Stefán Ólafsson writes
After the new state mediator arrived on the scene of the labour dispute between Efling and SA (Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise), real negotiations between the parties started for the first time on Wednesday last week. In good faith the negotiations committee of Efling agreed on Thursday night to postpone the strike actions until midnight on Sunday (19 Feb) to facilitate positive bargaining.
A sincere will to bargain and a positive search for solutions was the guiding light of the Efling people in these negotiations. Efling took many steps to get closer to SA. The negotiations were about how to adjust the wage table of Efling members to the circumstances of workers in the capital region and to do that within the margin of the cost of the SGS-contract.
Both parties agreed that the SGS-contract would be cheaper for the companies if it were to apply unchanged to Efling members in the capital region. Efling should therefore be entitled to some extra increases in order for Efling members to get a comparable gain from the contract like the workers who work under the SGS-contract, without increasing the total cost of companies. There were, however, different points of view about the methods of evaluating the cost and about the size of the available leeway.
In reality the negotiations were making progress on Thursday and Friday and both parties were thinking in solutions and made steps forward. A draft was made of an adjusted wage table to accommodate the different composition of Efling members compared to the SGS unions on the countryside and to distribute the wage increases in a different manner from the SGS-contract.
At the end of day on Friday one could assume that there would be a clear way forward to bridge the gap between the two parties regarding the implementation of wage table. The negotiations committee of Efling had declared its willingness to meet SA halfway regarding other changes to the collective agreement that SA were asking for in exchange for this.
The SA Leadership Turned the Tables
It was therefore a big surprise to the Efling negotiators on Saturday when the progress of the bargaining got heavier, even though the discussions were continued about making concessions for the changes in the wage table.
On Sunday morning it became clear that the SA-people had turned the table and did not want to continue on the path which by then had gotten the parties to a position where the differences were minimal. It did not help that SA did not honour its promise that there would be negotiations with representatives from Samskip and the oil distribution companies while the strike was being postponed.
Later when the state mediator called for an overview from each party about the final position of the negotiations in the Sunday afternoon the leadership of SA suddenly painted a unidentifiable picture of its own position where the compromises that they had previously discussed had vanished – just as if the goal was to exaggerate the difference between the parties. This was very strange.
The SA leadership also seems to have been opposed to the possibility of a mediation proposal from the state mediator that would truly be a middle ground between the two parties. The chasm that had to be bridged was well within the framework of what mediation proposals can solve successfully.
After this the leadership of SA has resorted to unprecedented threats about using lockouts against 21.000 Efling members which would paralyse the economy in the capital region instantly on Tuesday next week. It is difficult to see what such a development would achieve other than amplify the effect of the dispute, way beyond the effect that strikes of particular groups could possibly have, and to create chaos in society.
This new step of the SA leadership is presumably conceived as a way of forcing the government to impose an injunction on the strikes of workers, which has not been done for many decades. The occasion is farfetched to say the least in light of the status of the negotiations on Friday and Saturday.
Thus, there is good reason to doubt whether the SA-people really had the will to negotiate this time. But Efling showed in its actions a great willingness to negotiate – in a variety of ways.
The author is professor emeritus at the University of Iceland and works as a specialist for Efling – Union.