beer for the troops. Linklater says, "Icelandic beer is the depressing sort known as near-beer", by which he meant that it was almost alcohol-free, as ordinary alcoholic beer had been illegal in Iceland since 1915. And the brewery couldn't keep up with the troops' demand.

Many members of Iceland Force would have agreed with Linklater when he described, "a fjord, bleak and barren.. and a narrow little village sitting nakedly on a hillside. The houses were white and the hill was white with snow. It all looked very cold and comfortless." An officer who had been in Iceland for nearly a year said appreciatively of the same village:
That's rather a nice little place, isn't it? It must be quite a sun-trap in summer.
 The British troops and Air Force, who were joined in July 1940 by Canadian troops, stayed until Americans troops arrived in 1941. The United States was still technically neutral until it joined the war in December 1941 but the Americans' presence in Iceland by agreement with the Icelandic government, meant that British troops were freed up to fight elsewhere. The continuing occupation divided Icelandic society politically and would, in 1948, cause an explosion of protest against Iceland joining NATO, The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

When Britain's Ministry of Information published The Northern Garrisons in 1941 it was fighting for "hearts and minds" when the Second World War was still in the balance. The German Nazi forces had stormed through Europe to the North Sea coast facing Britain and occupied the Channel Islands. The Russians had not yet beaten General Paulus and the Sixth Army at Stalingrad and it was not at all clear that the Allies would win.

The British government were trying with this pamphlet to reach a mass of ordinary people who on reading it, they hoped, would pass it on to friends and family and feel more involved. It was designed to be a morale booster for the troops in the Northern Garrisons and the British government may have hoped that English-reading Icelanders would also read it and feel part of the wider war. But Icelanders had been fighting for self-determination from Denmark and its servants for too long to be so easily reconciled to this occupation.

Inside cover of The Northern Garrisons: The Army at War

Sunday 19 June 2016

For Cod's Sake - Iceland's cod wars with Britain 1958-1976: exhibition at Vikin, Reykjavik's Maritime Museum

This small vibrant exhibition looks at the three 20th century Cod Wars, þorskastríðin in Icelandic, when Icelandic and foreign trawlers, Icelandic coastguard ships and British gunships, rammed and shot at each other each as Iceland struggled to expand its protected fisheries. Trawl nets were cut, men threatened and one man died as Iceland fought long skirmishes in Landhelgisstríðin, the war for territorial waters against all comers.

Using film footage, newspapers, photographs and cartoons the story builds from 1 September 1958 when a new Icelandic law expanded its fishery zone from four to 12 nautical miles (NM) (22.2 km). The exhibition is not triumphalist or nationalist but inevitably this is a story of a very small country fighting off Britain with a population over 254 times larger. [Pop Iceland 1976 - 220,154 and Britain - 56.21 million]

Heath and the stubborn cod, from Stuttgater Zeitung reprinted in Þjóðviljinn newspaper, 30 May 1973

Föðurland vort hálft er hafið, half of our home is the sea
New technology meant that bigger catches were becoming easier to get and overfishing began to outstrip the ability of the most popular species, including cod to replenish themselves. In 1952 the old international three mile exclusion zone had been extended to four nautical miles in Iceland but it was clear that the four mile exclusion zone was routinely flouted because the catch was much more valuable than the fines imposed by the courts.

All members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) fiercely opposed the extension of Iceland’s exclusion zone—they couldn’t do much about the Soviet Union claiming a 12 mile zone, but the fish-rich water around little Iceland were accessible to dozens of countries and they had no intention of giving up any of it.

Within two days of the new law, a British trawler, Northern Foam, from Grimsby was caught fishing in the expanded exclusive zone. Nine men from the coastguard vessels Þór and Maríu Júlia were sent to take control of the trawler—but ended up not quite prisoners on the British frigate Eastbourne for 12 days because the trawlers refused to come quietly and the coastguards refused to take their men back.

By the following April, the British government was protesting that the crew of þór had fired live shells at the British trawler, Arctic Viking and that Maríu Júlia, “repeatedly executed dangerous maneuvers in attempts to obstruct British trawlers while on the high seas”     

Iceland appeared determined not to back down and other countries wanted the same limit so by 1961 British government accepted the 12 NM limit. But this zone was never going to have been large enough to preserve fish stocks, nor for Icelanders to keep a substantial share of the fish profits and in September 1973 it again extended its fishing limits to 50 NM—93 km.

