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Proud of our achievements

Proud of our achievements

Björn at Eining-Iðja HQ in Akureyri. Photos/Eining-Iðja.



After 40 years of labor struggle, it's time to slow down - albeit modestly. In an interview with Vinnan Björn Snæbjörnsson, the outgoing chairman of Eining-Iðja, reflects on the road travelled and discusses the status and future of the labor movement in turbulent times. 


THE thing is, he really can't explain where this incessant interest in all things social comes from. It's probably not genetic; his parents were not pioneers in this field, although you can find some connections in the wider family. Perhaps this interest in social activity explains the fact that the children of Björn Snæbjörnsson, the outgoing chairman of Eining-Iðja, have never shown the slightest interest in following in his footsteps. Such a demanding and time-consuming job requires sacrifices and affects family life.  Björn retired as chairman of Eining-Iðja this April but will remain available until fall. Then he looks to new projects - this is not a man heading for retirement. 

In his small office in the People's House in Akureyri, Björn welcomes Vinnan's messenger boy who has just arrived from Reykjavík. The wind is howling outside, and visibility is close to zero due to heavy snowfall As ever he wears a short-sleeved shirt when he introduces the staff to the visitor  - he strongly believes that representatives of the Confederation of Labour, high and low, need to get a better feel for life outside the capital and how the unions operate. You can't really argue with that. 

Mynd: Björn 3 (4)
The red flag in Akureyri during 1. May festivities.

A man of two worlds

Björn was born in 1953 at Nollur, a farm in Grýtubakki district in the North of Iceland. A peculiar name Nollur, according to the internet the name means "Cold chills". Svalbardseyri was the nearest town and going into Akureyri was a rare treat. He went to local schools and started work as a laborer in Akureyri. Björn is a man of two worlds; in his youth he got to know farming methods that were quite ancient and required constant toil.  Now he discusses with great interest the possibilities that technology provides to increase interaction with union members and proudly shows the visitor information brochures in eleven languages for foreign workers. 


Social issues seem to have appealed to Björn early on. He remembers giving his first speech at the age of 12, a speech of thanks on behalf of a youth association. However, he really wasn't comfortable speaking in public until his first or second ASÍ congress when one of his mates had him added to the list of speakers. There was no way out and since then he has never felt nervous when speaking publicly, addressing meetings and conferences. 

Björn became a board member in Eining in 1981 and started working for the union a year later. In 1986 he assumed the position of vice-chairman and six years later he was elected chairman. In 1999, Eining-Iðja was created through the merger of the two unions. Thus, Björn was chairman for 31 years. 

Björn was vice-chairman of the Federation of General and Special Workers in Iceland (SGS), which is the largest national association within ASÍ. Björn was elected chairman, a post he held or 12 years until he left office in 2022. Björn was a member of ASÍ's Central Committee for over 30 years but retired at the ASÍ congress last week. 

Similar tasks, different conditions

Björn has indeed seen everything but when asked, he says that basically the tasks haven't changed that much with regard to union work. Protecting the rights of union members and intervening when necessary is still the main task. Wages must be paid in accordance with agreements. However, we must keep in mind the fundamental change in trade union activity brought about by the dramatic increase in the number of foreign workers.   

"Of course, fundamental changes have taken place in society. Nowadays people now have much better access to information. Not that long ago we were sorting and stapling sheets of paper for publication. It took a whole week for all the office staff to prepare and publish a pamphlet," says Björn with a smile. Now one employee makes this information available on the internet in no time at all.  

Access to workplaces is another thing that has changed a lot. Workplaces used to be open to everyone, e.g. fish processing plants and food production companies. Now these workplaces are subject to access controls for hygiene and safety reasons. Björn considers this change an improvement and says that trade unions rely on organized meetings with members, making it easier to reach more people. Usually, the union representative in each workplace organizes such meetings.  

Supervision and guidance

Björn has indeed seen everything but when asked, he says that basically the tasks haven't changed that much with regard to union work. Protecting the rights of union members and intervening when necessary is still the main task. Wages must be paid in accordance with agreements. However, we must keep in mind the fundamental change in trade union activity brought about by the dramatic increase in the number of foreign workers.   

"Of course, fundamental changes have taken place in society. Nowadays people now have much better access to information. Not that long ago we were sorting and stapling sheets of paper for publication. It took a whole week for all the office staff to prepare and publish a pamphlet," says Björn with a smile. Now one employee makes this information available on the internet in no time at all.  

