Iceland is known internationally for its strong female leaders, but men have been the ones deciding wage rates. Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir became the first female President in 122 years of Iceland’s trade union for commercial workers, VR, when she was elected last year.
“Women must be willing to take more responsibility for influencing how the ASÍ leadership develops, as well as that of the individual trade unions,” she says.
ASÍ is the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, and unlike the Confederation of State and Municipal Employees, ASÍ has never had a female in a leadership position. Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir is the first female leader in one of the member unions. She joined VR as a switchboard operator in 1989 and has worked her way up the career ladder ever since.
VR faced a deep leadership crisis after Iceland’s financial crash. The union’s former leader suffered a major loss in the 2009 election following harsh criticism. This led to major reform within the union and the union management, and Ólafía was voted into the management team in the spring of 2013.
“It is a challenge for me to be the first female leader of VR’s 122 year long history,” the VR President Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir said proudly.
“It has been hard work taking the reigns and to achieve solidarity within the union. Solidarity is needed if we are to reach our aims for a new collective agreement,” says Ólafía.
The current collective agreement is unusual as it only lasts for one year, ending on 21 December 2014. Trade unions must start preparing for new negotiations right now. The idea is to base the next agreement on the Nordic solidarity model. Ólafía explains how the trade unions plan joint wage negotiations but that they won’t necessarily follow the solidarity principle.
“Very soon we will see whether the unions will follow the strategy or whether they have other plans for the future,” she says and thinks it is important to carry on with a wage policy based on solidarity for the entire labour market.
Icelandic teachers have been on strike this spring and other trade unions have given notice of strike action. Ólafía says unions demand increased purchasing power according to what is stipulated in VR’s new collective agreement. She feels the most important thing is to increase purchasing power and reduce inflation.
“For purchasing power to continue to rise, employee organisations must join forces. Certain groups cannot be left behind developments,” thinks Ólafía, who also sees it as important that consumers keep an eye on price developments and alert trade unions if the trend changes.
“We hope to be able to improve consumer price consciousness,” she says.
She is not worried about rising inflation.
“We must make sure the economy gets going again properly, so that families can experience improved living conditions and decent wages. Young people must be able to afford to start a family and have their own place to live,” she says.
It is less than one year since Iceland got a new government. Ólafía says Icelanders have had great hopes for the new generation who took over. Employee organisations have also had great expectations for the new government to introduce new work methods.
“The government has established various task forces which work on questions which concern society as a whole and living conditions in Iceland,” she says.
“But the trade unions are disappointed. We had great hopes for being part of the task forces, but we have not been allowed to take part in their work. We are not happy with this,” says Ólafía.
One example, she says, is housing. The government has offered households a tax break which can either be earmarked mortgage down-payments or saving up for housing.
The employee organisations have expressed concern that low-paid workers don’t have the same opportunity to save for housing and that they therefore cannot make use of this tax break. High earners benefit the most from the government’s offer, despite the fact that they don’t need government help to get rid of old debt.
“Low-paid VR members pay high rent and cannot afford to buy a place to live. It is important to give that group of people more help,” she says.
VR has a separate working group dealing with housing issues. Ólafía thinks the group will soon present proposals for how VR can help solve the housing problem.
The EU is a sensitive issue in Iceland. VR is not expressively in favour of membership, but Ólafía is waiting for a report from ASÍ and the Confederation of Icelandic Employers which will be published soon.
Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir has been working hard all her life.
She left school at 16 to look after her first child. She had six siblings and her parents worked hard. Her life has been shaped by the fact that as a young woman she had to manage on her own and provide for her family. She had three sons and had to raise her sons in one of Reykjavik’s largest districts.
Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir spent several years working with collective agreements and how to interpret them. Later she got a university degree and specialised in personnel issues before becoming head of personnel for a private media company in Iceland. She has been particularly interested in gender equality issues.
Iceland’s employers’ organisations are led by men. Employees in Iceland are mainly led by men. The VR President is the only woman within the ASÍ negotiation delegation, despite the fact that women make up nearly half of Iceland’s workforce.
VR has led the fight for equal pay and equal rights to parental leave. VR has made 19 businesses and public companies with more than 3,000 workers agree to use a new certification standard in order to achieve equal pay for equal work. The companies get a certificate when they can prove that they provide equal pay according to the certification standard.
The companies have been happy with the certification standard which they have been able to use as a tool to equalise salaries and deal with wage differences.
“It has worked well both ways. We have one example where even men have seen a wage increase, but in most cases it is women’s salaries which have been regulated upwards,” explain Ólafía.
"We won’t stop until we have achieved full wage equality.”
Ólafía has managed the election campaign for several social democrat leaders in Iceland, and even one presidential campaign. She enjoys important and demanding work. But she has no political ambitions. The election campaigns are always stand-alone projects to her.
“Politics doesn’t appeal to me,” says Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir.
“I am attracted to the work within VR, however. Hopefully I will be able to work for VR for a few more years,” she says.
“When it comes to the ASÍ leadership post, this is not something that crosses my mind much. I’ve been elected President for VR just for one year at a time, so you never know what will happen,” says Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir.
She is ambitious and won’t exclude anything.
What book are you currently reading?
“Right now I’m reading Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Facebook’s CEO Sheryl Sandberg. It is interesting for women. Sheryl Sandberg describes how life is for female leaders in a male world. My bible is Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey C. Daniels.
Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?
“This one,” she says and holds her mobile up.
“I wouldn’t even know where I was supposed to be without my iPhone.”
As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?
“I wanted to become an independent person.
What is your hidden talent?
“I have a good intuition when it comes to human nature. Don’t know whether that is a hidden talent.
VR is the largest trade union within the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, ASÍ, counting 30,000 members. They earn on average 480,000 Icelandic kroner, or €3,090, a month.
The members are shop and office workers and people employed in various kinds of commercial enterprises. Their level of education varies widely. Fewer than 10 percent of the members are on the minimum wage.
VR was originally an industry and commerce trade union, but became a wage earners’ organisation in 1955. The first woman was admitted in 1906. Today VR is a women’s organisation; women make up 60 percent of the members.
VR has had 33 presidents over the years, until now all men. The first female leader, Ólafía B. Rafnsdóttir, was elected President in 2013.