Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Water delivery - 1900s Iceland. Paid a pittance for wrenchingly hard work despite its importance.
Today is the first of May, in Iceland much as elsewhere in the world. It is one of our thankfully numerous national holidays and is in place to honour labourers. Although its origins go back to 1889 in Paris, the first labour demonstrations on the first of May took place in 1923 in Iceland and it was not until 1966 that it became a public holiday.

A lot has changed since then. Most of our labour leaders look like chairmen from a corporate board, they wear suits and drive expensive cars – allowed a more lavish lifestyle than those they are to represent by quite high salaries paid out of the union members’ fees. Although I am not a labourer and would suck at it – I would prefer my union leader to be more akin to an actual labourer than a bank manager. I would also like to see more female labour leaders in a country that prides itself on being pretty darn good when it comes to gender equality.

So as to avoid any misunderstanding – there are some good labour leaders here that seem to have at one point held a tool in their hand and not solely a pen or a handkerchief. And there are some women.

I am not a political analyst. But one can’t but help hear the rhetoric come elections and on the average weekday when in the papers. It seems to me that when it comes to politics nowadays, no one is as much as pretending to champion a labourer’s cause. There is simply no political movement that focuses on labour issues, aside from those related to the whole gender ratio thing. The left, which used to take workers under their wing appear to have abandoned the working class – left them to fend for themselves because they are too busy snuggling up to higher education. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not against university education. I just find it a bit of a stretch to think that this is what everyone wants to engage in. If someone wants to work in a day-care centre for the pittance on offer, why push this same person into first obtaining a master’s degree? This is now the case in Iceland, a lot of professions that did not require university degrees now do. Not because of any pressure from the people that do the jobs but by misguided political decisions and in some cases via pressure from the unions – probably propelled by the thought that an education requirement will automatically raise salaries in the field. Which does not happen and their people end up worse off, now paying student loans from their meagre salaries and having lost three to five years of employment while they obtain the required degrees.

And why is there no one promoting the trades or encouraging those so inclined to go for it? Perhaps it boils down to naivety for lack of a better descriptive term. A lot of people now look down on hard work although they do not realise it. Quite the opposite. They believe themselves to be freethinkers and liberal. But they really aren’t. Is there something less fancy about being a carpenter than being an economist as an example? No. Of course not.

As is typical of Iceland my group of friends and my extended family do all sorts of thing for a living. You do not socialise within a single layer of the social strata here. That is not possible, we are too few and too close for such arrangements. My maternal grandfather was a day labourer at the docks. His life was hard. Today it would be easier, thanks to the progress the unions have made.  

So hats off to labourers and unions on this 1st of May – may your days be laden with choices between well-paid jobs offered by honest and fair employers.

In time and with increased prosperity and enlightenment of the poor in the underdeveloped countries in the world, labour unions will rise in places such as Bangladesh. The radio just announced the death toll in the sweat shop collapse as being 400 people. For the people that died within the concrete rubble, change will come too late. For countless others it cannot come too soon.

Yrsa - Wednesday             


  1. In the US, the first Monday in September is designated as labor day. Because we are as little interested in our own history as we are in the geography of any place on the planet, the majority have no idea that so much of what they take for granted came at the cost of blood and broken bones from the first workers who tried to make things better for everyone. My father was fortunate enough to get a job with a public utility in the years before World War II. The country was so committed to winning the war that those who enlisted were guaranteed a job when they came home. On the other hand, my mother got a job polishing lenses for gun sights. She had to pay them to train her.

    As in Iceland, education has achieved an importance that places it beyond practicality. An undergraduate degree is pretty much useless. The really smart people trained to be electricians, carpenters, and plumbers.


  2. Our country does have Labor Day, but I think there is a terrible ambivalence to those people who we honor. There is so much resentment and distrust of the unions (some of it earned) that in truth we forget how much we need those people to take of our home needs, and those who make sure the engines still run. Sad, really.

  3. I am pleased to hear that the labor movement in Iceland accepts labor leaders who acknowledge that suits, ties, and fancy cars are a sign of success. Perhaps it's to inspire the membership that "their guys" have arrived. Whatever the reason, it possibly leads a lot of laborers to think--in a reverse sort of way--that dressed and driving like that makes you no better than "we" are. And as a one time union member myself, I'm proud to say that working with your hands for a fair day's pay can be far more rewarding for the soul than a lot of other ways to make a buck.