Unlawful strike by bus drivers

Denmark's exceptionally peaceful 2000 collective bargaining round had hardly been completed in February, when an unlawful industrial dispute broke out in the transport sector. Highly unusually, bus drivers across the country took strike action in protest against the SiD trade union. The drivers wished to express their discontent with the agreement concluded between SiD and the employers, and especially the working time rules which they considered a step backwards in relation to the previous agreement.

During the 2000 collective bargaining round - which was the most peaceful in modern history - the general impression was that if a dispute were to break out, it would be in the transport sector, which faced the most difficult negotiations over a four-year deal (DK0002167F) An agreement was, nevertheless, reached, but immediately after the Public Conciliator had published his final compromise text for the entire bargaining round, bus drivers in all parts of Denmark went on strike unlawfully - in protest against the General Workers' Union (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD).

The background to the dispute was a judgment given by the Industrial Court early in December 1999, which held that the Trade Union of Transport Salaried Employees (Trafikfunktionærernes Fagforening, TF) was not entitled to call a strike against the bus company Linjebus for the purpose of obtaining a collective agreement, because this field was already covered by an agreement with a different union, SiD. The three former public bus companies Combus, Arriva and Linjebus were privatised in 1999 and the companies subsequently became members of the Employer Association of Bus Companies (Rutebilejernes Arbejdsgiverforening, RA) an organisation affiliated to the Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA), which has a collective agreement with SiD. TF, which is a unit of the Trade Union of Public Employees (Forbundet af Offentligt Ansatte, FOA), has for a number of years been engaged in a bitter demarcation dispute with SiD concerning the privatised drivers, whose previous collective agreement TF has - unsuccessfully - sought to maintain (DK9909146N).

The strike involved the majority of bus drivers. These are mostly members of SiD, but there are still about 700 members of TF in Copenhagen and the surrounding area. Where members of both unions are present, they took strike action together.

The striking bus drivers were especially dissatisfied because they felt that the rules concerning breaks and the organisation of the working time in the new agreement negotiated by SiD would seriously damage their working conditions, which are already regarded as strenuous as regards safety and health at work. The Minister of Labour, Ove Hygum, has placed bus drivers on the list of the 10 most hazardous occupational groups in Denmark. In the new collective agreement, it is stipulated that the span within which daily working hours may be organised is 13 hours, compared with 8.5 hours under the former agreement. However, this does not mean that the bus drivers have a real prospect of being forced to work for 13 hours per day, as the daily working time is to be fixed at local level between the employer and employee representatives.

Both SiD and RA denied responsibility for the dispute. SiD blamed RA for having ignored warnings about the less advantageous working time rules for its new members, and also for having failed to seek to negotiate about less favourable pay and pension results in return for a better working environment. RA did not recognise this presentation of the state of affairs: it believed that that the unlawful strike was exclusively SiD's problem, as the new collective agreement includes the same results as most other major agreements signed in the 2000 bargaining round - ie five extra days of special leave, better occupational pension provisions, increases in hourly wage rates and in minimum wage rates, and better wage compensation in the event of sickness. RA sees this as a good result which should not have led to an unlawful strike. The strike should rather be seen as a result of the privatisation of bus transport which has taken place in recent years, in connection with which SiD obtained negotiating rights for the bus drivers who had previously been public employees organised by TF.

However, SiD and RA indicated that they might return to the negotiating table after the publication on 7 March of the result of the ballot on the Public Conciliator's compromise for the whole bargaining round. At this point, the bus drivers' collective agreement is the affair of the bargaining parties. The working time rules may be, if not renegotiated, then reinterpreted. The employers have no interest in a continued dispute with their bus drivers.

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