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English Summary – Development of the Labour Movement

Saga ASÍ: Til velferðar

English Summary – Development of the Labour Movement

Iceland’s first labour unions, founded around 1890, were short-lived. But the foundation of the Báran seamen’s unions (the first of which was established in 1894) marks the beginning of continuous union activity in Iceland. One present-day Icelandic labour union, in the southern community of Árborg, is a direct descendant of one of the earliest Báran unions, which was founded in Eyrarbakki.

Around 1900 a number of unions were founded for land-based labourers in Iceland’s growing towns – Reykja vík, Hafnarfjörður, Ísafjörður, Akureyri and Seyðisfjörður. In the early days union organisation was closely linked to the temperance movement, a powerful force in Icelandic society at the time. Many leaders of the early unions had gained experience working abroad or were familiar with union activity in other countries, for instance among Icelandic emigrants in the New World. In its early years the labour movement was overshadowed by the campaign for Icelandic independence from Danish rule, which dominated Icelandic politics.

The period prior to 1916 may be termed the infancy of the union movement. During the first decade of the new century, unions were established which proved long-lasting. The movement was taking its first steps; attempts were made to use strikes as a means of industrial action, and in at least some cases employers were persuaded to accept the unions’ demands, and to recognise their existence. General recognition of the union movement, however, was still a distant prospect. In the early years of the union movement, many workers were paid wages by a scrip system (i.e., in the form of commodities or credit at the company store), and the payment of cash wages was a major campaigning issue.

At that time the emphasis was on self-sufficiency for the working classes. Cooperative organisations were founded to purchase goods in bulk from abroad, thus avoiding the need to do business with the merchants who dominated commerce in Iceland. Efforts were made to establish rules on working hours and wages, and unions established various support funds for their members.

A new era commenced on 12 March 1916 with the foundation of Alþýðusamband Íslands (ASÍ, the Icelandic Confederation of Labour) as an umbrella organisation of workers, and also a political party representing them, Alþýðuflokkur (the Social Democratic Party). The confederation was founded by seven unions in Reykjavík and Hafnarfjörður, one of which represented women workers. After a cautious start in its policies, in 1922 the Confederation agreed a more radical manifesto, reflecting the social-democratic trends of the time. The ASÍ/Social Democratic Party strove to place class at the heart of Icelandic political life.

A general congress of the ASÍ was normally held every other year; the congress elected a National Council, which was responsible for running the ASÍ until the next congress. Congresses were the ASÍ’s most important gatherings, when leaders were elected and policies adopted. Power within the ASÍ was wielded by the smaller Executive Council; in addition the ASÍ elected a Labour Committee and a Political Committee (from 1927), which were responsible for policymaking and leadership in those fields. In 1940 the union activities of the ASÍ were formally separated from the Social Democratic Party.

The ASÍ was a federation of autonomous trade unions, each of which had full freedom to act independently. The ASÍ had little centralised authority – far less than was the rule in neighbouring countries. The unions affiliated to the ASÍ were defined by trade, location and gender. From 1925 regional federations were established; collaboration with their regional bodies was more successful in some areas than in others, both due to political differences and to small union membership. The most active trade union federations were those in North Iceland and the West Fjords. With the exception of a handful of unions in Reykjavík, in the early decades of the ASÍ the affiliated unions had only a small membership. In places where separate unions did not exist for different trades, a single union was often subdivided by trade and gender. After 1930, more employees in industry and services were unionised.

Until 1930 membership of trade unions comprised almost exclusively unskilled workers, many employed in the fisheries sector; in the neighbouring countries, on the contrary, the core of the movement comprised skilled and industrial workers. In the 1930s the ASÍ focussed on organising (unionising) labourers outside the principal urban centres; workers in the largest towns had already been organised into unions before 1930. After 1930 unions were founded by a wider range of workers; tradespeople, industrial workers and those working in service and healthcare sectors. Few commercial/office workers, on the other hand, were willing to join a union affiliated to the ASÍ. In many cases the ASÍ took the initiative in the formation of a union; from the early 1920s this work was carried out by a dedicated member of the ASÍ staff.

During the 1920s membership of the ASÍ rose gradually, and by 1930 about 6,000 people were affiliated via 36 unions. Membership increased rapidly in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression; at that time many unions gained priority right to work for their members. A number of unions remained unaffiliated to the ASÍ, mostly on political grounds. In addition to the union branches, social-democratic societies also functioned within the ASÍ/Social Democratic Party until the union and its political wing formally separated in 1940. In the 1940s the number of unions affiliated to the ASÍ rose rapidly; the union movement reached most social groups and regions of the country; shop/office workers, however, remained outside the ASÍ, and many women too were not unionised.

Employers were far from giving the union movement a warm welcome. They regarded unions as superfluous, and in the early days union membership was not an unmixed benefit. Leaders of the movement often had difficulty finding work, sometimes for long periods. Before long many of the larger unions gained recognition of their existence and their negotiating powers, while smaller unions in the regions were less likely to be recognised. In the 1930s they were still campaigning for recognition, and in some cases they had a fierce struggle on their hands. Around 1930 the large unions gained recognition of priority employment rights for their members, and the smaller unions gradually acquired the same status. This led to a vast increase in union membership, as non-union members had less chance of work. Over time the benefits of union membership became clearer. Union members received higher pay than non-union workers, and union membership conferred various other benefits and rights.

The union movement had thus acquired a position of power in society, and in the 1930s the union movement became one of the most powerful institutions in Icelandic society.

The “Labour Laws” (Unions and Industrial Disputes Act) enacted in 1938 led to an entirely new relationship between the social partners (employers and unions). This act, though controversial, was supported by the ASÍ. It placed certain restrictions on union activity but also granted important rights; crucially, it also formally recognised the unions’ methods, subject to certain conditions.

In 1940 ASÍ underwent a fundamental change when the ASÍ was formally separated from the Social Democratic Party. This led to proposals for reorganisation within the ASÍ, by merging separate unions to form larger, stronger units. Little attention was paid to such proposals, as World War II gave way to the Cold War, and the conflict heightened between social democrats and socialists/communists. In fact, small unions proliferated within the ASÍ.

In the mid-1950s the organisation of the ASÍ, and the need for change, were back on the agenda. A committee was appointed, one of whose proposals was the foundation of regional trade unions, in which the base unit would be the workplace. Another suggestion was that individual industries and trades should have their own federations, to which the unions would be affiliated; the trade federations would in turn be affiliated to the ASÍ. Although considerable effort was devoted to these proposals, they did not meet with the approval of the movement. Unions of unskilled women workers were especially opposed to the proposed changes, which would entail the merging of unions of male and female workers. The proposals also met with opposition in the regions, where some unions felt that power would become centralised in Reykjavík, undermining the role of regional federations.

