Do you remember a few months ago when I wrote about how the (corrupt, complacent) old guard of Iceland’s two largest labour unions had been ousted, and a new, radical leadership had taken its place? At the time I also alluded to the fact that we Icelanders could expect some major unrest on the labour market in the not-too-distant future.

Well, that time has arrived.

The terrible trio heading up Iceland’s three major unions. Click here for source.

It was already a given that this leadership was not going to sit on its laurels and let the privileged few get away with bleeding the proletariat dry. This is the group that has not had its share of the cake in Iceland’s “miraculous” economic recovery, despite in many ways having laid the groundwork for that recovery. This is also the group that does not own property and is therefore forced onto a rental market with its exorbitant rents and immoral property investment companies that appear to have no qualms about arbitrarily raising rents whenever they feel like it, and throwing their tenants out into the street if they are unable to meet their harsh demands.

Labour unions are strong in Iceland. If you are a salaried employee, you are almost sure to belong to a union. The two largest are Efling and VR, with around 27,000 and 35,000 members respectively. They exist to guard the rights and welfare of workers, and negotiate various agreements with employers, including collective wage agreements. In these current negotiations they are joined by the union Verkalýðsfélag Akraness (the Akranes Labour Union), with around 5,000 members. All in all, numbers that add up to nearly a fifth of the Icelandic population. That’s some serious weight for applying pressure. 

Over the last two decades or so, the gap between rich and poor has been growing steadily wider, and today the situation for the lowest-paid group is dire. Most find it impossible to live off a full-time wage [links to an interview in English] – especially since many of this group are forced to be on the rental market, with its absence of housing security, and rents that have gone up 100 percent in eight years (no exaggeration).  

Those people feels completely disenfranchised. They are desperate. And they are demanding change. Not asking. Demanding

And who can blame them?

Lots of people, as it turns out. According to the privileged classes the demands of the proletariat are set to be the downfall of this country. Unless they shut up and gratefully take the bones being thrown at them they will be responsible for the collapse of Icelandic society.

A proclamation that is shockingly hollow when you consider the wage hikes that the privileged classes have already allocated themselves. The situation we are currently facing was already a foregone conclusion in 2016, when Iceland’s politicians received a wage hike of 44 percent, just … because. Iceland’s prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s salary is currently higher than that of Angela Merkel’s. Other public officials have also seen a healthy boost in their salaries in the last while. The director of state-owned Landsbanki bank has seen a 140 percent rise in her salary over the last four years, and now receives some 3.8 million ISK (32,000 USD) per month. The head of The National Energy Company received a raise of 58 percent, to ISK 3.2 million per month (USD 27,000). The head of ISAVIA, which operates Keflavík Airport, has seen his wages rise by 65 percent, to ISK 2.4 million per month (USD 20,000). And so on.

Aside from the fact that we are talking about a country with a tiny population, this is obviously a slap in the face of those who just want to be able to feed themselves and their children for four weeks out of the month, rather than three, on full-time wages. Who on top of that are being told that the stability of Icelandic society rests on their shoulders, and if they continue to be so greedy and petulant everything will go straight to hell. 

As things stand now, we are in for a round of strikes. The first will be on March 8, International Women’s Day, and will affect housekeeping staff at some of Iceland’s largest hotels. After that, bus (as in, coach) companies will be affected … including the shuttle buses that run between Keflavík airport and the capital. Further actions will be announced in due course. 

No one likes strikes. No one is happy about all this. But it takes a particular kind of heartlessness not to have sympathy for a group that has been systematically exploited for years, and whose demands are nothing if not reasonable.

The above post first appeared as a section in my February newsletter, where I write monthly about some aspect of Icelandic society. To make sure you never miss a post, sign up below.