Access to workplaces is another thing that has changed a lot. Workplaces used to be open to everyone, e.g. fish processing plants and food production companies. Now these workplaces are subject to access controls for hygiene and safety reasons. Björn considers this change an improvement and says that trade unions rely on organized meetings with members, making it easier to reach more people. Usually, the union representative in each workplace organizes such meetings.  

Credibility at stake

According to Björn there are few examples of employers knowingly violating workers' rights and agreed terms of employment. "Difficult issues certainly arise, which sometimes call for direct involvement by union lawyers. Our position is that we do not see employers as our enemies. Without them there would be no work and no union! However, this doesn’t mean we are in the business of up to employers, far from it. In fact, I have often argued that soon to be employers should be required to attend a course on their rights and responsibilities. We have found that positive results are best obtained by resolving issues without agitation. Furthermore, we have seen that difficult issues become even more complicated if they are brought to the attention of the media. Our credibility is based on the fact that we work professionally when intervention is needed in difficult and often very personal cases." 

Snuff and slamming doors

Björn says he has met many memorable and quirky personalities in his long career. He recalls good collaboration with well-known leaders such as Björn Grétar Sveinsson, the then chairman of the Workers' Union of Iceland, which  later merged with the National Confederation of Industrial Workers and the Service Union of Iceland in the SGS Federation, Sigurður Ingvarsson, a labor lion for decades in the East, Hervar Gunnarsson in Akranes, Ragnar Sigurdsson in Ísafjörður, the late Halldór Björnsson, Dagsbrúns' last chairman, Sigurður Bessason, a longstanding chairman of Efling, the late Hrafnkell A. Jónsson, a union leader and politician in Eskifjörður, Kristján Gunnarsson in Ísafjörður, and the late Ragna Bergmann, a long serving chairman of the Working Women's Association Framsókn and for a while first vice-president of ASÍ. He says that the relationship with ASÍ presidents was generally peaceful and mentions the late Benedikt Davíðsson, Grétar Þorsteinsson, Ásmundur Stefánsson and Gylfi Arnbjörnsson. Björn speaks highly of Drífa Snædal, with whom he worked for six years when she was the executive director of the SGS Federation, before being elected the first female president of ASÍ in 2018. Björn thinks that her resignation in August 2022 was a great blow to the labor movement. 

And then there is the legend himself, Guðmundur J. Guðmundsson - Strongman Gvendur. "Oh yes, I worked with him. He was quite a character," says Björn. "I remember coming into his office during some wage dispute. His desk was completely empty, with not so much as a scrap of paper on it. He leaned back in his chair, sniffed tobacco with considerable effort, and then tossed the snuff from the back of his hand. At the table sat his young and newly hired assistant, Ásgeir Jónsson, the current governor of the central bank of Iceland.  Guðmundur blurted out all sorts of ideas, sums and numbers, which Ásgeir worked on using a tiny pocket calculator. It was quite a sight." 

Job, ideal, lifestyle

Björn contends that only those “seriously interested” in trade union affairs last in this job. "If you think of this just as another job you won't last long. It's a job, an ideal and a lifestyle all at the same time. Back in the day negotiations were more emotional and calculating each and every tiny bit was not as important as today. I often wonder how we came to live life through Excel. Of course, many things have changed for the better, but I believe that moderation in terms of technocracy would be a good thing. We mustn’t forget the human side," says Björn. 

He speaks well of his opponents. Nothing has changed of course. Raising wages and improving workers' conditions always was and remains impossible according to the people at the opposite end of the table. Every single króna must be fought for. He remembers Þórarinn V. Þórarinsson, then executive director of the Employers' Association of Iceland, as a tough customer sometimes slamming doors during negotiations or resorting to assorted theatrics. When asked, Björn says that he had a pleasant relationship with his opponents away from the negotiating table. There he also met fun people and colorful characters. 

Absurd collective bargaining

Björn mentions major and long overdue changes to the collective agreement environment in Iceland. "It was downright inhumane for a long time. We were stuck together for days. We were not allowed to leave the house. I remember a 54-hour long negotiation session. At one point, probably in 1988, a photographer somehow got into a mediator's office and published a picture of the negotiators sleeping on the floor and under tables with their coats for pillows. It was absolute madness. I remember waiting 24 hours for one sentence to be approved in an agreement. We often heard that it couldn’t be so bad spending our days in Reykjavík. But, in those days, people were working full time and negotiations could only start in the evening. Often you were just hanging around during the day. It was a horrible waste of time," says Björn welcoming a long overdue change. "Our methods were completely different in last December's negotiations.  Björn praises state mediator Aðalsteinn Leifsson. "He got things very well organized." 