Shop/office workers had been represented in the ASÍ since the 1930s, but few such employees were members of trade unions as such. Verzlunarmannafélag Reykjavíkur, which had been founded in 1891 as an organisation of employees and employers in commerce, formally became a trade union (Reykjavík Shop and Office Workers’ Union) in 1955. The organisation had already declared its wish to affiliate to the ASÍ in 1952. This came to nothing. In 1960 the National Federation of Shop and Office Workers, in which the Reykjavík union had a powerful position, applied for affiliation to the ASÍ. The application was refused, but a labour court then ruled that the ASÍ must accept the affiliation of the shop/office workers, and this ultimately took place in 1964. The reluctance within the ASÍ to admit the shop/office workers reflected a long-standing antipathy to these groups, while politics were also a factor. The leaders of the shop/office workers’ unions were members of the (conservative) Independence Party, while within the ASÍ radical socialists and communists were often dominant.

The structure of the ASÍ underwent various changes at this time. Some men’s and women’s unions merged in the 1960s. In the Eyjafjörður region of North Iceland, extensive mergers of unions took place. The idea of making the workplace the base unit of the union structure was contrary to half a century of tradition, and to the interests of some individual unions; and this revolutionary proposal gained limited support. In the 1960s and 70s national federations were founded within the ASÍ, for unions within the different sectors of the economy. The federations did not initially live up to expectations, but gradually grew stronger. In 1992 the federations became the formal basis of the ASÍ’s structure. In 2000 national unions became eligible for affiliation to the ASÍ, and in 2010 individual unions could once more be affiliated. These changes were made in response to the fact that individual trade unions had been expanding and growing stronger, and in some cases appeared likely to usurp the role of national federations. Individual unions also negotiated collective agreements, and this undermined the position of the federations.

Around 1990 mergers of trade unions became common. In Reykjavík all the main labour unions in Reykjavík merged into a single organisation at the turn of the 21st century; in other parts of the country unions also merged, sometimes forming a single union for a whole region. Some mergers were geographical, others took place within a specific economic sector. Separate organisations for women workers ceased to exist, as they merged with other unions in the same field. In 2010 seven national unions and five national federations were affiliated to the ASÍ. Larger units were regarded as offering various advantages over smaller unions: they could offer better service to members, their finances would be more robust and a higher degree of expertise would be available.

Since 1938, when the Labour Laws took effect, union membership had effectively (though not formally) been compulsory. Under the Terms of Employment Act of 1980, all collective agreements are made generally applicable for all, regardless of membership – the ergo omnis rule – thus guaranteeing certain minimum rights on the labour market to all. The same act also stipulates that payment of membership fees to the relevant union that provides these minimum rights is compulsory. In the 1990s, following international court rulings and opinions on closed-shop clauses, questions were raised about the legitimacy of the Icelandic system. After debates within the union movement, a decision was made to uphold the provision on priority employment of union members, and the obligation to pay union membership fees, on the grounds that the fees were paid for the union’s service, based on the ergo omnis principle. Membership as such, however, was not obligatory.

At the end of the 20th century union membership declined in many countries. Membership varied greatly from country to country, and was highest in the Nordic countries. The highest figure for union membership was in Iceland, where more than 80% of employees were unionised. Union membership is far lower in many countries, and in some parts of Europe almost negligible.

Pay and Conditions

The ASÍ was founded in 1916, during World War I. During the early years of the ASÍ, living standards declined due to rising prices, but after the war conditions improved. In the early 1920s employers around the country tried to cut wages following an economic recession, and this conflict continued until the end of the decade, when economic conditions improved and wages rose.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, wages were a constant source of conflict, as there was a tendency to cut pay in the economic downturn. The union movement had considerable success in combating such wage-cutting, but those who had only sporadic work or were unemployed were vulnerable; and women were paid much lower wages than men. During the interwar years, the union movement placed great emphasis on self-sufficiency and resourcefulness: people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables, and organisations were founded, under the aegis of the unions, to buy commodities in bulk for the members, following examples from the other Nordic countries. Many people also kept livestock. The union movement established businesses to serve the public good, as did local authorities governed by social democrats. The unions also urged the provision of work relief (publicly funded employment projects for the unemployed), but mainly for men.

In the early days employers and employees did not make collective agreements as such: trade unions simply promulgated their rates. But before long agreements on wages and conditions were being negotiated. There was no formal mediation in such negotiations until 1925, when the office of State Mediator was founded. During the first decades, the ASÍ’s involvement in industrial disputes consisted mainly of negotiating agreements in cases where that had not proved possible locally, and in providing support to new and inexperienced unions in their wage negotiations. The ASÍ also strove to gain recognition for unions, and provided a range of advice and information to individual unions. During the interwar period, the ASÍ thus served primarily as a backer for the individual unions. The ASÍ was a symbol of the importance of solidarity; affiliated unions could look to the ASÍ for support in resolving disputes.

During the early years of World War II (1939–45), a number of economic measures were introduced by the government, including the Arbitration Act, which placed restrictions on wage and price rises. The unions opposed the act; after 1940 when British troops occupied Iceland, demand for labour increased sharply, offering plentiful employment for the first time since the beginning of the Great Depression. The unions adopted a strategy of “guerrilla” tactics against the act, and in due course the wage provisions were repealed; the unions were then able to attain great improvements in pay and conditions.

Purchasing power continued to rise until 1947, but a downturn followed, during which the unions strove to maintain the gains they had made in the past years. During the early 1950s disputes were fierce between unions and employers. In 1956 a left-wing government was formed under the leadership of Hermann Jónasson of the centrist Progressive Party, and this led to a change of attitude in the union world. The ASÍ accepted economic measures which had an impact on the purchasing power of wages. But this collaboration between unions and government lasted only two years, and when it ceased the government was ousted. At that time one of the main issues within the union movement was to equalise (male) workers’ wages in all parts of the country.

In 1959 the (conservative) Independence and Social Democratic parties formed a coalition known as Við-reisnar stjórn (the Restoration Government). Indexation of wages was prohibited, and this had a severe impact on purchasing power. The early 1960s were a period of industrial conflict: the unions used strike action to gain pay increases while the government countered with devaluations of the currency.

The union movement (or parts of it) had displayed an understanding that the important issue was purchasing power, and not simply wage rises. This principle was, however, often disregarded, because the union movement was bound up with the political party system, and tended to place more importance on the campaign against a certain government or political party than on questions of wages and conditions. This pattern was particularly marked during the Cold War, when the dichotomy of capitalism vs. socialism/communism informed politics around the world.

The 1960s, however, saw a change. Within the union movement there was a growing body of opinion that compromise should be a possibility, and that the unions should be able to work with governments, even those led by conservative politicians. After 1963 the union movement and government agreed to change the approach to wage agreements, with the focus on purchasing power instead of wage rises as such. Unions and government agreed to pay attention to various issues, in addition to wages, which were important factors in the standard of living; not least of these issues was housing, which the union movement had neglected for many decades.