“Við semjum ekki, við sigrum þá - "We won’t settle, we will beat them"
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Icelandic coast guards began to enforce the new exclusion zone with net cutters designed to slice off the foreign ships’ trawls if they fished within the new exclusion zone. The wire cutters were old mine sweeper equipment with added road grading blades. The captains of the foreign trawlers raged that it was dangerous to cut a trawl—any wire or rope springing back would kill the man it hit. 

The Icelandic coast guards argued that it wasn’t particularly dangerous because the trawl was cut so deep that the tension was released into the sea itself. To prove the point, on 18 January 1973 they cut the nets of eighteen trawlers and British boats were forced out of the Icelandic fishing zone unless they had the protection of the Royal Navy.

Trawl clippers, made out of old mine sweeping gear modified with road grading blades, Vikin Maritme Museum

What was probably much more dangerous was ships ramming each other. British Navy ships rammed Icelandic coast guard ships to prevent them from cutting trawls while the Icelandic trawler Baldur, refitted as a coast guard ship, was so successful at damaging British trawlers that British skippers called it the can-opener.

Engineer, Halldór Hallfreðsson died by electrocution on the Coast Guard vessel Ægir, as he was holding a welding torch when the ship was hit by a large wave. The British frigate Apollo was blamed for his death as Halldór was repairing the damage Apollo did when it rammed Ægir on 29 August 1973.

The exhibition uses vivid footage of the British journalist Norman Rees who reported from the Þór in 1976. See some of it here.

Three-day Millionaires
The exhibition also includes the work of historian Alec Gill who has interviewed and documented the lives and industry of Hull’s “Three-day millionaires”, the fishermen who worked the Icelandic fisheries until 1976. His invaluable work, done on a shoe-string, records in great detail the ordinary lives and culture that grew out of the Hull fishing industry centred on the community in Hessle Road. 

His series of documentaries on DVDs are available here. This is what the British fisherman were fighting to preserve and what they lost when some 3,500 fishermen and many more men and women on land lost jobs with the Icelandic 200 mile exclusion zone.

Documenting the lives and work of a vanished culture

A nation united?
Each Cod War ended in a negotiated settlement, involving Nato, various foreign ministers and even Presidents Nixon and Pompidou. Many people in the Icelandic fishing industries were unhappy at the outcomes, especially in the 1970s when mass meetings and demonstrations protested the deals made, which included a limited numbers of foreign boats being allowed in to the exclusion zones. Many people couldn't see why any foreign boats should be allowed in. 

As with every struggle in history, there is a fight here for interpretation. The exhibition notes that historian Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, who is currently favourite, with just over 55 percent in the polls for the Icelandic presidential elections held next week, wrote an article in 2011 on the Cod Wars and how they are remembered. 

"The Cod Wars are an important part of Icelander's collective memory. They are said to be a fine example of the resilience that the nation can display when it is confronted and evidence of Icelander's international relevance. Some of this is true, but the history is somewhat more complicated when reviewed closely. The unity is exaggerated, little is made of the fact that Icelanders had to negotiate victory and it perpetuates a misunderstanding about Icelander's initiatives in relation to the Law of the Sea. This results in the myth of united heroes and the real picture fades in the shadows."

Guðni T Jóhannesson and the class he may soon represent like to argue that progress in the world comes from international law. For them, unilateralism and the vehement determination of ordinary people is difficult. For everyone else, it should be apparent that international law is very often made to reflect and contain the struggles of ordinary people.

The victories of the Cod Wars did not solve all the problems of the Icelandic fishing industries and few thought they would. The exclusive fishing zones were effectively privatised and still overfished. As quotas were cut to preserve stocks, they became transferable, were sold and concentrated in fewer hands. Factories closed and the villages that depended on them shared Hull's fate of unemployment and the closure of services as families and young people left to find work. But the Cod Wars were also fought for the self-determination and the independence of ordinary people in a small country frequently used as a pawn between Washington and Moscow.

Coastguard vessel Oðinn fought in the Cod Wars and is now docked in Vikin

For more on the Coastguard vessel Oðinn and its rescue of Hull fishermen click here.And here for more on Capitalism and the destruction of fisheries.

