A MAY DAY FOR REMOVING MASKS: Longyearbyen’s increasingly fragmented workforce finds unity in gathering honoring their many shared struggles and achievements

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Photo by Siv Limstrand

Growing up during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia meant May 1 was just another day for Zdenka Sokolickova, who “first felt something special in international celebration of value of labor” shortly after moving to Longyearbyen two years ago. She’s since compiled a vast social profile of the town as it undergoes huge transitions on many levels, most notably a past workforce of Norwegian coal miners being largely replaced by foreigner tourism/service industry employees.

But as one of the featured speakers during a May Day gathering in the town square at midday Saturday, she said the community’s long-term struggles – made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic the past year – means there is an immense solidarity among the working class despite their occupations becoming increasingly fragmented.

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The statue of a coal miner in the Longyearbyen town square, the traditional gathering point for May Day and other celebrations, is encroached upon by a fence due to one of several large-scale construction projects taking place as the community undergoes a major transformation in workforce and physical appearance. Photo by Siv Limstrand.

“A day when it does not matter where you come from, whether you are young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor,” she said. “A day when we celebrate together the value of labour, a value that is crucial for our lives as beings who are much more than just individuals, but definitely not geopolitical tools. Beings whose lives unfold in relations to other people, in an effort for a dignified life.”

The annual gathering at the miner’s statue featured most of its traditional activities and feel, the latter being significant since it was among the first local public events since on Thursday the city lifted a face mask mandate that had been in effect since March 11. Other speakers included Svein Johnny Albrigtsen, a longtime miner and labor activist; local Labor Party board members Raad Qureshi and Lasse Husdal; and Svalbard Church Priest Siv Limstrand. Music was performed by the Store Norske Men’s Choir and Longyearbyen Big Band.

Sokolickova said the miner’s statue – which at present is encroached upon by a fence due to one of several ongoing large-scale construction projects in the center of town – is a symbol of respect every time she passes it.

“My grandfather used to work in a uranium mine, and I heard a lot of stories about the hardship, danger and fatigue, but also pride and joy,” she said. “Different stories than those from Svalbard, but comparable. With the recent developments, we see that the statue of the miner will more and more make us remember something and somebody from the past.”

Coal mining represented about 40 percent of Longyearbyen’s workforce a decade ago, but a collapse in coal prices and other factors have resulted in the shutdown of virtually all mining the past few years and a complete end to mining within a few more. Meanwhile, tourism has increased from about 15 percent of the workforce a decade ago to roughly 40 percent today – and the percentage of foreign residents has more than doubled to about 35 percent of the population.

That is a harsh reality for Tommy Albrigtsen, among a relative handful of remaining mining employees at Store Norske. In a Facebook message offered his thanks to “people who swing the mop every single day, but are not seen” and “those in healthcare who do a fantastic job. but must fight for their salary.”

At the same time, he lamented the governor’s decision to end local mining, calling it a lack of appreciation for its workers and benefits still possible while coal remains in the existing mines.

“It is in fact a pity that someone goes straight from high school to a seat in the Parliament, and then decides the fate of others,” he wrote.

Sokolickova said she wonders what it would be like to have statues in the square of other workers in other occupations that are now considered cornerstones of the community.

“I value equally high frontline tourism workers such as guides, all the people who work in hotels and restaurants, all those ‘invisible’ workers, often women, often people whose existence in Longyearbyen is fragile because of unsustainable working and housing conditions, who are politically under-represented, and whose voices are hardly ever heard in the public,” she said.

“(I) hope that such ruptures and such values that connect people in this fragmented town will be on the agenda in Longyearbyen more often than just once a year.”