At that time government, employers and unions collaborated to enhance efficiency in the economy, and to introduce incentive-based wage systems. Based on models in the USA and in the other Nordic countries, such incentive-based systems were enthusiastically adopted. Before long they were the rule in fish-processing and other sectors, especially in predominantly female workplaces. The system was, however, controversial within the union movement.

The collaborative approach of the 1960s also led to the foundation of a number of bodies which gathered and promulgated data on the economy and wages, and aimed to increase employment (the Wage Investigation Committee, the Economic Institute, the Economic Commission, and various employment committees).

In 1967–69 Iceland experienced a recession, with increased unemployment, but made a rapid recovery. By 1970 the time had come to seek improvements in purchasing power. At that time (1971) a left-wing coalition government took office; left-wing parties other than the Social Democratic Party had not been in government for many years. Purchasing power rose rapidly at this time, but inflation too was high, and the government was ousted in 1974. No compromise could be achieved between the union movement and government about the best means of dealing with the economic situation. During the following years wage indexation was abolished, and purchasing power dropped drastically. The gains of the previous years evaporated.

Under the “Solstice Agreement” of 1977, considerable wage increases were gained, with clear provisions on indexation. But before long the same economic problems recurred, and indexation was restricted. This situation persisted for some years. The government intervened in wage negotiations. Devaluation became one of the main tools in managing the economy. At the same time, workers gained a range of improved rights, in return for lower wage demands; the union movement thus enhanced a variety of social rights for its members. Growing emphasis on these issues also reflected a change of mind-set within the movement. Unions were increasingly joining forces to negotiate collective agreements for large blocs of workers, and this too strengthened their position.

In the 1960s separate pay scales for women were abolished, at about the same time as in the other Nordic countries. Many believed that this would lead to wage parity before long, but that proved not to be the case. A large disparity in men’s and women’s pay persisted, due to such factors as men being more likely to work overtime, and to be paid above the official rates; higher pay levels were also dominated by men. In the 1970s the question of women’s pay became a major issue, at the same time as many more women entered the labour market. Despite the rise of feminism and consciousness of the disparity in wages, progress was slow in closing the gender gap.

In 1983 the government went so far as to ban all wage negotiations, thus defanging the union movement. This met with vociferous protest from the unions. But within the union movement there was growing support for the view that a change of direction was due. The change did not take place all at once, but step by step, starting in 1984. In 1986 an attempt was made to achieve a “national consensus,” which meant that agreements would focus on gradual increases in purchasing power rather than occasional large wage rises. Extensive consultation was to take place between unions, employers’ organisations and government. The “consensus” demonstrated that a change of approach was a possibility, but it did not entirely live up to expectations; within the union movement, opinion was still divided on the virtue of this approach.

The social partners (unions and employers) and the government did not reach an agreement on a changed approach until 1990, with a national consensus agreement which covered most aspects of the economy. Once the consultative approach had been adopted within the union movement, it became dominant in negotiations, and the union movement was less closely bound to political parties. This change took place much later in Iceland than in neighbouring countries. The consultative approach was also adopted much sooner in other sectors of Icelandic life, such as agriculture: farmers’ organisations, for instance, were more or less incorporated into the government system.

The consultative approach meant that strike action became much rarer. Prior to 1990 strikes were commonplace in Iceland; they were frequent, sometimes every year, and they might last for weeks or months. In this, Iceland differed from the other Nordic countries.

After 1990 attitudes changed within the ASÍ, and strikes occurred more and more rarely. Changes in labour law in 1996 were also conducive to less strike action. Strike action was applied for longer by groups of public employees who had gained the right to strike far later than other groups.

The national consensus proved a success in many ways. It achieved its objective, but the economic situation was difficult at that time. Unemployment rose, and many found themselves in financial difficulties. Some Icelanders emigrated. But later in the 1990s conditions improved rapidly as the economy recovered, and considerable pay rises were agreed, generally without much conflict.

The early years of the 21st century saw a brief recession, but otherwise the first decade of the new century was a period of “boom” and rising salaries. But in 2008 the collapse of Iceland’s banks led to upheaval in all sectors of society. Purchasing power fell, and unemployment reached unprecedented levels. The union movement focussed on safeguarding what had been gained; unions debated with government and employers on the most effective response to the recession. It remains to be seen how Iceland will emerge from this fundamental rethink. But the new approaches to industrial disputes which were gradually adopted around the turn of the century are likely to persist.

Under the rules and structure of the union movement, each union had its own individual right to negotiate agreements, and to strike. Prior to 1950 the role of the central leadership was primarily to provide guidelines rather than to participate directly in wage negotiations. The ASÍ, however, was often involved in negotiations on behalf of individual unions or groups of unions. After 1950 centralised negotiations became common: groups of unions, or sometimes a regional federation, collaborated in their wage negotiations. In some cases agreements were made for blocs of workers, for instance in 1952.

Broad collective agreements, which later became the rule, developed mainly in the 1960s and 70s. With consultation between the union movement and government, starting in 1963, the unions were working towards a corporatist approach. Consultation had been tried before, but only intermittently, and it had not become an established approach, as in the other Nordic countries. This was partly due to the structure of the union movement in Iceland. Power was more dispersed than in other countries. The same was true of employers, who belonged to a variety of organisations, and were not as united and organised as the unions. No organisation could speak for all of them, although the ASÍ was the largest group, and often spoke on behalf of employers as a whole.

The broad collective agreements were sometimes criticised for being ponderous and undemocratic: decisions were made by a small group, and it was difficult to take account of the specific issues of individual groups.

This highlighted the conflict between the general good and the interests of individual groups. For much of the 20th century, workers’ social issues were sidelined, due to a lack of solidarity. This changed in the 1960s and 70s. But the broad collective agreements of the late 20th century could lead to specific interests being neglected. Towards the end of the century, there was growing support for the view that both the general good and specific interests must be upheld. Thus central agreements were negotiated on such matters as the scale of wage increases, indexation, pension matters and various other rights; individual unions or groups, on the other hand, could negotiate their own specific issues. Only in 2007 did an agreement take effect within the union movement that this method must be applied.

Rights and Benefits

In the early days of the union movement, workers had hardly any rights, and there was almost no provision for insurance, facilities, equipment, working hours, wages or anything else. And in the early years of the 20th century, the labour market was quite different from what we know today. Employment was often seasonal and sporadic, and permanent jobs were the exception. Unemployment was common, and especially high in the early 1920s and then in the 1930s. Those who were out of work had great difficulty supporting themselves and their families. When resources ran out, people had few options if relatives were unable to help. Charities in Reykjavík, such as Winter Assistance and Mothers’ Aid, sometimes provided help. The situation improved when legislation was enacted in the 1930s introducing social insurance and establishing the duty of government to support those who could not earn a living.