The exhibition runs until end of August 2016, for further information see Vikin Maritime Museum

Sunday 29 May 2016

Celebrating diversity in Reykjavik

Reykjavik city celebrated its 18th annual Multiculturalism Day yesterday with a march and afternoon of music, food and information about the different nationalities now living in Iceland. The marching band was led off by Vikings which neatly made the point that Iceland is a nation of immigrants.

Reykjavik's Multiculturalism Day 2016

The organisations represented in the event in Harpa cultural centre included people from Afghanistan, Cuba, Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Morocco, Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia, Japan, Nepal, Nigeria, Kenya, New Zealand Colombia, South Korea, Muslim and Christian groups and many others.

Reykjavik is a very diverse place these days but celebrating inclusion cannot be taken for granted and events like these are only part of the ongoing battle against racism and bigotry in Iceland.

For some lovely photos of the whole day  go to Helgi Halldórs photos here

Meanwhile, the major chain of bookshops Penninn Eymundsson is prominently displaying the viciously Islamophobic Islam, a national plague by Norwegian journalist Hege Storhaug.

Islamophobia on sale in Iceland

Storhaug was formerly on the left and says she was involved in anti-racist campaigns but has recently built a lucrative career from whipping up racism against Muslims. She says she began her campaign when she discovered that there were forced marriages and "honour killings" in Norway. Instead of seeing the obvious point that no group or culture is free of violence against women and condemning it for what it is, domestic violence, she began her bigoted offensive against Islam and all Muslims in the name of women's rights and freedom.

Norwegian Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab or niqab, of course, bear the brunt of the racist attacks against Muslims in the streets that books like these encourage.

So Penninn Eymundsson is fuelling hatred and profiting from it by selling this rubbish. It's going to take more than music, dancing and lovely food to challenge this bigory.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

No, no, no, no, that's not going to be the case...

When elections for the President of Iceland are held next month, it would be great if that person was someone who remembered what it is like to live as an ordinary person in Iceland, paying taxes, saving for holidays, not being married to a multi, multi millionaire - that sort of thing. The current President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who is standing again is still the favourite by a long way but then he assured CNN News that his family would not be found anywhere near the tax haven scandals that have engulfed leading politicians in the ruling coalition. He had to do a very sharp u-turn when the news about his rich wife's super-rich family and their money in the tax haven got out.

Here's a little mashup from Sveinbjorn Palsson of Ólafur Ragnar impressing on us just how much he will never be found in any such scandal. It won't be long til we know what the voters think.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Farewell Sigmundur Davið

Iceland's Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson from the poorly named Progressive Party, Framsóknarflokkurinn, has graciously admitted this evening that he has actually resigned and not just asked a colleague to stand in for him for a bit. This only happened because of the enormous demo this week against Sigmundur Davið by tens of thousands of ordinary people sick of the corruption that appears to be endemic to Iceland's elite. Here's an article I wrote yesterday about the situation. And here's hoping the Icelandic left are working on a coherent strategy now that they have a new opportunity to fight austerity and get rid of everyone in the government who has got richer from the financial crisis.

Two books that swim against the tide

I have written an article reviewing two books in the latest issue of International Socialism Journal which deal with the crises of modern fisheries and the lives of fishers around the world. These are Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea by Alistair Couper, Hance D Smith and Bruno Ciceri, (Pluto Press 2015), and Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries and Aquaculture by Stefano B Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark (Rutgers University Press, 2015).
Human activity has pushed the world’s oceans into crisis from overfishing, pollution and warming water linked to climate change—and if nothing is done about it the results will be catastrophic for marine systems and the billions of humans who rely on them. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2015 Living Blue Planet Report: Species, Habitats and Human Wellbeing clearly shows that in just over 40 years, marine vertebrate populations have declined by 49 percent. These vertebrates include all our favourite dinner fish such as cod, haddock, salmon and tuna while a quarter of shark, ray and skate species are now threatened by extinction, mostly due to overfishing and environmental degradation. 
At the same time fishing remains one of the most dangerous occupations. Even in advanced capitalist countries such as the United States, with theoretically stringent safety rules and equipment, fishers are 25 times more likely to die at work than the national all-worker fatal injury rate.
Fishers and Plunderers and The Tragedy of the Commodity are part of the contested solutions offered to this crisis and they complement each other in that they centre on powerful, fragile marine ecosystems and the ordinary people who live by working them. Both books recognise capitalism’s drive for profit and the commodification of every aspect of fishing as part of the problem and argue that the solutions arrived at have only exacerbated the problems of overfishing and environmental degradation.
Find the rest of the article at here or at isj.org.uk

