This is where Northern Norway’s first workers’ struggle was fought

This is where Northern Norway’s first workers’ struggle was fought

Roy Ervin Solstad

Tormod Ytrehus

Work on the Ofotbanen railway was started in 1885, after a British company was granted a licence to build a railway from the iron ore mines in Kiruna in Sweden to the ice-free harbour in Narvik two years earlier. Swedish & Norwegian Rail Company was established to build the railway.
In Sweden, the railway line is called “Malmbanan” (“Ore railway”). It runs from the enormous iron ore fields in Kiruna and Gällivare to Narvik at the head of the Ofotfjord and to Luleå by the Gulf of Bothnia, a total of 476 kilometers of railway. 43 of these kilometres are located in Norway, and that part is called the Ofotbanen railway.
Two kroner a day in salary

The budget was NOK 25 million, but even though a scant tenth was in Norway, it seized as much as seven of the millions, since the terrain was more challenging and required more tunnels, cuttings and bridges than on the Swedish side. Some of the budget went to the construction workers, or “Rallarer” (navvies) as they were called. That word comes from the Swedish dialect word for wheelbarrow, “ralla”, and the navvies were often casual workers who built railways and hydroelectric power stations.

The payment to the navvies was two kroner a day. The workers thought this was far too little, and with what is called Narvik’s first socialist, Baard Jensen, in the lead, 800 men went on strike on 17th of August 1888. The demands were 50 øre more per day, and that the workers who had piecework should have at least three kroner a day. In addition, the strikers demanded that salary deductions for the use of dynamite, drill steel and rails be reduced. In other words, there should not be as much salary deduction if they used equipment as the company was responsible for.

STOP FOR NINE YEARS: In 1889, work on the Ofotbanen railway came to a halt. The work did not resume until 1898. This picture was taken in 1901 and shows the rallare (navvies) at Indre Sildvik far into the Rombaksfjord.

In Ofoten Museum’s yearbook from 2004, however, it is clear that Baard Jensen could easily have become a forgotten person. There was no trade union among the navvies on the Ofotbanen railway, and the call for a strong leader who could wage the fight for the navvies did not meet Jensen’s attention. Instead, he wanted an elected strike committee, and a writing secretary on the committee, so that the demands and any agreement could be documented in writing.

“I was met with a unanimous NO from everyone who had heard my Plan,” Jensen wrote in his unpublished contribution to Narvik’s history, probably to mark the city’s 25th anniversary in 1926.

Jensen told the audience that he thought that was the way to proceed. He then left the congregation that remains to search within his own ranks for “the strongman.” When that fails, they ask Jensen to come back. Thus, a strike committee is elected, with Jensen as chairman.

“Baard Jensen was a somewhat involuntary strike leader,” says Jon Framnes, director of Museum Nord’s Narvik department.
TRAIN COMPARTMENT: Museum director Jon Framnes can show off a rebuilt train compartment from the Ofotbanen railway. Photo: Tormod Ytrehus

The strike was, as far as historians know, the very first in Northern Norway, and it did not last long. Already on August 23rd, the strike was called off. Baard Jensen and the navvies had met all of their demands. However, victory did not last long. In 1889, the Swedish & Norwegian Rail Company went bankrupt.

The reason was the financial jam on the part of the British developers, which became even worse when Sweden imposed export duties on ore to the UK. Swedish & Norwegian Railway Company tried to offer the Swedes the Ofotbanen railway free of charge when it was completed, in return for the authorities providing financial guarantees for the development and refraining from introducing the export tariff, but Sweden said no to this.

Jon Framnes says that the Swedes were not very enthusiastic about a private company controlling the ore transport, and that they therefore had nothing against a bankruptcy of the company.

In any case, the result was that all employees lost their jobs. Those who were unable to find a new job thus had to seek help from the poor pauper’s box, the social assistance of the time.

FULL SIZE: Outside Narvik Museum there is a locomotive that has been running on the Ofotbanen railway for many years. Photo: Tormod Ytrehus
Opened by king oscar II

By then, the railway between Gällivare and Luleå in northern Sweden had already been in operation for a year. In Norway, however, the construction of the Ofotbanen railway from the border with Sweden to the port of Narvik was suspended after the bankruptcy. It was not initiated again until 1898, with the state as the developer. It is claimed that more than 5,000 navvies participated in the work on the Ofotbanen when it was resumed. In November 1902, the first ore train from Kiruna was able to enter the shipping docks in Narvik. The official opening was made by King Oscar II on 14th of June of the following year. He was not keen on a trip to Narvik in the winter darkness when the track was ready for operation.

On the 24th of June 2006, a memorial monument to Baard Jensen was unveiled not far from Katterat station on the Ofotbanen railway. It is located about 27 kilometers from Narvik.

The ofoten railway

The Ofotbanen railway is the name of the 43 km long Norwegian part of the 476 km long Malmbanan that runs from Narvik via Kiruna in Sweden to Luleå by the Gulf of Bothnia.

Construction of the line began in 1885.

Northern Norway’s first strike was initiated in 1888.

The strike involved 800 men and was led by Baard Jensen.

The company that built the line went bankrupt in 1889. In 1898, work was resumed.

The line opened to traffic in November 1902.

The line was officially opened by King Oscar II on 14 June 1903.

The main task of the line is to transport ore from the mines in Kiruna and Gällivare to the port of Narvik (and Luleå) for shipment to the rest of the world.

Every day there are ten to twelve ore trains on the Ofotbanen, each of them with 6800 tons of iron ore.

90 per cent of the grocery supply to Northern Norway is by train from South Norway via Sweden to Narvik.

Baard jensen

Born in Lærdal in Sogn in 1858.

Came to Victoriahavn (Narvik) in 1886 to work on the Ofotbanen railway.

Immediately became work foreman.

Led Northern Norway’s first strike from 17–23 August 1888

Later became leader of the Ofotbanen railways 2nd division Workers Union.

Emigrated to the United States in 1908.

Died in Enderlin, North Dakota in 1939.

The article is republished in agreement with authors Roy Ervin Solstad and Tormod Ytrehus.

This article has been published earlier on Fri Fagbevegelse.

Explore Narvik Municipality’s photo collection here.

Read more about Narvik Museum

Narvik Museum

The spectacular Ofotbanen railway and iron ore trains, Narvik city’s development and industry in addition to travelling exhibits.