Individual unions soon established funds of various kinds for the benefit of the membership. During its early years the ASÍ operated an employment agency, and also kept records of unemployment; both these functions were later taken on by the government. During the 1920s and 30s the government also organised projects to provide work relief (work for the unemployed), not least due to the efforts of the unions. While work relief was a welcome contribution, many were nonetheless in severe poverty, especially women, who had very limited access to work relief. In the 1930s unemployment and desperation led to social unrest, which was never equalled until the beginning of the 21st century, with the “Kitchenware Revolution” in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. Iceland never approached revolution in the 1930s, although some feared that it might.

Social insurance was very limited until the mid1930s. An important step was taken in 1917, when accident insurance for seamen was introduced. Another step forward was the introduction of universal accident insurance in the mid-1920s. By far the most important step during the interwar years, however, was the enactment of legislation on social insurance and related issues around 1936, introduced by the ASÍ’s political arm, the Social Democratic Party. The social insurance law comprised four main factors: accident insurance, medical insurance, old-age and disability pensions, and finally unemployment insurance. The last of these, however, did not become a reality until two decades later. Nor did the Icelandic Pension Fund see the light of day. The social insurance system developed more slowly in Iceland than in neighbouring countries, and enhanced rights were invariably gained later in Iceland than in the countries with which it is generally compared.

Women workers, for instance, did not generally acquire rights to maternity leave until the mid-1970s. Women public employees, in contrast, had enjoyed such rights since 1954, and in 1956 the right to maternity leave was included in the collective agreements of the Sókn union of unskilled women hospital and welfare workers. The duration of maternity leave was gradually extended over subsequent decades, and ultimately parental leave became the right of both parents. The greatest extension to parental leave rights took place in 2000.

In collective agreements in 1955, the introduction of unemployment insurance was agreed. Such insurance was not generally of great importance, except for short periods, as unemployment was normally low in Iceland. Periods of high unemployment occurred before 1970 and in the early 1990s; following the financial crash of 2008, unemployment reached unprecedented levels, or close to 10%. This is similar to long-term unemployment in some of the neighbouring countries.

The system was changed from time to time, bringing enhanced rights for the unemployed. The Unemployment Insurance Fund, which had been managed by the unions, was taken over by the government and managed by the Directorate of Labour, which also undertook all administration relating to unemployment.

The first pension funds were founded around 1920 for certain groups of high-level public employees, but pension funds only became universal about fifty years later. In collective agreements in 1969, provision was made for pension funds for workers; these funds are funded contributory pensions, and that form was later adopted for all other pension funds in Iceland. Fund boards comprised representatives of unions and employers’ organisations. Pension funds got off to a rocky start, due both to their small size and to high rates of inflation. In the 1990s many small pension funds merged in order to achieve economies of scale.

Under legislation passed in 1974, it became obligatory for all wage earners to pay into a pension fund, and in 1980 it became obligatory also for the self-employed. In 1986 an agreement was made that required employers and employees to make pension contributions on all earnings. In 1995 the social partners (unions and employers’ organisations) reached a new agreement on pensions, though without fundamentally altering the nature of the funds. At that time, there was some interest in the idea of reducing or even abolishing the collective nature of pension funds, so that pension provision would become a matter for the individual. While the system was not changed in this manner, people gained more personal choice, and could put aside personal pension savings. The financial crash of 2008 had a severe impact on the finances of the pension funds, and this gave rise to new debate on their structure.

In the early decades of the 20th century, housing was a major problem for the poorest sector of Icelandic society, not least due to mass migration into growing urban centres. Many were forced to pay exorbitant rents for poor and insanitary housing, and overcrowding was common. The first efforts to address this problem were made around 1920 with the foundation of the Reykjavík Building Society. A far bigger step followed in 1929 with the enactment of legislation on workers’ housing. The homes constructed under this act were a form of social housing, but they were owned by the residents. They could not be resold on the open market, but were re-allocated to members of the workers’ building societies. While this social housing was an important step forward, it fell short of expectations and was far from meeting the demand for housing, as far fewer homes were built than had been envisaged.

After the launch of workers’ housing, for many years the union movement paid scant attention to this issue. Workers’ housing, however, was built by other bodies, such as cooperative building funds run by employees’ organisations, and in some cases local government. But housing remained a grave problem in many parts of the country until well into the 1960s. In the capital, Reykjavík, a major drive was launched in the late 1960s when low-cost housing was built in the new suburb of Breiðholt, following an agreement between the union movement and government. A boost was given to the workers’ housing system in the 1970s and 80s. The union movement held fast to the principle of private ownership of social housing; in this Iceland differed from neighbouring countries. But the movement also urged the need for more rental housing.

By the end of the 20th century, the role of the unions in housing was much reduced. State-funded housing loans had made home ownership a more attainable goal for many Icelanders. The system of privately owned social housing was abolished in the late 1990s, and in 2002 owners gained the right to sell their homes on the open market. After the demise of the social housing system, unions have focussed on calling for increased availability of rental housing; they have also called for equalisation of the position of those buying and renting homes, and for rent subsidies.

During the early days of the union movement, there were few restrictions on working hours, with the exception of established practice. Workers worked the hours demanded by the employer. Before long, however, unions started to negotiate limitations on working hours: in 1919, for instance, printers made an agreement that the working day should be eight hours. Ordinary workers worked far longer hours. An important stage was marked in 1921 when trawlermen made an agreement restricting their working hours, gaining an entitlement to at least six hours’ rest in every twenty-four.

Children were an important part of the workforce in the early 20th century, and they were often exploited, with long working hours. Restrictions on children’s working hours were introduced only in the late 1940s, although collective agreements had in some cases included provisions on children’s work.

In 1972 legislation was enacted defining the working week as forty hours, but this had little effect on the actual hours worked by most employees, who worked far longer hours throughout the period covered here. Working hours in Iceland have generally been far longer than in the countries with which Iceland compares itself. But restrictions on working hours were gradually introduced through new regulations (e.g., in 1980). The major changes took place in the mid-1990s, after Iceland entered the European Economic Area (EEA) and had to comply with European regulations.

Leisure time, with the exception of Sundays and traditional church holidays, was not a familiar concept to the workers of the early 20th century. Holiday rights were an unknown phenomenon. The first steps toward holiday entitlement were taken in the mid-1920s by printers, but otherwise little happened until the 1930s, when several unions negotiated twelve days’ summer holiday entitlement. At this time, the first possibilities of going away from home for a holiday were introduced.

A holiday entitlement of twelve days was enacted into law in 1943. Many used these days off to do other work. Opportunities to take holidays gradually increased, as did interest in making use of this entitlement. At that time, workers were offered holiday accommodation, for instance in boarding schools which stood empty during the summer. The Icelandic union movement lagged far behind those in the other Nordic countries with respect to holidays. “Teaching” people to go on holiday was a long process; one aspect of this was the provision of holiday cabins for workers. The ASÍ acquired land near Hveragerði in South Iceland, where a large number of summer cabins (at Ölfusborgir) were built in the 1960s. Many more such clusters of summer cabins were built in the following years. The union movement was also keen to encourage people to travel abroad, and in 1973 it purchased a travel agency. The union movement was involved in running the agency for the next twenty-five years, and offered affordable holiday deals for union members. The unions also collaborated with union movements in Scandinavia, making summer cabins there available to Icelandic union members.