Sunday 20 March 2016

Iceland's crisis and the power of its working class

It is good to see the article in Jacobin magazine online, Iceland’s Revolution by Viðar Þorsteinsson this month that summarises the political situation in Iceland since the 2008 crash. It points out that the lack of a clear left alternative with a coherent strategy for tackling the cuts in living standards and the debt burden, has wasted the enormous angry protests that surged as the crisis unfolded. As we know a lot of nonsense has been written and repeated about the Icelandic establishment putting people before the banks. As Viðar puts it, the story goes; 
“The Icelanders put the bankers in jail. The Icelanders crowdsourced a new constitution. The Icelanders refused to bail out the banks. The Icelanders held a national referendum on sovereign debt.”
The reality, Marxist economist Michael Roberts reiterated on his blog earlier this month is,
Iceland did not renege on the huge debts that its corrupt banks ran up with foreign institutions (mainly the UK and the Netherlands). It eventually renegotiated them and is now paying them back like Greece.
“And devaluation did not mean that Icelanders escaped from a huge loss in living standards. They have done little better than the Greeks on that score – although of course, Icelanders started from a much higher standard of living than the Greeks. In euro terms, Icelandic employee real incomes fell 50% and are still 25% below pre-crisis levels.”
Viðar Þorsteinsson adds that government responses to the crash, “were only modestly progressive...In some cases, debt-relief policies have been outright reactionary in their upward redistribution of wealth.” And that's without mentioning the immediate raid on pensions as the crash unfolded.

Viðar goes on, “Remarkably, popular sentiment against banking and indebtedness has not been channelled into building any long-term prospects for the Icelandic left. Rather, the country's establishment parties have successfully promoted their own weak measures against mortgage plight to recover from the loss of trust they suffered following the crash.” The left will have to address missed opportunities and he concludes;
“Above all the Icelandic experience reveals the urgency of finding an egalitarian and redistributive approach to debt politics; one which can relay popular sentiment without falling into nationalism, limiting itself to superficial reform or making the finance sector a scapegoat for the systemic failures of capitalism.”
This is fine as far as it goes - though I don’t care whether bankers are made scapegoats—theses parasites caused this global financial crisis, but the point here is the systemic failures of capitalism. and Iceland's Revolution does not mention the force in Iceland with the economic muscle to challenge capital. Last summer Iceland's workers went on strike against the cuts they have been made to endure.

Last year opened with doctors in Iceland striking for 11 weeks and winning better terms and conditions. Over April and May some 10,000 workers struck for an increased minimum wage in food processing plants such as slaughterhouses and fish factories, the tourist industry and cleaning services. A general strike began on 26 May at midnight and there were huge protests of angry workers.

The government used legislation to end and ban further strikes while discussions with the unions continued. This affected thousands of workers including striking vets, radiologists, nurses, midwives and lawyers. While unions considered legal action against the government, nurses and radiologists resigned on mass arguing that if the government wouldn’t pay them the same as in other Scandinavian countries then they would work in those countries instead.

Then last October the large unions, the Icelandic Professional Trade Association (SGS) and Flóabandalagið—the Bay Alliance, which includes the unions Efling, Hlíf and the Labour and Seamen’s Association of Keflavík, agreed a deal with the government negotiator. The deal, backdated to 1 May, means an extra 25.000 krónur (kr) a month, then another 5.5 percent raise from 1 June 2016 with at least 15.000 kr extra a month. Wages will then rise another 4.5 percent in June 2017 with a further 3 percent in June 2018. In February 2019 fulltime workers will then get an extra 45.000 kr, with part time workers getting the rate according to their hours. All of this means that the basic wage rate should rise to 300.000 kr for everyone over 18 years old.

It’s a substantial improvement, and would never have happened without the strikes—but it could have been achieved much faster than 2018 if the strikes had continued. This would mean workers organising so that they could overcome vacillating union leaders who tend to fold in the face of underhand new laws. That is how the working class and the left in Iceland could work together to create a serious challenge to capital.

