Declaration on mediation proposal on March 1

The acting state mediator in the Efling-SA labour dispute presented a mediation proposal today. The content of the proposal is available at the state mediator’s website, here. Further instructions about how to vote on the proposal will also be posted there. The vote will be managed by the office of the state mediator.

What the proposal says

The mediation proposal is in its main items in line with the SA-SGS collective agreement. The proposal contains that contract’s wage table, as well as other clauses, for instance on a higher December bonus, vacation bonus and fish processing bonuses.

All table increases and a general increase of 33,000kr takes effect as of November 1, 2022. The mediation proposal ensures this retroactivity, which will take place at the next payout of wages.

There is a departure from the SGS contract in the mediation proposal in the creation of a new job title for general workers in hotels. These workers are now one wage bracket higher than before.

The proposal is accompanied by a separate agreement on the introduction of a bonus for drivers at Skeljungur and Olíudreifing on driving with hazardous chemicals (ADR). An agreement was also reached with Samskip, raising the supplemental pay in their workplace contract by 28% and raising the wage bracket of drivers with ADR rights by one. These changes take effect as of February 1, 2023.

This mediation proposal is made after consultation with both sides of the dispute, after the way of negotiations has been attempted in full, which is how the law says it should be. This was not the case in the mediation proposal made by Aðalsteinn Leifsson on January 26, which Efling has always considered to be illegal.

A David and Goliath fight

Ever since the last Efling-SA collective agreements expired on November 1, the Efling negotiating committee has fought tooth and nail to get an acceptable contract for Efling members.

This became very difficult after the general workers’ federation SGS signed a contract with SA on December 3, without consulting Efling. From that point on, other unions, SA and the state mediator all pressured Efling to accept that contract without any changes. Efling and its negotiating committee has thus fought for months against overwhelming odds.

Efling argued from the start that the SGS contract wasn’t acceptable to its members. The union felt the contract had lower raises than were needed due to inflation, record profits and capital area housing costs, which are a lot higher than in other regions of the country. Representatives of unions which negotiated the contracts in December have in recent weeks themselves noted that the preconditions of those contracts have been proven wrong, and that they would have needed better protections against inflation.

Despite the reasonable arguments made by Efling and repeated offers (November 29, December 21 and January 8), where the negotiating committee moved gradually closer to its opponent, SA did not express any willingness to do good-faith bargaining. Aðalsteinn Leifsson, the state mediator, did not make any attempts to encourage good-faith negotiations, and did not himself attend a working meeting called by him between Christmas and New Year’s, where the budget for the adaptation of the SGS contract to Efling was going to be discussed, taking into account the different demographics and conditions of Efling members.

Illegal intervention by the state mediator

The dispute began gradually to revolve around whether Efling had an independent right to negotiate its own contract. Instead of getting a discussion going on matters of substance, or trying to conciliate, Aðalsteinn Leifsson chose to force a mediation proposal on Efling on January 26. The timing of the proposal was clearly meant to prevent a strike which Efling had called in the hotels of the Íslandshótel chain.

In direct contravention of the law, Aðalsteinn skipped all consultation with Efling before making his proposal, and neglected his duty to bring the disputants to the table for actual talks. The union rejected this proposal from the start, seeing it as illegal and pointless.

The union also maintained that the office of the state mediator did not have legal standing to extract from the union its voting registry. Efling was confirmed in this view by the ruling of the Landsréttur court on February 13.

Ministers stood by Aðalsteinn

Government ministers offered solid support to Aðalsteinn Leifsson and defended his actions at every opportunity. Labour minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson did not dare, however, to meet Efling representatives to discuss the mediation proposal. Instead, he left the country.

The public statements of Guðmundur Ingi and prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir about the illegal conduct of the state mediator against low wage workers have never been about admitting the indecency of that conduct, but instead about the necessity to change Icelandic labour law. It is surprising to see the majority in parliament react to lawbreaking by blaming the law, rather than focusing on those breaking it, as confirmed by courts.

Unity on effective strikes

The Efling negotiating committee spent a lot of time preparing for strikes. They visited all hotels of the Íslandshótel chain to inform members there about planned strikes and had other meetings with members.

Despite relentless propaganda and threats by both  SA and Íslandshótel owners, members approved the strikes by a clear majority. Efling also won a case filed against it by SA over the legality of the strikes. The strikes started on February 7.

Following on their heels, Efling called strikes in the Berjaya hotel chain, at Reykjavík Edition hotel, and in Samskip, Skeljungur and Olíudreifing. All of them were approved by a compelling majority and with good participation. An exemption committee approved all requests for continuing operations relating to public safety.

The negotiating committee decided, in light of the lockout, not to call the strikes which had been approved among security guards, cleaners and staff of more hotels by a strong majority.

In all, 1,433 Efling members voted in five separate strike ballots in January and February. In all, 1,088 voted for strikes, or about 76%. That is a significantly higher rate of support than in the union’s survey of its members last fall.

Strong, visible, united members

Efling members also expressed their solidarity and fighting spirit in mass gatherings and demonstrations, which are the largest and most powerful seen in the Icelandic labour movement for decades. Participation in these events was wholly optional and not a required to get strike pay.

Demonstrations outside the ministerial residence on February 10 led to Efling representatives getting a meeting with the prime minister. However, she showed the Efling members’ demands and conditions the same apathy as she has at other opportunities, when given a chance to express her view on the historic struggles of low wage workers in this dispute.

Actual talks in February last mere days

Following the Landsréttur ruling, Aðalsteinn Leifsson took himself off the Efling-SA case on February 13, and on February 14, Ástráður Haraldsson was appointed in his place.

The increased heft of the strikes and the shipwreck of Aðalsteinn’s mediation proposal led to SA finally coming to the table on February 15. Late on February 16, the Efling negotiating committee decided to attempt real negotiations with the new state mediator at the helm and paused strikes for three days.

In those negotiations, Efling stretched as far as it possibly could, demonstrating its flexibility and willingness to reach a deal. That was not enough, and SA broke off talks on February 19, even though the gap between the sides was small, only 0-10,000kr separated the two sides in their proposed seniority steps, compared to the SGS contract.

Coercion and empty threats

Rather than bridging the gap by fair concessions, SA decided to declare a lockout on all Efling members working in the private sector on February 22, after a vote on the action. Their purpose was to empty out Efling’s strike fund, to scare Efling members into obeisance, and to pressure the government into siding with SA in the dispute.

Efling declared from the start that the union’s strike fund would not be used to fund this barbarity. Soon, employers’ ranks started cracking, and one of them after another declared themselves exempt from the lockout. A survey of Efling members also brought to light that many employers didn’t dare to give their workers any information on their plans for a lockout, clearly hoping that it wouldn’t happen.

Eventually, the lockout was unilaterally delayed by SA with a 3-day notice today, on February 27. The use of this threat, which was an attempt to start a new and disgusting chapter in the history of Icelandic labour, will not soon be forgotten.

Unity, courage and fighting spirit

Efling declares its pride in the unity, fighting spirit and courage of the union’s members. Their struggle is against an unjust society. Efling has become a motive force for change in Icelandic society. With its struggles in recent months, the union has demonstrated that its transformation into a fighting union won’t be rolled back.

The union encourages its members to vote on the mediation proposal, read up on its contents and decide for themselves what they think of it.

Efling will continue its fight for justice for general and low wage workers, with members out in force, united and visible.