Health and safety at work were not a high priority in the early years of the union movement, although the situation was in need of drastic improvement. The working conditions of most working people were far from satisfactory for much of the 20th century. Conditions were often poor and the work strenuous, for women as much as men. Workplace accidents and injuries were commonplace, and equipment and clothing were often inadequate. The early decades of the 20th century, however, saw a major improvement in footwear, when rubber shoes and boots replaced traditional thin homemade shoes made of sheep leather.

Training in the handling of machinery and chemicals was lacking. There was little monitoring of workplaces by public bodies, although legislation in 1928 provided for monitoring of factories and machinery.

It was not until the 1970s that the union movement first prioritised health and safety issues. This was partly attributable to growing prosperity, and partly to influence from the other Nordic countries. Issues included ventilation, noise, ergonomics and workload. Campaigning by the unions led to the enactment of the Conditions, Health and Safety in the Workplace Act in 1980, followed by the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A system of health-and-safety stewards was also established to monitor workplaces. Progress was regarded as slow, however. But extensive changes were achieved in the following decades, thanks to increased monitoring and efforts by the union movement and the relevant public bodies: this applied to quality of buildings and facilities, lavatories, ventilation and workplace hygiene. After Iceland joined the European Economic Area (EEA) in the 1990s, stricter provisions had to be introduced regarding workplace conditions, as Icelandic regulations fell short of the European regulations which now had to be implemented.

An amended Health and Safety Act of 2003 extended the scope of the legislation to such factors as wellbeing in the workplace, including stress, and preventing bullying and other unacceptable behaviour.

Until the last years of the 20th century, there were few foreign workers in Iceland, and work permits were subject to stringent rules. Around 1980 the number of foreigners working in Iceland began to rise, especially in fish processing and certain other sectors of the economy. In the economic “boom” of the early 2000s, people flooded into Iceland to work, and the foreign workforce reached a proportion similar to that in neighbouring countries. Various problems arose from this changed situation: some employers failed to respect the rights of such workers, and in some cases did not even arrange for formal work and residence permits. Many cases arose of poor accommodation and food being provided to guest workers; wages were not paid in accord with collective agreements and legal requirements; and workers were even denied their right to speak freely. Social dumping became a reality in Iceland. These issues became a major part of the work of the union movement in the early years of the new century; once again the union movement had to address issues of workers’ fundamental rights, just as in the early days of the movement. Similar problems were faced in neighbouring countries at this time.

Gender Equality

Until the latter half of the 20th century, the union movement was largely the preserve of male workers; they were perceived as family breadwinners, while women were deemed to be under their care and protection. The ASÍ did, however, support the unionisation of women workers, while the Women’s Rights Association also made an important contribution. It was taken for grant ed that pay rates were lower for women than men, and for many decades women had little voice within the movement. Women only began to make their mark within the union movement in the latter half of the 20th century, when increasing numbers of women joined the labour market. Separate unions for men and women were commonplace, and far more common than in neighbouring countries. Many trade unions, however, were unisex from their foundation, including unions of industrial workers. But women played little part in the leadership of such unisex unions, and there were few women in the ASÍ leadership (sometimes none).

The leadership of the Social Democratic Party (the political branch of the ASÍ) included few women; the party had an even poorer record than other political parties. “Women’s issues” were rarely on the agenda at ASÍ congresses in the first half of the 20th century; some labour leaders even seemed to be of the view that women’s unions should be focussing on welfare issues rather than pay and conditions.

In the 1950s signs of change could be seen, both in Alþingi (parliament) and in the union movement. Women began to make themselves heard. But it is a sign of the times that it was not until 1955 that the ASÍ held its first conference on women’s pay and conditions. The ASÍ’s then president was keen to champion women’s interests more than had been the case before.

In the late 1950s women workers began to demand equal pay with male workers and the abolition of special pay scales for women. A few unions had already achieved this before 1950. At the same time, emphasis was placed on equalising women’s pay in all regions of the country, and this was largely achieved by 1960. The abolition of separate pay rates for women was not achieved until the 1960s, with the enactment of the Equal Pay Act in 1961, after which unions phased out separate pay scales. In spite of ongoing efforts and legal provisions, the pay discrepancy between men and women has not been eliminated. A tendency emerged for men’s jobs to be assessed at higher pay levels while women’s work was valued at the lower pay rates. Even today there is a sizable unexplained disparity between men’s and women’s pay.

Organisations and political movements outside the union movement as such have had a great influence upon progress towards gender equality: the Women’s Rights Association, founded in 1907, campaigned about women’s pay and conditions and encouraged the foundation of the first women’s trade union in Reykjavík; in the 1970s the Red Stockings brought the ideology of Women’s Liberation to Iceland, leading to the foundation of a feminist political party, the Women’s Alliance, in the 1980s. The Organisation of Women in the Labour Market was also founded in the 1980s, as was the Executive Committee on Women’s Pay. All these groups campaigned actively for gender equality and had an impact on debate about women’s status within the union movement.

From the early days it was hard for women to reach any position of influence within the union movement. In 1972 only one woman sat on the ASÍ Executive Council. But from the early 1980s women gained a bigger place in the leadership of the ASÍ. Since 1984 the vice presidents of the ASÍ have all been women, although no woman has yet served as president. In 2010, 40% of the Executive Council were women. The ASÍ has had an Equality Officer since 2005.

Media, Culture, Education

Until about 1960 people generally walked to work, cycled or used public transport; car ownership did not become common until the 1960s, when travelling by private car became the norm. Conditions in the workplace were variable; in many workplaces there were no rest or eating facilities for much of the 20th century. By mid-century, however, a growing number of workplaces started to provide refreshment rooms and staff canteens. After 1960 demands for such facilities increased, and conditions gradually improved. In some cases there was little progress until the end of the century. The situation was especially poor on construction sites, and for migrant workers. In the 1980s these groups demanded better conditions. In the early years of the 21st century, when large numbers of workers came into Iceland from abroad, provision of facilities and accommodation for them was in many cases far from adequate.

In the first half of the 20th century, ordinary Icelanders ate a simple and monotonous diet. Even milk was a luxury to the low-paid, and at times of unemployment many families went without. People did their best to provide for themselves and their families, and the union movement was supportive of such efforts. Growing one’s own vegetables, keeping some livestock and going out fishing were among the resources available to those living in the regions. But residents of Reykjavík had fewer options. After 1960 the subsistence lifestyle gave way to the developing consumer economy – first in Reykjavík, then in the regions also. People had generally taken a packed lunch to work, but with staff canteens this became rarer.

