Government orders striking workers in Iceland back to work

Nurses at the Laudspitali National University Hospital in Reykjavik, Iceland began resigning en masse after the government passed legislation on June 12 ordering them back to work without a new contract.

Thousands of supporters of the nurses and other striking workers disrupted Iceland’s National Day celebrations on June 17 with angry demonstrations denouncing the government’s strike breaking actions.

The nurses’ strike began on May 27 after negotiations between the nurses’ union and the national government failed to produce a new labor agreement after the old one expired.

About 1,600 nurses who belong to the Icelandic Nurses Association walked off the job. Another 500 remained on the job to provide emergency services and ensure patient safety.

Before the nurses went on strike, other health care workers in the country had been on strike.

During the last two months, Iceland has been rocked by a number of strikes by all kinds of workers.

In April,  3,000 university workers including professors, graduate students, and research scientist went on and remain on strike.

They have been joined by midwives, x-ray technicians, and veternarians.

On May 28 and 29, workers in the commercial fishing and tourism industry industries, two of the country’s most important economic sectors, conducted limited strike actions.

Industrial workers planned to go on strike on June 6, but that strike has been postponed until June 22 as negotiations between the workers’ unions and the association of businesses continue.

Like the nurses, the other strikers are demanding higher wages.

According to Grapevine, an alternative English-language magazine published and based in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, there is an across the board wage crisis in Iceland.

“Even people earning above median wages have trouble paying basic bills,” reports Grapevine.

It wasn’t always like this in Iceland.

Like its wealthier Scandinavian neighbors, Iceland had a social democratic economy that produced widespread income security.

That began to change in the early 1990s when the government introduced market-friendly policies that began to erode the country’s social democratic principles.

At first, the market was good to Iceland, and prosperity reigned.

But in 2008 the country’s deregulated banking industry collapsed when the worldwide financial crisis hit home.

The entire country struggled, but those who earned their living through work bore the brunt of the crisis.

During the years that followed, wages dropped or were stagnant.

After a long wait, a recovery finally started to take root, but only a few reaped the benefits.

Grapevine reports that while Icelandic workers’ pay is generally lower than their counterparts in other Scandinavian countries, executive pay in Iceland is 5 percent higher.

While workers in the fishing industry were trying to get a decent pay raise to make up for lost ground since 2008, the fishing corporation HB Grandi gave its board members 33 percent increase in annual compensation,

An insurance company VIS went even further and gave its board members a 70 percent increase, which set off a public furor that forced the company to scale back the raise.

The wealthy and corporations have also received generous tax cuts while taxes on food and co pays for health care have increased.

“It seems as if there is more than enough money when it comes to raising wages for executives and people in the highest income brackets,” said Drifa Snaedal, leader of the Federation of General and Special Workers, a federation of 19 unions in the private and public sectors, to Grapevine. “But when workers ask for a living wage, all of a sudden times are really tough and everyone needs to tighten their belts so that we don’t threaten economic stability.”

The government’s strike breaking action affected other striking health care workers as well as the nurses, and it sparked an angry response from unions representing both sets of workers.

“The government is legislating a wage dispute it itself is party to,” which violates the constitutionally protected rights of labor unions, read a statement issued by the nurses’ union and BHM a labor federation whose members include other health care workers on strike.

BHM said that it planned to take legal action against the government.

The new law orders the striking workers back to work until July 1. During that time negotiations between the two sides will continue. If the government and workers’ unions can’t reach an agreement the dispute may be settled by an arbitrator.

There is concern that the government’s new law will set a precedent for other negotiations involving other public sector unions.

The new law appears to bar other public sector unions from striking, said Lára V. Júlíusdóttir, law professor at the University of Iceland, to Iceland Review.

If that is the case, Iceland’s workers may find that strikes–the most effective tool they have to close the growing wage gap between workers and their bosses–will no longer be recognized as legal.