Now there is talk of increasing the powers of the state mediator – you can’t be in favor of that? 

"I am. I want the mediator's powers to be increased. His role has often been more like that of the chair in a meeting.  This needs to be changed - the mediator needs to have more opportunities to intervene. I think he should be able to postpone a strike if he thinks that could lead to an agreement." 

Well, I’ll be! 

  "Yes, I'm not afraid of granting him more power."  

In the office, probably during the nineties.

Glory to Teams!

Another change that technology has brought about is videoconferencing. Björn says that probably no other technological advancement has had such a positive impact on his life and work. He can't speak highly enough of Teams. "This is the technology of the Covid epidemic. It works like a charm, the remote meetings are much better and more focused, what a time and money saver! I would like to increase the number of such meetings in the Icelandic Confederation of Labour. As a rule, committee meetings should be conducted through Teams." 

He says that people in rural areas are more open to this wonderful technology than those living in Reykjavík. Perhaps this is normal given that videoconferencing ensures a certain level of equality for those attending but it is also worth pointing out that for people living outside Reykjavík the time saved is often enormous. Björn says that 40 to 50 trips to Reykjavík are not far off in an average year. Now one of the two monthly meetings of the Central Committee of the Labour Confederation takes place on the Internet, and he believes the number should be increased. He says the SGS Federation makes good use of this technology and maintains communication with the union reps is much more convenient using Teams. And of course, the whole group of union reps can get together virtually for discussions and planning. 

But isn't it necessary for people to meet in real life? During the COVID epidemic it was often said how difficult it was not to be able to meet colleagues in person. 

"Of course, it’s necessary and there are appropriate platforms for that. The Central Committee recently held a two-day working meeting in Borgarfjörður, which was considered a great success. We should probably meet more often like that. But more routine Central Committee meetings should take place on the Internet, in my opinion. They are much more efficient that way." 

Social media madness

Speaking of technology and being present. Björn is not a big fan of social media. He actually considers social media a negative, even destructive force in society. "The rhetoric is completely bonkers. People lash out at others without having a clue what they are talking about. Then others follow suit, and that's how this escalates and becomes uncontrollable madness." Björn and his colleagues have experienced this, but he is not one to silently accept such behavior. "I have called people who have been demonizing us on social media. Usually, they struggle to explain themselves. I have also stopped people in the street who have said bad things about me or the labor movement. Some of them run away! Generally, they don’t dare to stand by their comments in person," he says with a smile. 

Björn says that after the recent December agreements, terribly unfair and hateful rhetoric was maintained on the internet. "It was just bloody bullshit and nonsense. The agreements were very good given the circumstances. Unions within the SGS Federation boldly took the initiative and concluded then negotiations," he adds. 

Not in pursuit of popularity

There are currently around 9,000 members in Einin-Iðja which is the largest union outside of Reykjavík. Previously, there were 22 unions in the Eyjafjörður area. The office employs 16 people, including representatives of the VIRK Rehabilitation Fund and the union’s regional reps in Dalvík and Siglufjörður. Life must be different in the rural unions compared to the capital. The intimacy is obviously greater. 

"That’s true," says the chairman, adding that the advantages are greater than the disadvantages. "We react to this intimacy-problem in various ways. If difficult and personal issues arise in Dalvík and Siglufjörður, they are dealt with by the staff here in Akureyri. The strength lies in the union’s size and even though we are close to the employers and others with whom we must communicate, I think everyone realizes that we deal with what we think necessary without hesitation. In this line of work, wanting to be everyone’s friend is hopeless and you don't become chairman of a labor union in hopes of gaining popularity, that much is certain," says Björn with a wide smile. 

Positive annual surveys

He proudly talks about annual surveys that reveal that a large majority of union members are happy with how their union operates.  Well above 90% express their satisfaction. This is the measure Björn   takes seriously. He says that staff noticed certain "cultural differences" when the number of foreign members began to rise. It took time to convince the foreigners that the union was working for them and played an important role in their well-being. Many come from countries where standards and traditions are different. "We've put a lot of work into creating trust and I think we've succeeded quite well," says Björn, emphasizing the importance of confidentiality in communication with union members, both Icelandic and foreign. "It’s quite simple really; breach of trust will lead to dismissal." 

Björn says that some employers have tried to take advantage of immigrants, warning them against communicating with trade unions and saying that may lead to them being deported. Fortunately, there are few examples of this.   

Serving foreign workers

Eining-Iðja has prepared informative material in a variety of languages for foreign workers. Björn has no doubt that this material has been useful to the foreigners, who now make up about 13% of the union members. He says the rise in the numbers of foreign workers in the union’s area of operation is nothing short of a "revolution". Most of the people have "come to stay" and their clout within the union is growing. This applies to the union board, the Delegate Council and union reps in workplaces.  