Meal breaks at work were an important forum of social life: stories were told and card games were played. As the 20th century progressed, organised social events for staff became common, especially in large workplaces. Choirs and sports clubs were operated, and social events such as the Þorrablót (feast of traditional Icelandic delicacies in late winter), the annual dinnerdance and staff trips became fixtures. Those who lived and worked in the regions might make a trip to Reykjavík; and in the late 20th century staff might even fly abroad for their dinner-dance.

From the infancy of the union movement, unions offered a range of educational and cultural options to their members, such as evening schools and lectures. The ASÍ offered few such activities during the interwar years; programmes were mostly operated by individual unions and committees. But there was great interest in educational issues within the ASÍ, as the educational work of union movements in Scandinavia was well known.

The union movement generally placed great emphasis on social activity and promoting “folk culture.” This entailed building up an ideology and customs which would reinforce people’s sense of class identity, as a group with its own interests and culture. This approach followed the example of movements in neighbouring countries, as well as international movements and Icelandic groups such as youth associations and the temperance movement. In this context great importance was attached to certain symbols such as songs, flags and “People’s Houses,” social centres run by unions. Various entertainments and trips were organised, at which sobriety was an indispensible requirement. By drunkenness the proletariat simply played into the hands of their class enemies, in the ideology of the time. May Day (International Workers’ Day since 1889, first marked in Iceland in 1923) also had great symbolic significance for the union movement, as an opportunity to demonstrate its power. In 1935–37 the ASÍ had the Reykjavík People’s House built, and various unions around the country also bought or built such centres. The edifices were evidence of the movement’s autonomy and strength, built by the united efforts of the membership. In 1930 the ASÍ opened an office, and at around that time the larger unions opened offices which were open for some hours a day.

In 1937 the Workers’ Education Association was founded, to publish material and hold courses. The relationship between the ASÍ and the Workers’ Education Association was short-lived, however, since when the Social Democratic Party and the ASÍ formally separated in 1940, the Workers’ Education Association followed the party.

At the ASÍ congress in 1968, the Workers’ Education Association was re-established, fulfilling a longcherished dream of the union movement and the ASÍ’s leadership. The association organised a variety of activities, starting with courses and reading circles. In 1975 the Union Training College was founded; its role was to provide training and education to prepare people for leadership within the union movement. Training courses for shop stewards soon became an important part of its work.

In the 1980s the Workers’ Education Association started to offer a broader range of adult-education options, and in 1986 it purchased another adult-education organisation, Tómstundaskólinn, which merged in 1995 with the Mímir language school. The association also published a newsletter and books, issued records, and participated in dramatics and musical events. It collaborated closely with sister organisations in the other Nordic countries.

Adult education and continuing education were not prioritised in Iceland until the latter years of the 20th century. Once an individual had completed his/her education or training, little provision was made for any further training or retraining. Those who had received little formal education had limited options. The first steps in this field were taken in the 1960s and 70s, in vocational training. In the late 1980s there was an awakening, which led to widespread retraining for unskilled workers. In 1992 the Skills Training Act was passed, after which skills-training funds were established, with contributions from government and employers. Lifelong-learning centres were established around the country. Today education/training is one of the pillars of the work of the ASÍ and its affiliates; thus the high hopes attached to the foundation of the Workers’ Education Association may be said to have come true.

A historical collection/archive of the union movement was established in 1974; union leadership had long wished to found such a body, similar to those in neighbouring countries. The collection started out with high hopes, and gathered a range of documents about the history of the movement. It went into decline in the 1990s, however, and closed down in 2002. Its archives were placed in the National Archives. The ASÍ Art Museum (which houses the union’s art collection) was founded in 1961, when entrepreneur/art collector Ragnar Jónsson bequeathed his art collection to the ASÍ. After some time a satisfactory home was found for the collection: first on Grensásvegur, now in Ásmundarsalur on Freyjugata in Reykjavík. In addition to its own exhibitions and publications, the art museum makes galleries available for artists’ shows. It is one of Iceland’s leading art institutes.

Social democrats started to publish newspapers in the early 20th century but they remained precarious until the launch of Alþýðublaðið (The People’s Paper) in 1919. The newspaper gained a large readership in the 1930s but publication was always difficult due to financial constraints. Many other socialist and communist papers were published around the country.

In 1942 the ASÍ launched its periodical Vinnan (Work). The union movement had not had its own media voice before that time, although various attempts had been made.

Vinnan was published regularly until 1950, and then intermittently for a time, and more regularly once again after 1954. For a quarter of a century beginning in 1973, Vinnan was an important means of communication for the ASÍ with the membership and society. The form and frequency of publication varied: at times it was published monthly in newspaper format and at other periods only a few issues a year were published. The financial basis of the publication was always fragile.

Since the turn of the new century, Vinnan has been published once or twice a year. Since 1977 the ASÍ has also published a newsletter. Today the website www.asi.is is the ASÍ’s principal interface with the membership and the public.

Politics and the Labour Movement

Politics and the labour movement have always been indissolubly linked. The original Workers’ Federation, founded in 1906, was thus conceived as a political party as much as a network of trade unions. The same applied to the ASÍ/Social Democratic Party: it was a political party as well as an organisation of unions. It had a political agenda which was as important as its focus on workers’ interests.

From the beginning of the 20th century, the union movement strove to acquire a position of influence in local and national government. A group representing labour unions first stood for election to the Reykjavík Town Council in 1908, and many more such candidacies followed. By the 1920s they had become a part of the political landscape in many larger communities. Union groups had considerable success in many parts of the country, and in some of the largest communities they gained a majority in local government in the interwar years, although never in Reykjavík.

The first Social Democratic Party member of Alþingi (parliament) was elected in 1916. The party had only small representation in parliament until 1927. Even after universal suffrage was nominally introduced in 1915, provisions on age and financial status continued to restrict voting rights until the 1930s. The Social Democratic Party first took office in 1934 in the coalition government known as the Government of the Working Classes; the party had achieved a resounding success in the general elections of that year, at the height of the Great Depression. The party strove to introduce social intervention in the economy, with direct government involvement and planning. Above all, the party’s aim was to improve the conditions of working people, and in this it made great progress during the 1930s.

As early as 1920 a division began to form in the Icelandic socialist movement between the more radical (communist) and less radical wings. The first communist groups formed in the early 1920s, within the Social Democratic Party/ASÍ, but did not become influential in this forum, except in North Iceland. The two factions grew ever farther apart. Many hoped that the differing groups could maintain solidarity, but the communist faction was determined to found a separate party, in accord with the policy of the Communist International. The Icelandic Communist Party was founded in 1930.

