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 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

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