This summer, I published a set of articles on Kjarninn where I spoke about the crisis and decay of the Icelandic labour movement in the last four decades, and diagnosed the reasons underpinning it. Now that crisis has played out in public again, this time with a drab result in the collective bargaining of the movement’s largest federations.
Agreements have been signed that erode the purchasing power of the low- and middle incomes during an unrestrained economic boom, using tricks and deception with raises that had already been negotiated. The contracts also include proportional raises, which give people who earn a million a month double the raise of a low-wage worker.
Haste and a breakdown in solidarity in making the agreements led to a wasted opportunity in pressuring the government. The government’s action plan was therefore exceptionally lightweight and in large part based on deceptions and illusions. Child benefits do not in fact rise, but decrease, in real value, and previously agreed increases are repackaged as a new contribution. A rent brake was not promised, which would be needed to keep higher rent support in the pocket of renters.
This leaves the leaders of the biggest unions and federations of workers helpless and shamefaced, with reduced trust from their membership. The reasons for these missteps are exactly the same as those which have led to other union leaders losing their trust and popularity, and to leaving their positions – whether they are called Gylfi Arnbjörnsson, Drífa Snædal or Sigurður Bessason.
These causes are a lack of connection to members in the movement, a lack of transparency and democracy within the unions, and the neglect of mass-mobilizations – a neglect of the power inherent in the membership. Leaders have gone to negotiate in a small, isolated group, vesting all their trust in paid specialists, and kept the substance of negotitions hidden from members. They in fact allow the employers’ association and the government decide the result of the talks, and take on the role as marketers and PR representatives for that result when all is said and done.
After promises of a new era in the labour movement, these broken methods are surely a disappointment. Winning negotiations is not about the personal qualities of individual leaders. It is about using the strength and head start unions have, but employer’s and the government don’t. The strength of unions are obviously, first and foremost, the numbers and solidarity of their members.
I and my colleagues on the B-list who ran and won the Efling leadership election at the beginning of the year have from the start emphasized these important facts: the number, solidarity and visibility of general and low-paid workers. We know from our own experience, and the experience of workers all over the world, that you don’t win by being clever at calculations or illusions. You win with a large group, visible and united.
The salesmanship around the newly signed contracts focuses on their short duration, to make up for their weakness, and that the next contracts will be much better. This rings hollow. Employers and the government have done very well in recent weeks by playing on the weaknesses of the Icelandic labour movement and will do it again next year. Then as now, there will again be tricks of arithmetic, there will be new “difficult conditions” which will prevent raises, and as always, an insufferable time pressure will be put on unions to limit their scope for action.
Efling has under my leadership, and that of the B-list, departed from the old ways of the labour movement. To us, that means working better and differently on behalf of our members. We will not accept the methods, nor the conclusion, of the contracts which others in the labour movement have adopted. We know the purpose of forcing workers to agree to these contracts is to allow for the same game to be played next time around. We reject that. We set the bar higher. We are worth more.