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How Icelandic Unionists Won a Shorter Work Week

Iceland’s BSRB - The Federation of State and Municipal Employees - was the earliest and loudest voice for the shorter working week. (Photo credit: BSRB)

Iceland’s BSRB - The Federation of State and Municipal Employees - was the earliest and loudest voice for the shorter working week. (Photo credit: BSRB)

The working world looked on in excitement recently as Iceland secured a shorter working week for a significant portion of its workforce. Workers saw a reduction of their working hours from 40 to 36, which has seen vast improvements in health and productivity, even for what might be seen as a small change. 

Many of us dared to dream, just a little bit, about the things we might do with more time to pursue things outside of selling our labour.

But is this a conversation we’re ready to have in Australia? A closer look at Iceland’s journey might yield some lessons about the path to get there, not just the scenic destination. 

How Did They Do It?

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir is the Chairperson of Iceland’s BSRB, a federation of 23 workers’ unions which represents approximately 23,000 members who work in the postal services, customs, police, fire departments, health care as well as workers in government and local municipalities. They were an integral part of the campaign to reduce the hours of work across the country.

She says there is a historical context to the recent win that can’t be overlooked. Like many great leaps forward, it was preceded by crisis. 

“Like most European countries we had to fight back against the decrease in funding of welfare and trying to maintain the same level of employment following the economic collapse in 2008. Everything was in crisis mode for a little while after that.”

Iceland was hit especially hard by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Relative to the size of its economy, the collapse of Iceland's banking system was the largest experienced by any country in economic history

“The collective agreements made after the crisis were only for one year at a time and they were only meant to maintain some kind of purchasing power. But for my federation [of unions], we set a priority back then - and it’s been quite a journey since then - to start a discussion about the shorter working week.”

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, BSRB Chairperson addressing a mass meeting in January 2020 ahead of wage negotiations where the shorter week was at the top of the agenda. The text behind her reads: “Here and not further.” Essentially, now is the time.

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, BSRB Chairperson addressing a mass meeting in January 2020 ahead of wage negotiations where the shorter week was at the top of the agenda. The text behind her reads: “Here and not further.” Essentially, now is the time. (Photo credit: BSRB)

Sonja explains that the GFC shifted the priorities of many BSRB members. 

“We learned something from the shock of the economic crisis and we wanted to put our families and our private lives first. We wanted this demand higher on the list.” 

In practical terms, that culture shift translated to new discussions about what that quality of life might look like for workers - and for many, that meant working less and living more.

“For some unions, the shorter week was the first demand and wages were number two.”

The next decade saw isolated wins for work-life balance, with collective agreements being reached with certain employers securing shorter weeks. The recent victory, set in legislation in 2020, was essentially a crystallisation of those victories.

Icelandic union members take to the streets to celebrate May 1 in style. (Photo credit: BSRB)

Icelandic union members take to the streets to celebrate May 1 in style. (Photo credit: BSRB)

2020 saw the big push towards universal adoption. Unionists weren’t just making demands, they were prepared to follow through. Iceland’s union density is somewhere around 80%, and they were getting ready to use their power. 

“We were preparing for the country’s biggest strike in the past 30 years,” says Sonja. 

Another global crisis, however, interrupted that plan. The chaos of the pandemic caused another re-evaluation of priorities, with the Icelandic Government accepting the proposal to expand and make permanent a trial program that had been massively successful.

The country is still in the implementation phase, but according to Sonja, the results are already visible.

“There have been huge benefits for families, reduced stress levels, and people generally feeling better. People have been surprised at how much of an effect that a reduction of even four hours has had.”

Shorter Still for Unhealthy Rosters

The priorities of the shorter working week are perhaps no more evident than in the distinction between daytime workers and night workers. While workers who work regular daytime hours have experienced a shortening to 36 hours, shift workers are able to negotiate a reduction to 32.

“The membership was always adamant that the week should be even shorter for shift workers, due to the negative effect on physical and mental health of those who are working around the clock.”

The adjustment has been easier for some than others.

“For shift workers, it has been a massive cultural change. There have been very few complaints from the sectors where women are the majority, like hospitals. But for emergency services sectors where they are majority men, they are used to working 12-hour shifts on fewer days to make up their weekly hours. 

“We had to change that because 12-hour shifts aren’t good for your health.” 

Sonja said that change was met with resistance in some quarters.

“There was some push back from people used to doing things a certain way... It will take some time.”

Reykjavik on the Yarra?

Sonja told us that there were two things that were instrumental in their victory: priorities and consultation. 

“I think it was critical for us to make it a priority. Unions are constantly battling a lot of things, and new challenges seem to come up daily, but you have to decide that we are always going to discuss this. It came from the members, so we always got our strength from them.”

As you might imagine, a wide, sweeping change needs to be followed up with a lot of smaller conversations about details, which will be handled differently by each industry and workplace. 

“In order for it to work, it’s critical for it to be a discussion within the workplace where everyone can participate. It’s great to have a new idea, but when everyone is involved it shares the responsibility to make it work.

“The biggest thing you have to do is rethink the whole working week, not just its length. You have to make the decision with the workers involved, because they know their jobs best and how to use your working time better.”

The perception that things are somehow better in the Nordic countries is a common one. Who has not imagined moving to Iceland, Denmark or Norway at least once? They enjoy an extremely high standard of living and have some of the best social security systems anywhere in the world. But the idea that they are more advanced in their unionism and striving further than we are is simply not the case. They are our brothers and sisters, fighting the same fight we are. 

The fight in Australia is different, but Australian unions are similarly being driven by their memberships on what matters to them, and making those things priorities. 

The United Workers Union is tackling insecure work and increasing casualisation, because that is the priority members want on the agenda. The AMWU is fighting for local manufacturing, because secure jobs are a priority for members. The ANMF has a proud history of fighting for staffing ratios and healthier rosters. The AEU is at this very moment getting ready for industrial action over working hours, class sizes and workloads. Unions all over the country are fighting the same fight, in a way. 

Excitingly, the Victorian union movement has made a recommendation to the Inquiry into Economic Equity For Victorian Women that the option of a four-day work week be investigated for public service workers. If adopted and trialled, it would represent the biggest shift in work-life balance for Victorian workers since the establishment of the eight-hour day was won in 1856.

Much like Iceland’s experience, Australian workers are demanding more than higher wages. At its heart, the fight is for self-determination; for jobs that fit with the way we want to live our lives. 

If you need some Nordic inspiration, you can read all the details of the shorter work week here. Or if you’re already inspired; join your union, get involved in bargaining, and make your voice heard at work!

The working world looked on in excitement recently as Iceland secured a shorter working week for a significant portion of its workforce. Workers saw a reduction of their working hours from 40 to 36, which has seen vast improvements in health and productivity, even for what might be seen as a small change. 

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