This is not an abstract debate. Like everywhere else in Europe there is a polarisation and rise in racism and a new party has recently been founded, the Icelandic National Front  - Íslenska þjóðfylkingin. This is a nasty chauvinist, Islamophobic party that is feeding off anger at continuing austerity and scapegoating minorities. It can be stopped and capital can be challenged but it will take a coherent strategy and workers' social and economic muscle to do it.

Monday 15 February 2016

Solidarity at sea - update

Since I posted my last piece, Solidarity at sea on the Hull trawler sinkings and heroic rescue in the great storm off Iceland in 1968, Brian W Lavery has sold the film rights to his book The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull triple trawler disaster.

Brian W Lavery with The Headscarf Revolutionaries

Everyone involved in the campaign for safety which forced the trawler owners to put men's lives before profit deserves this to be a really good film.In the meantime, here is footage from British Pathé news which briefly covered the story at the time.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Solidarity at Sea

Iceland is an island surrounded by some of the richest fishing grounds anywhere in the world and its history and the development of its working class is inextricably linked to fishing. Crews from Britain have been fishing off the coasts of Iceland for at least 600 years [1]. By the 15th century Iceland was already famous for its stockfish, [Icelandic, harðfiskur]—the wind-dried haddock and cod [2] that stayed edible for months, was light, portable and could feed travelers crossing oceans and continents.

However dangerous winter fishing was—and every coastal town in Britain and Iceland has memories of disasters and heroic rescues—the fish was too valuable to leave alone. Brian W. Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple trawler disaster, published last year tells the story of the 58 men who died and one who survived when three Hull trawlers—the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland—were lost within a few days in the winter of 1968 off Iceland. 

Winter deep-sea trawling was notoriously dangerous at the time when British ships often didn’t have the latest safety equipment because owners wouldn’t pay for it. A ton of ice could form on a deck in minutes in foul weather and less than 20 tonnes could turn over a 657-tonne ship like the Kingston Peridot. It had to be chipped off by hand in storms when the men didn’t even have safety cables to clip themselves onto. Often crews were without a radio operator and particularly over holidays, crew shortages would be made up by teenagers or older men without much experience of fishing or these conditions.

Headscarf Revolutionaries
When news of the second trawler sinking reached Hull, Lililian Bilocca, a fish worker whose husband and son worked on trawlers, began a campaign that became international news and completely overhauled safety standards on British trawlers. I wrote a short review of the book in the British magazine Socialist Review and there is an excellent and much longer article about the book in Socialist Worker by Annette Makin.  

With better safety equipment, training and cold weather gear some of these men could have been saved but the storm that sank the Ross Cleveland in the great bay of Ísafjörður of North West Iceland was the worst anyone there—Icelanders or foreigners had ever seen.

Icelandic journalist Óttar Sveinsson wrote a book about the same disaster in Icelandic Útkall I Djúpinu, published in English as Doom in the Deep. It’s a pity that this is currently out of print because Óttar interviewed the Icelanders who rescued the men off the Grimsby trawler, Notts County that ran aground at the height of the storm in Ísafjörður. His book is a tribute to the ingenuity and courage of the volunteers from the Icelandic coastguard vessel, Oðinn who rescued the freezing terror-stricken men who had heard the final words of Phil Gay, the captain of the Ross Cleveland as it sank and expected to be next.

Ísafjörður bay was full of British trawlers that night because in most storms it was safe. Harry Eddom, the only man to survive the sinking of the Ross Cleveland, made the point,
“We were only two or three miles from the 3,000-foot walls of the fjord. We should have been safe as houses.”

Map of Ísafjörður from Útkall I Djúpinu
Dick Moore described the storm as the Notts County ran aground, the engine room flooded and he and the other men scrambled to get out on deck,

“A howling, screeching, shattering din. The ship was vibrating with the wind. I thought it was like being out on a runway with ten jet planes taking off at once. The air seemed to be tearing apart. And the sound didn’t die down. It went on and on without pause. I put my hands over my ears; I felt thousands of ice-needles pricking my face, held my head down and tried to keep my balance on the ice. It was hard to breathe. How could this be happening?..It was as if the mountains themselves were shrieking and roaring.”[3]

The Icelandic coastguard ship Oðinn was in Ísafjörður searching for a smaller Icelandic fishing vessel Heiðrun II, missing with its six man crew—Rögnvaldur  Sigurjónsson, his two sons Ragnar and Sigurjón, Páll Ísleifur Vilhjálmsson, Kjartan Halldór Halldórsson and Sigurður Sigurðsson. The boat and the crew were never found.

