Dock workers across Europe have won a victory against the push for more neo-liberal measures across Europe.
They defeated an attack on jobs, health and safety, and working conditions that came from a proposed European Union (EU) directive to deregulate port services.
Over 10,000 workers marched on the European parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Monday of last week. Police attacked the marchers with tear gas and water cannon.
But dockers fought back, throwing fireworks and hurling stones at the parliament building, and breaking some 100 square metres of windows, according to the European parliament.
The protest, called by the European Federation of Transport Workers was backed by strike action that brought ports to a standstill.
It saw widespread stoppages closing ports in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Germany and Sweden. In Belgium, 2,000 workers struck in Antwerp, Europe’s second busiest port.
In the Netherlands, the ports of Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest, and Amsterdam were on strike. Six hundred dockers in the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion struck in unity with their European counterparts.
The EU proposal would have allowed port operators to employ independent contractors to load and unload vessels and let ship crews do the unloading themselves.
Belgium dock worker Jan Ekelpoel, who has spent 22 years on the docks, told Socialist Worker, “We wanted to make sure that in the glass house of the parliament the politicians got the message that we would defend our jobs and conditions.
“The police were determined to keep us away but not as determined as we were to make our point. We didn’t get into the building but we did get our message across.
“At my terminal, new cranes can handle 240 containers per ship per day, compared to 170 containers for the old cranes. The idea of making this open to simply anyone trained or not is ridiculous.
“I’m not going to let someone work on them who is not certified by the unions. The parliament rejected the proposal because we struck and marched.
“So mark one up to the strength of union organisation. But you never know when the next attempt to turn the industry on its head may come.”
Frank Leys, dock workers’ secretary of the International Transport Federation, said, “When I first heard what the European commission was proposing—seafarers handling cargo and outsourcing handling services, hiring people who aren’t registered dockers to do dockers’ work—it felt like we were returning to the 19th century.
“We were heading back to an age where the only thing needed to work in the docks was brute strength and the willingness to spend half of your hard earned wages in the foreman’s wife’s shop or pub if you wanted to work the next day.
“I am one of the third generation of a family of dockers at Antwerp, where three of my brothers still work.
“I know that ports have changed – technology has reduced manual handling, even if there are still places where cargo in 50kg bags is moved by hand.
“Safety is important in all industries, but particularly so in the maritime sector where lethal risks proliferate. Safety has to be one of the major concerns of all players in the industry.
“When I started in the port 25 years ago, we loaded and unloaded goods using ship?to?shore cranes that could lift five tonnes.
“The crane driver was an experienced worker, but if the lifting gear or a cargo hook accidentally swung against one of the workers slinging the goods it might hurt like hell, but you’d live through it.
“These days, you’re more likely to see mobile ship-to-shore cranes which can lift over 100 tonnes. You can imagine what someone hit by one of those hooks will look like.
“Dockers are no longer hired on street corners, they are trained professionals who have vocational instruction before they ever go near a ship.
“We were united in disbelief that the corpse of this pointless and damaging legislation was dragged as far as it was. We came to make clear our anger.”
‘Britain should have struck too’
Mike Gibbons, a member of the T&G union general executive and a dock workers’ convenor in Southampton, was in Strasbourg last week, as part of a delegation of British dockers.
He told Socialist Worker, “The president of the EU commission was open about the fact that the directive could undermine job security and skills, and bring in more casual labour.
“Thousands of us from across Europe marched up to the parliament building to be met be the agents of repression in riot gear. But people weren’t intimidated. And we managed to force them back.
“I have never been on a trade union march with such a sense of unity and purpose.
“What is remarkable is that the brilliant and spirited demonstration and the coordinated strike action across Europe won.
“Unlike in Britain, almost all continental ports are public institutions, which source their labour exclusively from unionised dock workers.
“Britain has more than a hundred ports, engaged in a ceaseless competitive war ever since they were privatised that has led to a running down of jobs and conditions.
“Britain has been at the forefront of deregulation in Europe. It’s time we caught up with our European colleagues in the fightback against it.
“Here we didn’t have industrial action while the rest of Europe did, and that is a real shame.
“The next step for the union movement is to push back the proposed services directive. The ports directive was just one part of the offensive from Europe.
“What we are missing in the British unions is a recognition that an ideological model of neo?liberalism is being pushed through Europe.
“When it comes to the Bolkestein services directive I am surprised that the public sector unions aren’t up in arms.
“We have seen that we can push these attacks back but we really need to go on the offensive.
“The next key step is to mobilise for the European TUC demonstration in Strasbourg on 14 February.”
A cloud over a continent
The protests by dock workers are part of a wider battle over workers rights in Europe. Jorg Wessels, a Hamburg docker told Socialist Worker, “Sadly the ports seem to be one of the last places in Europe where trade unionists still put up a fight.
“The shipowners don’t care about employment or safety, they just want to coin in the money. The parliament vote is a victory but you have to question how we turn back not just the legislation but the waves of attacks on workers coming from Europe.
“They want to deregulate everything. Neo-liberalism is like a cloud of acid rain hanging above us. The cloud has for today been lifted.
“We know Europe has too often brought negative consequences. The ‘no’ vote of the French and Dutch workers over the EU constitution last year shows that we no longer see the EU as respecting our interests.
“They still want absolute economic liberalism and competition must prevail in order to achieve the Lisbon programme.”
The Lisbon programme, agreed in 2000, is a plan for the EU to be economically stronger than the US by 2010.
This involves the dismantling of decent working conditions and the removal of all constraints on big business.
The European constitution that was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands proposed the EU should become “an internal market where competition is free and undistorted” and “a highly competitive social market economy”.
A key element of the Lisbon programme is the pushing through of the Bolkestein Services directive.
It aims to liberalise services throughout the EU. It also means services sold abroad would be subject to the rules of their country of origin.
Companies in France or Germany, for example, could hire services from Poland or Slovakia, paying lower wages and applying less rigorous labour laws.
Don’t let them jail dockers
Nine dockers have been jailed for their role in the rioting in Strasbourg.
Eight Belgium workers were given jail terms of one to four months and one French docker was jailed for three months. Another four dockers from France, Spain and Belgium were given suspended jail terms of up to five months.
All of the convicted Belgians were banned from entering France for the next 12 months. Some 64 French riot police were injured during the protest.
Send messages of support for the jailed dockers to [email protected]