Unions protest at privatisation of port handling operations

In June 2008, the French government adopted a law privatising port handling activities at seven major French seaports. Since the legislation was proposed in April, crane operators – with support from dockers – had held a series of strikes in protest at the effects of the privatisation on their jobs. Negotiations are due to start by 31 October on a framework agreement defining the terms for transferring the ports’ handling activities and workers to private operators.

In April 2008, the French government proposed a draft law on port reform (in French). According to the government, it aims to ‘relaunch the competitiveness’ of France’s ‘autonomous ports’, which are operated as commercial and industrial state-run bodies (Établissements publics à caractère industriel et commercial, EPICs). The law was adopted on 24 June and reforms the organisation of the activities of seven major seaports, including: Dunkerque, Le Havre and Rouen in the north of the country, Nantes Saint-Nazaire and La Rochelle in the west, as well as Bordeaux in the southwest and Marseille-Fos in the south. The autonomous ports of Paris and the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe will also be reorganised at a later stage.

The new way of organising port handling will be along the same lines as those already existing in many other European countries. Ports will stop using handling equipment themselves and transfer the work to private terminal operators, who will be responsible for all operations.

Important employment issues

The reform of the seaports, which is due to be introduced over a two-year period, is composed of four parts:

  • focusing the public service mission of ports on managing and developing infrastructure in such a way as to respect the environment;
  • modernising governance, in conjunction with local authorities and the social partners. The ports’ boards of directors (Conseil d’administration) are being replaced by: an executive board (Directoire); a supervisory board (Conseil de surveillance) including three employee representatives; a development board (Conseil de développement), which is consulted about the port’s strategic plans and pay policy; and an inter-port coordinating board (Conseil de coordination interportuaire), which will decide on major policy guidelines regarding the development, investment plans and promotion of the ports;
  • a special investment plan providing for €2.7 billion of public and private investment up until 2013;
  • transferring port handling workers to private operators and changing the collective agreement that covers them. Bargaining on a framework accord defining the field of application of the new agreement should start before 31 October 2008 and be concluded by 30 June 2009.

The employment aspects are a cornerstone of the reform. Crane and cargo hoist operators, who are now employed directly by the autonomous ports, will become employees of private operators, just like dockers following a previous reform in 1992.

Trade union reactions

In mid April, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), which is historically the majority trade union in ports, launched selective strike action. Over almost three months, until the adoption of the reform in June, crane operators – supported by dockers – stopped work on weekends, nights and one weekday a week. Buoyed up by a victorious dispute in 2007 at the Marseille Autonomous Port (FR0704059I), the CGT ports federation finally said, on 30 May, that it was ready to ‘start negotiations’ on a framework agreement. However, the confederation warned that if its conditions ‘met with refusal or there was no response [...] port workers would block seaports several days running’.

The Infrastructure, Environment, Transport and Service Federation (Fédération de l’Equipement, de l’Environnement, des Transports et des Services, FETS-FO), affiliated to the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), stated that this reform ‘is part of a process of liberalising transport in which the workforce is the adjustment variable’. CGT-FO denounced the privatisation process as one including ‘the major risk that private monopolies would be created’. The confederation is against bringing together the sector’s various collective agreements. In spite of a possibility offered to staff to return to employment by the ports during the next five years, CGT-FO considers that the workers’ demands regarding guarantees have not been met.

The General Federation of Transport and Infrastructure (Fédération générale des transports et de l’équipement, FTGE), affiliated to the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), considers that ‘the transfer of staff, creation of subsidiaries, new mission and coordination of sea and river-ports are all measures that threaten jobs’.

Commentary

At a time when the French parliament is examining a law transposing the multi-industry ‘common position’ reached by a number of trade union confederations and employer organisations in January 2008, which defines new rules regarding union representativeness and collective bargaining in the private sector (FR0806039I). However, the reform of port handling shows that ‘social dialogue’ is sometimes more complex than it seems. Relations between the Union of Autonomous Ports and Maritime Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Union des Ports Autonomes et des Chambres de Commerce et d’Industrie Maritimes, UPACCIM) and CGT arguably consolidate ‘corporatism’ in a sector where disputes and power struggles seem almost inevitable.

Benoît Robin, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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