Icelandic coastguard vessel Oðinn[4]

Apart from search and rescue, the captain and crew of the Oðinn spent much of their time enforcing the exclusive 12 mile Icelandic fisheries zone won by the first “Cod War” from 1958-1961. This “war” had been a series of sometimes violent confrontations between Icelandic trawlers backed by their few coastguard vessels and British trawlers backed by the Royal Navy. Oðinn had used trawl cutting machinery to strip the offending British trawlers of their fishing gear which cost thousands of pounds at the time. Harry Eddom had been part of British crews fighting the Icelanders for fish.

While the storm raged and it was too dangerous to do anything about rescuing the men from the Notts County, the men on Oðinn fought the ice. Seventeen year old Torfi Geirmundsson later said, 
“Several of us lads had tried to go forward when the ship was keeling over sharply. But as soon as we got out on the foredeck the gale slung us up against the rail. We couldn’t stay on our feet. The ice built up so fast you couldn’t let up for a minute.”
The next morning when the wind had dropped to gale force 8 or 9, the Oðinn planned to rescue the Notts County crew by getting as close to shore as possible without running itself aground. It got within 200 metres of the trawler. The engine of the smaller covered boat that the Icelanders meant to use wouldn’t start, so 14 hours after the trawler had run aground Pálmi Hlöðversson and Sigurjón Hannesson set out in a small rubber Zodiac dingy from Oðinn with two uninflated rubber life rafts as ballast against the wind threatening to flip the dingy over at any minute. The Oðinn had radioed ahead so the Notts County crew were on deck waving and clutching bottles when Pálmi and Sigurjón reached them. The Icelanders assumed they were drunk and yelled that if they didn’t get rid of the booze and do exactly as they were told they would leave them where they were. The trawlermen weren’t drunk but in their cold traumatised state, the Notts County crew thought they could thank their rescuers with what they had to hand, rum.

The 18 survivors—one of the crew, Robert Bowie had died trying to launch a life raft—had to climb and jump down into the zodiac then crawl into the two life rafts, nine men in each. Pálmi and Sigurjón then towed the life rafts back through the gale force winds to the Oðinn. These men got home because a boat load of Icelanders usually hell bent on chasing British fisherman out of their territorial waters, volunteered to rescue them at the risk of their own lives. The next day when the wind had eased, they went back to rescue the body of Robert Bowie.

Thanks to the campaign led by Lillian Bilocca, safety on British trawlers got overhauled and that spring British fishermen finally got a mothership, the Orsino launched with a crew of 20 including a doctor, a meteorologist and medical equipment.

Lillian was shamefully treated, sacked and blacklisted by the Hull fish industry and not properly supported by the trade unions. But Lillian was with the dock workers and trade unionists at the launch of the Orsino[5] and said, “Never mind them calling us silly women. This is what we have fought for.”

Health and safety at work has never been achieved without a fight but the safety equipment and training on trawlers was wrenched from the employers and ship owners on the back of immense suffering and human cost. Climate change means that mega storms such as the one over Ísafjörður that night will become more common and the right not to die at work will have to be fought for again[6].

[1] “The first documentary evidence in Icelandic sources of Englishmen fishing off Iceland comes from the contemporary Nýi annáll (New Annals) for 1412; ‘A ship came from England to the east coast of Dyrhólaey; men rowed out to them, they were fishermen from England.’ Iceland’s ‘English Century’ and East Anglia’s North Sea World, Anna Agnarsdóttir in East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages, edited by David Bates and Robert Liddiard
[2] In Iceland, harðfiskur remains a popular snack eaten with butter or on its own.
[3] Doom in the Deep, Óttar Sveinsson pg 50
[4] Image by Kjallakr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3
[5] http://www.hulltrawler.net/Stern/ORSINO%20H410.htm
[6] I have a forthcoming piece on fishing, fish stocks, safety and the struggle to organise which I will link here when it is published.