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Iceland's heated trade union row over – but embers remain

Iceland's heated trade union row over – but embers remain

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason, photo: ASÍ

On 28 April, The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) elected Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson as new president. He was the only one who ran.

This marks an end to a difficult period for the confederation and for trade unions which have been through a period of serious conflict. It is not entirely over and has already led to a falling out between the three trade union leaders who have been the most vocal throughout. Or as Hermannsson himself put it in a radio interview the day after he was elected: 

“We still can’t say that the confederation is a loving home but we have decided to work together on certain things that we have to cooperate on and take it from there.” 

With this, Hermannsson mainly refers to pressure on the state and the government to do their bit to reduce inflation, something which both the trade unions and economists believe is very much needed.

Three leaders 

But more on that conflict. It has revolved around three trade union leaders – Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, leader of Efling whose members are mainly low-skilled workers from the Reykjavik area; Ragnar Þór Ingólfsson, leader of VR, the shop and office workers’ union, and Vilhjálmur Birgisson, leader of Akranes Trade Union and also the chairman of the Federation of General and Special Workers (SGS) in Iceland. 

These three have for the last few years formed an alliance which had been very critical of the way the Confederation of Labour worked. They had argued it was too bureaucratic, out of touch with workers and not fighting enough on their behalf.

In the end, this led to the resignation of the President of the confederation, Drífa Snædal, in August 2022. She said that the formation of blocks within the unions and the communication with certain leaders made it impossible for her to continue. She especially mentioned criticism from the leaders of Efling and VR. Kristján Þórður Snæbjarnarson, who was First Vice President, took over temporarily.

Efling laid off all staff

The most controversy has centred on Jónsdóttir at Efling. In April 2022, Efling laid off all its 12 staff. Two months earlier, Jónsdóttir had been voted in as chairman after quitting her job in October 2021 claiming that the staff drove her out. The layoffs were heavily criticised by other labour union leaders.

In the autumn of 2022, the conflict within the unions got more heated. The three leaders – Ingólfsson, Birgisson and Jónsdóttir – had all run for the role of ASÍ President, Second Vice President and Third Vice President respectively, but all of them withdrew their candidacy during the confederation’s annual assembly in October. The reason, according to Birgisson, was that it was not possible to reach a common ground. 

“I apologise to Icelandic workers that we were not able to unite. Unfortunately, there is too much personal hate between the leaders.” 

This looked like a confederation that was split into two parts. To cool things down, the assembly was postponed until April 2023 and Kristján Þórður Snæbjarnarson was elected as temporary President until then. 

The big falling out

Efling is the largest union within the Federation of General and Special Workers (SGS), where Birgisson is the leader. Through SGS, Efling is a member of ASÍ. After the ASÍ assembly, the three trade union leaders said they would discuss a possible withdrawal from ASÍ. But then these three leaders fell out.

In December, the Federation of General and Special Workers reached a new collective agreement which is valid until 31 January 2024. Efling was not part of that deal and Jónsdóttir was severely critical of the agreement, claiming the deal was not good for her capital region workers. That did not sit well with Birgisson. Efling reached their own agreement in March after a series of strikes.

Earlier this month, Efling agreed in a general vote to leave the Federation of General and Special Workers and instead become a direct member of ASÍ. Only 5 per cent of Efling members voted and 68 per cent of them agreed to leave the Federation. Jónsdóttir said that Efling paid 53 million ISK (€350,000) for membership every year without getting any service. To which Birgisson reacted in an interview with Channel 2 in Iceland:

“The situation is that if you do not do as Sólveig Anna wants you to do, these will be the consequences. That's just the way it is and that's what I've found out. I'm just not the type to allow myself to be forced to cooperate and do things that are against my conscience.” 

So, it would appear these former allies are allies no more.

A placeholder President

But back to the ASÍ assembly in April. When it was clear that Snæbjarnarson did not want to continue as President of the confederation, the unions started to look for someone they could agree on to take over. They found that individual in Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson, who had recently quit as chairman of Byggiðn, which is a union of construction workers in Reykjavík and Akureyri. He agreed to take the position for the remaining term, which is 18 months. Ragnar Þór Ingólfsson was elected First Vice President.

ASÍ leadership

Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson, President, in the middle, with Hjördís Þóra Sigurþórsdóttir, Second Vice President to his right. Ragnar Þór Ingólfsson, First Vice President, is on the far left and Kristján Þórður Snæbjarnarson, Third Vice President, on the far right.

Hermannsson is a very experienced trade union leader. He had been leading Byggiðn and its predecessors for 26 years. He had decided to retire after he quit that job, but since all the leaders could agree on him as President, he chose to accept the job. His career in the labour market has been a good one and he has earned the reputation of being good at settling disputes.

However, Hermannsson is not considered a long-term President – he only intends to remain in the position for one two-year term. So now the question remains – will he be able to unite the trade unions again under the confederation, and will the unions at the end of his term be able to find someone who has the general support of the union? That remains to be seen, but it is clear that the next few months will be a demanding time for the Confederation of Labour.


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