The Neptun conflict in Melbu, autumn 1933

Norwegian Fishing Industry Museum

Melbu • Vesterålen

Melbo, autumn 1933. The Neptun factory had opened and closed for periods of time since the beginning of 1911. The workers did not have any better opportunities to earn a living than those Neptun could provide. Poverty was prevalent and when production ceased, for many people the only solution was to steal food so they would not starve.

Summer and autumn of 1933 proved to be good years for herring. That was the year Neptun began operations. Wages started at 60 øre an hour, at 12 hour shifts. The factory was burdened with old debts and the workers were told a number of times that fall that their pay would fall to 55 øre an hour. The workers were angry and desperate. They decided to unite5 and form a labour union. The ‘Melbo og Omegns kjemiske Arbeiderforening’ was founded on December 3rd, despite stern warnings from factory leaders. The organizers were told that they could forget about any future work at Neptun.

The union made some demands regarding salary, which were summarily rejected by management. The factory stopped purchasing herring as soon as the union was formalised, so production stopped. The factory then wanted to sell its stores of herring oil and herring meal.

The workers found themselves between a rock and a hard place. That was when they decided to block shipment of the warehouse stores. Stopping Neptun’s oil and meal warehouses was the best weapon the union had available to keep the union alive. Neptun had no connection to the mainland in 1933 – one needed a boat to reach the factory and the workers organised round the clock vigils to stop any ships from leaving the factory with goods. A charge of dynamite was planted at Gulstadøya Island. If a ship tried to get past the island the blast would let everyone know.

A lorry was standing at Neptun’s docks in the spring of 1934. News spread quickly, and the workers hurried down to the Melbo docks to row over the Vågen. Every available rowboat was borrowed. As the rain and wind fell, the union members rowed as fast as they could over to the Neptun factory where the lorry was being loaded by strikebreakers. Four barrels of herring oil had already been loaded onto the lorry when the union members arrived. The police were already there. The bailiff, with bandolier, revolver and five deputies from the so-called “market police”, wearing the distinctive cap and carrying their batons, were waiting. The general manager and his boys were there together with the dock manager, telling the unionised workers to get lost. The workers stood their ground and stopped the lorry without saying a word. On board the ship, the Nordenfjeldskes Trondhjem, the officers and crew were standing watch. There were more than 100 workers present as one of their leaders jumped on top of a herring oil barrel to direct his men toward into the fray. He asked the police to stay out of the fight, and told the crew on board the Trondhjem to refuse to load the goods.

The workers sang Brødre til Sol og til frihet. Then everything went quiet – very quiet. The bailiff stood still, looking at the ground; everyone waiting in anticipation. The scabs were standing close by as the ship’s crew waited for orders. The bailiff, a cautious man, took a few steps forward and calmly read the Riot Act (from chapter 13 of the Penal Code) about the crime of disturbing the peace.

The workers were obligated to obey orders form the authorities and remove themselves from the area and not hinder any further loading of the ship. The bailiff did not say more than what he was required to say by law. Nobody moved; the factory’s men told the workers to leave. Nobody moved, and the bailiff said nothing about leaving the docks.

Nobody today knows how long this war of nerves lasted, but in the end the captain of the ship left the bridge and yelled that now was the time for a solution because he had to continue on his scheduled route. The Melbo docks were full of people waiting for what would happen next.

It took half an hour before the captain stepped out of the bridge and gave orders to shove off. The four barrels of herring oil that had made it to the deck were lowered to the docks before the ship left. The crowd burst into a spontaneous chorus singing the Internationale, the ship’s crew joined in, as did those waiting on the Melbo docks. The bailiff gathered his men and left as the workers remained on the docks singing all the union workers’ songs they knew. They had won.

After difficult negotiations that summer, the workers were given a wage increase and the wheel of industry that was Neptun could begin to turn again.

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