When the ASÍ was founded, it was regarded as natural that the union federation and the political party should be a single organisational entity; at that time the union movement had yet to establish itself. But from the mid-1920s this system started to be questioned. Dominant factions within the ASÍ saw no reason to change the arrangement, especially since some unions also functioned as party branches. But communists and many others favoured the separation of party and unions; they maintained that many workers were unwilling to join unions, precisely because of the bond with the Social Democratic Party. This was true of numerous unions, especially those where communists were influential. Following an ASÍ resolution of 1930, only Social Democratic Party supporters were eligible to stand for office within the ASÍ, and to be delegates to the ASÍ congress.

After 1930 the relationship between social-democratic and communist factions deteriorated, sometimes into open war. In places where communists had gained control, social democrats and the ASÍ founded new, rival unions – and with some success. Communists, on the other hand, unstintingly waged what they saw as a war on capitalism. Communism in Iceland, however, was weakened in the early 1930s by internal disputes and extreme radicalism.

In the latter half of the 1930s the ASÍ appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the battle with communism; the North Iceland Labour Federation, which had been communist-dominated, collapsed. By that time the communists had changed their tune and called for solidarity between communists and social democrats against fascism. This proved successful, gaining support from within the Social Democratic Party; efforts were made to merge the two left-wing parties (Social Democratic and Communist parties). While the merger did not take place, the position of the Social Democratic Party was weakened, and in 1938 the party split, one faction joining forces with the communists. Among them was parliamentarian and union leader Héðinn Valdimarsson, vice president of the ASÍ. This led to the foundation of a new Socialist Party, while the Communist Party was abolished. The communist/socialist group campaigned, along with working-class conservatives, for the separation of the ASÍ from the party. This issue had growing support within the union movement, not least after many unions had gained recognition of their members’ priority right to work. In 1938 the (right-wing) Independence Party started to organise conservative workers within the unions, and had a considerable impact within the movement.

In Iceland social democrats were not as successful in their efforts against communism as in the neighbouring countries; there were certain exceptions, however, such as in the West Fjords, where the communist faction lost all influence. At the ASÍ congress of 1940, social democrats agreed to the separation of the Social Democratic Party from the ASÍ. This had been agreed among the so-called “democratic parties,” that is, the Independence (conservative), Progressive (centrist) and Social Democratic parties, before the formation of a “National Government” in 1939. Before the separation of party and ASÍ, unions outside the ASÍ had formed their own Federation of Icelandic Unions; this was now abolished, and most of its affiliated unions joined the ASÍ. The ASÍ grew stronger after the separation, while the influence of social democrats declined.

At the ASÍ congress of 1942, socialists and social democrats achieved an agreement on the governance of the ASÍ, after which efforts were made to merge unions which had their roots in political differences. This agreement lasted only until the next congress, in 1944, when factions from the Socialist and Independence parties agreed to collaborate.

The ASÍ played an important role in the formation of the “Innovation Government” (1944–46) of Independence, Socialist and Social Democratic parties. At that time a national consensus was reached, in order to give the government scope to function effectively; the ASÍ and the Confederation of Employers were both parties to that process. The ambitious ideas of the government came to nothing due to the polarising influence of the Cold War. Within the ASÍ, socialists and their allies remained in control until 1948, when social democrats gained the upper hand, to remain in control until 1954. At that time the ASÍ leadership had the backing of the US government.

Conflict grew fierce between the factions within the ASÍ, led by social democrats on one side and radical socialists/communists on the other. This had a drastic effect upon the union movement, and certain unions were even expelled from the confederation. In 1954 social democrat Hannibal Valdimarsson became president of the ASÍ after allying himself with the socialists. He remained in that office for over fifteen years, during which conflict continued within the ASÍ. The Icelandic union movement differed considerably from those in neighbouring countries. In most of the neighbouring countries, left-wing radicals lost their influential position in the 1950s while conservatives played little part in the union movement. The reverse was true in Iceland.

The ASÍ played a major role in the formation of the left-wing government of 1956–58, in which the ASÍ’s president, Hannibal Valdimarsson, was Minister of Social Affairs.

Dissension arose between the government and the ASÍ, however; in 1958 the unions refused to participate in talks with the government about economic measures. This was a grave setback for Hannibal Valdimarsson, who had hoped to introduce into Iceland the “Nordic model,” under which left-wing parties collaborated, or preferably merged into a single radical social-democratic party, and the labour movement and left-wing parties worked together to achieve a fairer welfare society. The attempt failed.

During the 1960s the atmosphere within the ASÍ changed for a number of reasons; the political polarisation of the Cold War grew less extreme. Within the union movement there was a greater willingness for compromise and consultation on pay and conditions and on the economy. In 1968 a kind of all-party National Council was appointed.

The two left-wing parties, the Social Democratic Party and the (socialist) People’s Alliance, long dominated the union movement. Sometimes they worked together while at other times they opposed each other and allied themselves with the (conservative) Independence Party. But this intimate bond between political parties and the union movement grew less strong toward the end of the 20th century, for a variety of reasons. A change of attitude gradually came about: the government was perceived not as an ally or an enemy but as a body with which to negotiate. In the late 1980s the relationship between the unions and their traditional allies on the political left deteriorated, and the influence of political parties within the movement declined.

International Ties

In Iceland’s neighbouring countries, the union movement became established in the late 19th century; in Norway, Denmark and Sweden confederations of labour were founded before 1900. The union movements in Scandinavia were based upon the German model, and applied the ideas and structures of the German movement.

In 1926 the ASÍ joined the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The collaboration with the ITUC was important, but even more important to the ASÍ was the relationship with labour confederations in the other Nordic countries and the sister parties of the Social Democratic Party. The party had close links with its Scandinavian sister parties, especially the Danish one. In 1937 formal collaboration was established with Nordic labour confederations and social-democratic parties, but before that Icelandic delegates had attended meetings. Some Icelandic unions, such as the Reykjavík Seamen’s Union, also established collaboration with their equivalent organisations at an early stage. In 1923 the union became affiliated to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

Disrupted by World War II, collaboration among Nordic labour confederations resumed after the war. The Icelanders, however, were regarded with some suspicion after socialists gained control of the ASÍ. After the war great emphasis was placed upon the global unification of labour confederations, and the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was founded in 1945. This unity was short-lived, however, and in 1949 the majority of labour confederations in Western Europe left the WFTU and affiliated themselves instead with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The ASÍ changed over in 1950.

After socialists had gained control of the ASÍ in 1954, links were also established with labour federations in Eastern Europe; this was highly unusual for a NATO nation at the height of the Cold War. Many visits were made to countries behind the Iron Curtain. These bonds with the Soviet bloc met with disapproval from many other Western European labour federations; this is one indication of the unusual nature of the labour movement in Iceland.

Although a certain recognition existed in Iceland that links with comrades abroad was a good idea, real interest in such collaboration was limited, and mainly confined to times of heated labour disputes; internationalism also arose in connection with political issues relating to the Cold War.

