5,000 Strikers Halt Fishing In Iceland

By Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir, Militant, Vol.59 no.25, 26 June 1995

REYKJAVIK, Iceland—Five thousand workers on more than 300 trawlers and fishing ships in Iceland walked off the job May 26, demanding higher and more uniform wages.

The fishermen's strike is the biggest of many labor struggles that have developed here recently. Several other strikes have been called to win new labor agreements.

Morgunbladid, the main daily newspaper in Iceland, complained about the unrest, saying, Most fishing ships are in the harbors. Trade unions prepare a strike in Straumsvík aluminum plant. Bankers are planning a strike in mid-June. Tour bus drivers are on strike. Bakers are just about to strike. This is the picture we have in front of us only a few months after a general agreement was concluded on the labor market.

The agreement referred to by Morgunbladid was made between the Central Organization of Employers and the Iceland Federation of Labor in February for an across-the-board 7.5 percent wage increase.

Big wage gaps

Fishermen's income varies with the market price of fish and oil, the size of the catch, and trade quotas. Big wage gaps also exist between workers on ships that sell to particular plants—where unions negotiate wages with plant owners—and ships that sell on the market.

Fishermen receive payment proportional to their catch and operating expenses. The captain receives two `shares,' an engineer and the cook one-and-a-half, and the workers on the ship one `share.' In the mid-1970s, workers on fishing ships won the right to a guaranteed payment whenever their share falls below a minimum wage. Workers on the fleets have no job security, either. They can be laid off on one week's notice.

The Seamen's Federation, a national organization composed of 40 unions organizing workers on the fishing vessels; the Union of Seamen and Fishermen, whose members include supervisors and captains; and the Engineers Union, which organizes skilled machinists, are on strike to address these conditions.

In the early 1980s, a quota system was introduced as part of restructuring the fishing industry that gave the biggest shares to the owners of the larger vessels. Small and medium owners were frequently forced to sell their portion and give up fishing. In many cases, workers have been forced to take part in the bosses' purchase of a fishing quota to keep their job.

Where there used to be one or two trawlers, a filet plant, and a collection of smaller crafts in each town around Iceland, quotas have now been sold to bigger out of town fishing companies. Some vessels that became idle in this way are now fishing in international waters. Concentration of capital has enabled some Icelandic companies to have vessels fishing off the coast of Southern Africa, on the western coast of South America, near the Alaskan coast, and other areas thousands of miles from Iceland.

A week after the strike began, lack of raw materials led the bosses in the fish processing plants to send more than 1,000 workers home. As the newest hired go back on the dole, others receive the guaranteed minimum wage for fish workers, which is about the same as unemployment benefits.

Owners of cargo-ship companies narrowly averted a strike when they agreed to increase wages for sailors by 12.5 percent and backed down on a proposal for less time off when the ships are in dock.

Tour bus drivers strike

Striking tour bus drivers refused to sign a contract ending their recent strike until the Central Organization of Employers agreed not to sue any of their members or the union for actions carried out on the picket line. Taking the companies in a chokehold—they want to deny the employers the right to test in court whether [we] can be compensated for the damage done to [us] through illegal activity, said Thorarinn Thorarinsson of the employers group. It demonstrates that [tour bus drivers] are clear that they need an amnesty beforehand, and we must criticize how they use the strike weapon to be freed from confronting the law.

The president of the tour bus drivers' union, Óskar Stefansson, countered that all points of controversy must end with the signing of the contract.

The bakers' union concluded their job action after six hours on strike. They had demanded a two-scale wage structure in order to draw a line between an eight-hour workday and overtime. Bakers start work around 3:00 a.m. and are paid a uniform hourly wage, no matter how many hours they work.

The union signed a contract without the two scales being defined, but with a wage increase of more than 8 percent and an extra paid vacation day. Gunnar Gudmundsson, a member of the negotiating committee for the bakers, told the press, I hope we are reconciled, although I don't think we can be satisfied at any time because this is a perpetual struggle.

Nurses employed by hospitals and health-care centers in rural areas, who had threatened to walk out June 1, won what they were demanding. The government had attempted to cut specific subsidies for working in rural areas, but agreed to keep paying until the nurses' contract runs out next year.

At the Straumsvík aluminum plant, workers are resisting an attempt by the owner, Alusuisse, to use contractors and subcontractors in the plant. Alusuisse claims it is interested in building a larger plant, but demands a new type of contract before it will expand. In particular, it insists, the company must be able to run the plant without the workers' continuous interference.

The Central Organization of Employers and the government have called for greater cooperation on the part of the trade unions to facilitate foreign investment.

A statement from the trade union organization in Straumsvík states that the unions have had to fight against the company breaking every contract that has been made; and that the workers have cooperated in some reorganization of the plant and should benefit from it and from the present upturn in the aluminum industry.

At one time there were nearly 1,000 workers at the Straumsvík plant. The 500 employed there now walked out June 10, leaving a couple of hundred contractors that normally do maintenance work in the plant.