The history of BSRB

BSRB are the largest interest group of public sector workers in Iceland. Any state or municipal worker in Iceland can join a BSRB member union. Further, workers at nongovernmental companies and institutions, which work for the public good, may also join.

Chapters from BSRB history

A new force in the collective struggle

The federation of state and municipal workers was founded in Reykjavík on February 14, 1942. Fourteen unions, with 1,550 members in all, joined the federation. The reason for their coming together was a rising cost of living ever since 1939, due to the second world war and its immediate preamble. Talk about the need for a federation had already begun in the summer of 1939. A big step along that path was taken on January 28, 1941, when a body of representatives for public workers was established. Its role was to push for common union demands and to prepare the founding of a federation.

The coming of BSRB reinvigorated the collective struggles of public sector workers, which became both more powerful and more visible. In its first years, BSRB and its member unions achieved some considerable successes in rights and living conditions. A clear example is the law on a public sector pension fund from 1943. For such a young association, this was a coup, which is highlighted by the fact that it took a further quarter-century for private sector pension funds to be established for workers.

Wages decided by Parliament

The right to negotiate and strike, as found in the private sector, were on the BSRB policy agenda from the start. Nothing much happened on that front, though, for the first two decades. The wages of most public sector workers were, as before, decided by legislation in Parliament. Prodded by BSRB, and in collaboration with the government, a new wage law went into force in 1945. They were a big leap forward and superseded long outdated laws from 1919, containing various improvements to rights and wages. They also included a recognition by the state of BSRB and its leadership in the affairs of public sector workers.

Further episodes from the youth of the association bear mentioning. In 1954, Parliament passed a law on the rights and duties of public sector workers. These included the right to vacation, paid parental leave and paid sick days. They also contained the first equal pay clause, stipulating that men and women should have equal access to public sector jobs and equal pay for the same jobs. Previously, a clause had been won in the 1945 wage law stating that when appointing people for categories of work, and in moving people between wage brackets, women should have the same standing as men. Beginning in 1957, a special joint committee of BSRB and the finance ministry further had the role of deliberating on discrimination complaints in the ordering of women into wage brackets, and make proposals for corrections if they saw reason to.

Limited negotiating rights as of 1962

Around the year 1960, the BSRB demand for negotiating rights was made with more force than ever. The economic measures of the reconstruction administration, including a large currency devaluation in 1960 and a consequent drop in purchasing power, supported this demand. The fight bore fruit in 1962, when BSRB got limited rights to negotiate with the state.

The unions of municipal workers got negotiating rights this same year, framed by a regulation based on the law giving BSRB its rights to negotiate. The right to strike was not included and an arbitration court, a so-called Wage tribunal (Kjaradómur), had the last word in disputes. This partial victory was a watershed in the history of the labour movement, even though the limitations of the court in the fight for better wages were soon apparent.

The first union rep course in Borgarnes

The movement gained new power in the sixties, with BSRB union membership going from 4,500 in 1960 to over 7,000 in 1970. The financial strength of the organizations grew with the broader membership and all its operations became more diversified. Grievance work became a much larger part of these operations after the right to negotiate was won, and there were signs of victory for the older goals of education and vacation.

The first BSRB union rep course was held in Borgarnes in 1967. Construction of a summer house district in the land of Munaðarnes in Borgarfjörður began in 1969 and the first summer houses were opened in 1971. The Munaðarnes area was also from the start meant as a centre for education far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Regular education work began there in 1971, too. These two fields, vacationing and education, have, along with grievance work and fighting for rights, been the main task of the federation and unions in the last decades.

Women a majority of members

New laws on the 1973 collective agreements involved a changed status for the organization, even though the Wage tribunal remained. The making of special collective agreements (annex agreements) with the state was transferred to the member unions, while the main agreement was still negotiated by BSRB. The other big change was no less significant; now, all workers getting paid according to union contracts had to pay union dues. In time, most decided to become full members and women became, for the first time, a majority of union members within the federation.

It says a lot about the effect of this law that in 1978, the BSRB unions had 14,500 members, while in 1972, they had just been 8,500. It is worth noting that the increase in numbers also reflects a broadening of public services and greater numbers of public sector workers.

A large goal was achieved in 1976 when BSRB got the right to strike over the making of the main collective agreement. The federation went on a general strike twice, in 1977 and 1984. After gaining the right to strike, the BSRB strike fund was formed in 1979, to strengthen the position of member unions during industrial action. The fund is also permitted to support unions outside the federation, and this has been done more than once.

A force for increased equality and justice

There’s no doubt about the importance of the labour movement for workers and for society. In the time since BSRB was founded in 1942, society has changed by leaps and bounds and the nation’s living conditions are in no way comparable to those of the 1940s.

The struggles of BSRB and other associations of workers in previous decades have born rich fruit. They have led to more rights, better living conditions and more public welfare. Very few improvements have been gifts to workers – on the contrary, all major milestones and victories have been won by solidarity and mass cooperation.

Operation and institutions

The BSRB congress is held every third year, and it is the federation’s highest authority, deciding its policy and voting on its main offices.

The chairmen’s council of the federation has the role of deciding policy and emphases in issues which come up between congresses, and of serving as a consultation platform for the federation’s member unions. It also follows up on the execution of congress resolutions and other issues which are referred to it by the BSRB congress.

The board of BSRB has the task of directing the federation’s work, in line with BSRB resolutions and the policy set by the chairmen’s council, the congress and the annual general meeting of BSRB. The board is the federation’s highest authority between congresses and annual general meetings.

The BSRB offices are in the Association house in Grettisgata 89, Reykjavík, and have been since 1978. There, various work is done for the federation and its members.

The office has the role of executing the federation’s policy and being in the vanguard of fighting for the interests and rights of workers in public service. BSRB oversees the rights of workers in the public and private sector and safeguards the rights and duties of members.

The federation offers a variety of services to its member associations, such as on legal and economic issues. The federation also does education and information sharing and manages dialogue with other federations and with foreign entities. The office also delivers dues to its member unions.

The BSRB offices also manage the renting out of Birkihlíð, which is the federation’s only summer house. The members of the federation may rent the house, and do so via its office.


BSRB has published magazines. From 1944 to 1952 the Starfsmanna-blaðið (e. Employees’ paper) was published. Then there was a break in publication until 1955, when Ásgarður came out. It was published continuously for 30 years, the last issue coming out in the fall of 1985, after which the BSRB paper, BSRB-blaðið, started its run. Its name was changed again and in 1987 to 1988 it was called BSRB-fréttir (e. BSRB-news).

The magazine BSRB-tíðindi was first published during the public sector strike in 1984. It was brought back in 1989 and ran until 2014. In 2016, a digital newsletter began, issued at the end of each month.

Did you find the content of this page helpful?