Interest in internationalism began to rise in Iceland in the late 1970s and 1980s, with growing recognition that Icelanders could learn from their neighbouring countries and developments in their labour movements. Individuals who had studied in Scandinavia also took on a larger role within the labour movement, both in the ASÍ and in the Workers’ Education Association.

The Council of Nordic Trade Unions or Nordens Fackliga Samorganisation (NFS) was founded in 1972. The ASÍ took little part in it until around 1980. At that time collaboration was also increasing with Iceland’s nearest neighbours – Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

The ASÍ also collaborated with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose resolutions on various workers’ rights had global influence. By 1990 the ASÍ was more active in the European arena, not least within the Council of Nordic Trade Unions, which was playing a growing role in establishing a coordinated response within the Nordic labour movement to the changes taking place within the European Community (from 1993 European Union) and participating in the formulation of proposals regarding public welfare and rights. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) was the principal forum in Europe for debate on workers’ interests and rights. Many improvements to workers’ rights were agreed at this level, and it was the task of the national labour confederations to follow up and win recognition of the rights in their individual countries. The links between the ASÍ and the international labour movement, not least in Scandinavia and in Europe as a whole, thus gave rise to important gains in the rights of workers.


Until the early 1920s the labour movement was in its formative phase. Unions were founded: some pros pered, others fizzled out. Unions tested their muscles in wage negotiations and occasionally went on strike. The emphasis was on self-sufficiency, and estab lish ing minimum rights with respect to pay and working hours.

By the 1920s and 30s, solidarity was growing, and Iceland had more, and stronger, trade unions. At the same time the unions had become the champion of social democracy, which was a unifying force, and their political perspective was clearer than before. At that time unions won recognition of their right to negotiate on behalf of their members; the principle that wages should be paid in accord with collective agreements (under the Labour Laws of 1938); the principle that society should take some responsibility for the welfare of the workless (by work relief projects); and priority rights to work for union members, and hence de facto obligatory union membership. At that time the union movement was also recognised as one of the major power bases of society; the movement had grown so strong that it succeeded in having some of its demands adopted as fundamental features of society, such as the Social Insurance Act.

The period from the end of World War II in 1945 until about 1960 was characterised by constant conflict over pay, with far less emphasis on social issues, such as housing. The union movement strove to safeguard what had been gained. Attempts were made to introduce corporative methods between unions and the government in 1944–6 and 1956–8, but these were short-lived. There was disunity within the union movement, and fierce political conflict along partisan Cold War lines. The (conservative) Independence Party made inroads into the union movement.

Broad-based consultation was attempted in the 1960s. Collective agreements were made specifying purchasing power rather than wages in purely nominal terms. The focus was shifted to other important issues that had been neglected, and this was successful. The 1970s and 80s were a period of runaway inflation. Although no overall consensus was achieved on pay policy, there was nonetheless extensive collaboration between the union movement and the government. This led to the recognition of a range of important social rights at this time: the Terms of Employment Act; the Conditions, Health and Safety in the Workplace Act; a housing drive; and so on. These successes are partly attributable to growing centralisation within the labour movement; the importance of these issues was also more widely recognised than before. The standard of living had also improved. At the same time, the union movement was strengthening its own organisations. Experts in various fields were employed by the movement and went on to become leaders. The movement’s long-cherished dream of a robust educational body became a reality, and the union movement acquired its own art collection.

In the 1980s the foundation was laid for a national consensus – a broad-based consultation between the government and the social partners (unions and employers’ organisations) – with the intention of achieving collective agreements that would safeguard purchasing power. This marked an important turning point. The old confrontational style of labour dispute, with strikes, became largely a thing of the past. The labour movement played an important role in gaining further important rights, not least in the field of education and training, as well as maternity (now parental) leave, and also achieved improvements in the position of the unemployed.

At the same time, however, neolibertarians started to target the labour movement. Growing globalisation made its mark on the union movement, both in Iceland and internationally, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Doubts were cast upon the value of the union movement; it was alleged that the movement placed unfair restrictions on freedom of employment, and that economic growth was lower in unionised societies than in less unionised ones.

Looking back over the history of the union movement, and comparing its present-day role with its early days, it transpires that much remains the same while much has also changed. The main role is of course to deal with pay and conditions, to negotiate pay agreements and to safeguard rights which have been won; but the movement also has an important service role for its members, and it has undertaken important roles in social insurance and education. Today’s union movement operates a robust educational system, a network of holiday cabins for members, disability funds and legal aid.

In 2005 the labour movement looked back over the past and summed up its achievements as follows * Skýrsla forseta um störf Alþýðusambands Íslands árið 2005 The labour movement has achieved enormous successes in many fields, and has been a leading force in the creation of a welfare society. In many cases the movement has provided strong leadership for the workers of Iceland; but at certain periods it became caught up with partisan rivalries.

  1. Recognition of workers’ right to establish and operate trade unions.
  2. Recognition that labour unions have an impor-tant role in shaping the labour market.
  3. Recognition of the right to negotiate pay and conditions as a fundamental human right.
  4. Recognition by society that the labour movement has a right to have an influence on the working environment and the workplace.
  5. The labour movement has made an important contribution to the introduction of a wide range of rules on the working environment, facilities and collective agreements.*

It is hard to assess attitudes to the union movement in Iceland, but some indication is provided by opinion polls. Union membership is not a reliable indicator because ever since the early 1930s it has been all but obligatory for employees to belong to a union. When attitudes to the movement were explored in the mid-1990s, widespread public support for the union movement was revealed: the majority saw unions as a necessity, and two out of three felt that all employees should belong to a union. Women voiced especially strong support for union membership. The survey also revealed, however, limited interest in working within the movement. A far lower proportion were interested in attending union meetings, for instance, than in Denmark and Sweden, where nearly half the members of unions affiliated to the federations of labour attended union meetings. Young people were especially reluctant to attend meetings.** The position of the labour movement was thus strong, yet also weak. Its importance was generally recognised but few were prepared to make much effort for it.

In 2005 the ASÍ congress discussed its vision of the future. The conclusion was that the greatest emphasis must be placed on three factors: the conventional issues of pay and conditions; the working environment and the workplace; and influencing society. Great emphasis was placed on the working environment, and on employees having the greatest possible say in their working environment. It was maintained that the unions must increasingly define themselves in terms of quality of life, since the workplace has such an important role in such matters: for instance wellbeing in the workplace, opportunities for advancement, gender equality, the greatest possible participation in work, the position of older people and those with disabilities, and finally education and training.***After the economic collapse of 2008, there are many indications that the labour movement will, in the coming years, have to return to the same issues with which it started and defend the fundamental values it has fought for throughout its history: decent pay and conditions; justice; job security; and acceptable facilities. There are also many indications that the movement will have to redouble its efforts in certain fields, such as equality, housing and environmental issues.

The work of the labour movement is far from done.

Translated by Anna Yates