Iceland: Fighting for better wages

General strike called for 26 May

Thursday April 30 saw the start of a series of strikes for higher wages in Iceland. 10,000 workers went on strike and a further 60,000 are ready to take part in a general strike on May 26. The action has massive support: 91.6 per cent in the polls.

The turnaround in the economy after seven years of crisis and wage freeze seem to be behind the strikes. The main demand is for the minimum wage to be raised over three years from the equivalent of €1,370 to €1,900 a month (214,000 to 300,000 ISK, Icelandic Krona). A normal salary after seven years of work is €1,420 a month (222,000 ISK). More and more workers are forced to have two jobs to get by. In addition to wages, the strike also demands improved working conditions, such as the right to further education.

In the fishing industry,the payment of billions in bonuses and 33 percent pay increases to the managers of one of the largest companies, HB Grandi, have increased the pressure further. The unions’ wage demands would cost the company only one tenth of the managers’ bonuses of 2.7 billion ISK!

About 85 percent of all workers in Iceland are unionised and the three trade union confederations (blue collar, white collar and academics) are very strong. The SGS (Federation of General and Special workers) organises 19 unions mainly in the private sector and constitutes more than half the membership of the ASI, Iceland’s blue collar trade union federation. As many as 94.6 per cent of SGS members who voted in the strike ballot were in favour of strike action.

10,000 on strike

10,000 workers in 2,000 diferent companies participated in the 12-hour strike last Thursday. Hotels, tour buses and other parts of the growing tourism industry were standing still. In the fishing industry, where employers promised some concessions, the strike was total in the workplaces affected.

The pressure for wage increases exists in all professions. 3,000 University employees, who are members of the academic union, have been on strike since April 7. Also lawyers at government authorities and technicians in health care are on strike. Teachers and doctors are among those who have received some wage increases.

If the employers’ federation does not give in, a whole series of strikes are planned in May. First there would be two 48-hour strikes on 6 and 7 May and 19 and 20 May. Then an indefinite general strike from May 26. The blue-collar federation, ASI, has given notice that over 56,000 of their members will take part in the general strike.

Workers represent over a third of the country’s population of 300,000 inhabitants. Support for the unions is massive. The blog called islandsbloggen reports that 91.6 percent of the population support the demands of wage increases and only 4.3 percent are against a rise in the minimum wage. Support is strongest among women and low skilled workers. 45 percent responded that the minimum wage should be higher than the unions’ demand.

Political discontent

The strikes also reflect political discontent. In an opinion poll reported by islandsbloggen, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has very low support. "Only 9 percent think he is honest. And only 5 percent say he is at all connected with the public. The Green Left leader, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has the most positive qualities."

In another survey done recently, the Pirate Party seems to have become the largest party with 23.9 percent support. The ruling Independence Party got 23.4 percent. "To be quite honest, I do not know why we got so much confidence," said Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jonsdottir, but continued, "Traditional politics has shown no progress and people are tired of waiting for change."

When the financial crisis first hit Iceland, many protests shock the country. Since then, the movement from below has caught its breath and there was some hope for a turnaround. Now most workers realise that nothing will happen without struggle. The massive support for the strikes also shows the possibility of building a new workers’ party with roots in the workplace, a socialist alternative to today’s parties.

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May 2015