"This is a challenge and an opportunity. Now interpreters are present at every union meeting, and I think everyone is quite happy with that. It’s wrong-headed and naïve to maintain that foreigners simply must learn Icelandic if they want to stay here. The union must, of course, accommodate the members." At Eining-Iðja, a major effort is now being carried out to improve the membership register and thus facilitate communication with members via the internet and telephone. Björn has high hopes for the project and believes it can lead to increased union members' participation at different levels. 

In general, he believes that the labor movement has a lot of work to do regarding foreign workers in Iceland.  Everyone is trying their best, but there is no denying that much work remains in addressing this major change in the labor market. The unions must take their own course and adapt their work to prevailing conditions.  Centralization is not the right way to go. There is no denying that some trade unions are incapable of providing adequate service to their foreign members. “Establishing contact with foreign workers is best done through the Workspace inspection initiative,” Björn concludes. 

Union mergers

So, we have reached an issue that has been close to your heart for a long time - union mergers. 

"Mergers are inevitable, and the sooner this fact is accepted, the better. A total of 50 unions founded the SGS Federation in 2000. Now there are 19 member unions. Certainly, an improvement, but more has to be done.  I believe that eight unions within SGS would be a reasonable number. The minimum size of unions should be 1,000 to 1,500 people. Unions of that size can run sickness benefits funds and provide good services to their members. Generally, we’re heading in the right direction - in the Westfjords and the East, successful mergers have taken place.  The same can be said about Snæfellsnes, but obstacles are still to be found in many places," says Björn. 

This is reminiscent of the debate about mergers at the local government level, where fear of marginalization is at times used as an argument against change. 

"Indeed. Here in the Eyjafjörður area, there used to be 22 unions. They were too small and could not maintain sickness benefits funds. The merger here went well and I still haven't met anyone who wants to go back to the old ways. Our union is divided into three departments; there is the Industrial and Equipment Department, Food and Service Department and the Municipal Department. Each department has its own chairman and vice-chairman. In this way, we try to combine the advantages of large and smaller unions." 

Björn insists that when merging unions, just like municipalities, the most important thing is doing it right and keeping everybody on board. At Eining-Iðja, union mergers have taken place in a transparent way, addressing every concern in a systematic way. An example of this are the three union departments and the offices in Dalvík and Siglufjörður. Add to this the use of technology. 

"You should never be scared when entering the pitch. In discussions about the merger of municipalities - and this also applies to trade unions – it's quite popular to state those living on the fringes will inevitably be left out. This has not been our experience here in the Eyjafjörður area simply because during the merging process an arrangement was established so that local services could be maintained and, in many cases, improved. With regard to the unions, technology eliminates the need for operating a tiny, local association of people,” Björn says.   

He believes that unions outside of Reykjavík need to be vigilant against their bigger cousins. "We in the countryside need to face the facts.  If we don't merge and become more powerful, the big unions in Reykjavík will turn themselves into national unions and swallow us. Then the local unions will become branches that emanate from the Reykjavík headquarters. How can that be an improvement? Consolidation is necessary and unions will be forced to merge before long. Union members will not accept the status quo; they expect their membership fee to bring them services. Smaller unions lack the specialization to provide adequate services, and never forget that the union belongs to its members," says Björn with a heavy brow. 

Giving a lecture on rights and benefits during a union course.

Positive and decisive influence

When asked, Björn says that people in general do not realize that the pillars of modern welfare have been established through working class struggle. "This is not the work of politicians. The terms and rights have been obtained through relentless struggle. We should proudly emphasize our achievements. The labor leadership tends to focus on negative things. Why should union members be happy when the leadership is not? We've concluded a number of highly advantageous wage agreements, we've been very successful, and we've had a decisive impact on shaping society, for the good of all. Of course, we need to make our achievements known and stand proud." 

Inflation and interest rates

Looking to the near future, Björn believes that inflation, repeated interest rate hikes and the rising cost of living will be the labor movement's main challenges. Add to that a serious shortage in housing which of course seriously affects young people, tenants and first-time home buyers. "But then again these 40 years of struggle have always been centered on raising the minimum wage enabling people to live a decent life. That’s not about to change." 

A serious threat

"Regarding the movement as a whole, I think the biggest task will be to hold on to what we have achieved. The labor movement is under attack by very powerful forces. We haven’t been vigilant enough," Björn says, pointing to a recent bill on freedom of association in the labor market presented by the Independence Party. He says the purpose of the bill is to guarantee employers the right to decide whether workers should join a union and if so, which. This is a planned attack on the very basis of the labor movement. He hopes that the bill only reflects the hostility of a small and marginalized group of politicians towards the labor movement, adding that he’s confident the bill will not enjoy widespread support in parliament "I hope that the politicians realize how important the trade union movement is for the welfare state and the social structure in general. If this bill is passed the labor movement's future is in jeopardy." 

Bright future

Speaking of the future, Björn refers to Eining-Iðja's efforts to arouse the interest of young people in the North in labor and social issues. For about 20 years now, union reps have visited 10th graders and secondary schools in the area to introduce Eining-Iðja to them and to talk about the issues at the top of the agenda at any given time. Björn doesn’t hesitate in declaring these school visits a success. He cites the most recent Gallup survey conducted for Eining-Iðja in which 25% of the participants were under the age of 25. The schoolkids are interested in the union and a direct result of these efforts can be seen when former students turn to the union office for assistance. 

The Central Committee

For more than 30 years Björn was a member of the Labor Confederation's Central Committee.  He says that back in the day discussions about social issues were more prominent in this forum. He cites issues of importance to rural areas and individual professions. "Nowadays, it’s all about economics and expert language. Of course, that’s also necessary, and throughout the years the Confederation has had the good fortune of having excellent staff in the office." 

He believes regional division is lacking within the Central Committee to ensure proper representation of rural areas. Related to this is a lack of discussion about dominant economic sectors outside the capital; agriculture and fisheries. He acknowledges that the approach has changed somewhat after the COVID outbreak; more and more people within the Confederation now realize that unrestrained import of food and other necessities is not the best way to ensure the nation's security.  

Björn considers the Central Committee, which is made up of 15 representatives, to be about the right size. He is opposed to the idea of forming an executive committee to handle day-to-day management but is in favor of chairmen of national union confederations having a secure seat in the Central Committee. Thus, five seats would be reserved. 

With union members during an excursion to Flatey island west of Húsavík.

Importance of access

In previous years, political parties were represented within the Central Committee of the Confederation. The number of party delegates depended on the results of parliamentary elections. This is how Björn first entered the Central Committee as the third representative of the Progressive Party. He grins when talking about this arrangement but maintains that the parties did not have much influence in the Central Committee and that party politics were in no way dominant. However, he says that he does not miss this system, that it was a child of its time, the period in which political parties were all-encompassing in public life.  

"Fortunately, this system came to a close. However, governments used to take the Confederation of Labor more seriously. In addition, we often agreed on how to put pressure on the government. Many things have changed in this regard, some for the better. The political parties are more independent today and find the Confederation of Labor less important than before." 

He says some politicians maintain ties to the trade union movement. In general, however, the political connection is a thing of the past. "The current ASÍ leadership has inadequate ties to the government and other political authorities," says Björn adding that he considers that a cause for concern. Enjoying access to the government and individual ministers is, in his view, necessary for labor leadership at any given time.  

Unacceptable discourse

This conversation with Björn takes place before ASÍ's follow-up congress is held at the end of April. The 45th congress was cancelled in the fall of 2022, as widely reported, after internal conflicts in the labor movement had erupted.   

"Over the years, there have been disputes within the trade union movement - sometimes they have been bitter, but most of the time they have been internal. This has now changed. Now the disputes are directed outwards, and the discourse has at times been absolutely unacceptable. Union members have told me they won't accept such discourse within their movement. This hurts us and discourages people from participating. A clear exchange of opinions in normal Icelandic is a good thing, but bullshit and personal attacks can't be tolerated." 

He is reasonably optimistic about reconciliation within the labor movement. "I was very sad to see my colleagues walk out of the ASÍ congress. Many of them will come to regret doing this, in fact some of them already realize that this was not a wise move. If reconciliation and unity can be achieved, it will take time. We must never consider individuals more important than the group. Individuals who consider themselves bigger than the group never make good leaders." 

Improvements for the elderly

The phone rings constantly and it’s clear the chairman needs to end the conversation. He raises himself   from the desk.  

You won't stop your social activity, will you? I don’t think you can. 

He is amused, grinning boyishly.  

"The living conditions of the elderly need more attention. There is no point in trying to blame the labor movement for that. The elderly should be able to apply more pressure on the government in order to improve their economic situation. The elderly, however, are not a homogeneous group; there's a wide gap between those who have all they need and those who can barely scrape by on what the authorities allow them to keep.  This needs to be firmly addressed. No, I'm not quitting." 

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