The Port of Rotterdam: a long tradition of industrial conflict continues

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Strikes in the Port of Rotterdam in the early months of 1997 demonstrate once again its distinctive position in the Dutch system of industrial relations. The ongoing process of reorganisation in the mixed-cargo sector, which has a long tradition of trade unionism, is responsible for regular labour disputes in the form of court action and both organised and wildcat strikes .

Strikes against proposed job losses

In April 1997, SHB, the "labour pool" at the Port of Rotterdam, was hit by a wildcat strike. The strikers were protesting against proposed reductions in employment levels. More than 500 employees of SHB took part in the strike, which was organised by the SHB works council, despite the opposition of the biggest transport union (Vervoersbond FNV, affiliated to the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions). The strike was instigated by management's intention to dismiss 200 of the 975 employees and to force another 330 employees to work three days a week instead of five.

The SHB labour pool (Arbeidspool) was founded to absorb fluctuations in the supply of goods handled by the different companies operating in the Port. Initially, the pool was run by an association that represented all the companies. However, since the beginning of the 1990s, companies have no longer been prepared to continue to pay the costs of under-utilisation: SHB employees, for example, were paid even if no work was available. In 1995, SHB was privatised and employees were forced to accept kinds of work other than traditional dock labour. As a result of the reorganisation, 250 jobs were lost. Attempts by the SHB works council to halt the reorganisation by means of a court action failed (Ruling of the Enterprise Chamber of the Amsterdam Court of 6 October 1994, ROR 1995/7).

Although the transport union resisted the latest strike, it opposed the reorganisation. According to the union, compulsory redundancies were unnecessary. The union proposed several alternatives of its own:

  • SHB employees could be lent out to forwarding companies;
  • work for SHB employees could be increased by reducing overtime in the dock companies; and
  • older employees could work part time.

These measures would result in enough work for all employees up to the year 2002. Thereafter, a large number of employees at the Port of Rotterdam would be pensioned off or would take early retirement.

Two months earlier, in February 1997, there was a short strike by the early shift at European Bulk Services (EBS). Later, the unions and EBS reached an agreement on a proposed reorganisation. As a result, 276 of the 650 jobs at EBS will be cut. The employees who lose their jobs will be hired by a newly formed foundation, which will try to find new jobs for them. In the first year, they will receive at least 80% of their former wages, and thereafter 75%. Part of the finance for this scheme is provided by the remaining EBS employees, who will sacrifice 9% of their wages in order to prevent compulsory redundancies. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the agreement, and some described it as "camouflaged compulsory redundancy".

Tradition of industrial conflict

These are two examples of industrial disputes in the Port of Rotterdam which comply with a long-standing tradition. A special feature of industrial relations in the Port of Rotterdam is the existence of unofficial unions in addition to the two officially recognised unions. The Vervoersbond FNV and the much smaller Vervoersbond CNV (affiliated to the Christian Trade Union Federation) are the only organisations that are entitled to enter into collective agreements.

The Onafhankelijk Verbond van Bedrijfsorganisaties (Independent Alliances of Industrial Organisations, OVB) and the Federatieve Haven Vakvereniging have their origins in the union traditions that has always been very strong in the ports of both Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The radical tradition and the existence of a higher than average number of organisations sometimes cause conflicts amongst the different unions. In 1991, Vervoersbond FNV and Vervoersbond CNV clashed when Vervoersbond FNV rejected a collective agreement between employers and Vervoersbond CNV on the terms of employment of lashers and organised a strike. An added complication is the existence of both radical and moderate wings within the Vervoersbond FNV. The radical wing is particularly strong in the mixed-cargo sector and on certain works councils.

The strong union undercurrent was manifestly present in the 1970s. In 1970 and 1979, massive wildcat strikes were called. These strikes were very much opposed by the official unions. The strikes were headed by strike committees that included representatives of the unofficial unions as well as communist and Maoist organisations. The main issue was money, that is, wage rises and full index-linking.

During the 1980s, the official unions, in particular Vervoersbond FNV, regained a lot of the ground they had lost during the 1970s by organising strikes against compulsory redundancies in the mixed-cargo sector. During these strikes, the Vervoersbond FNV applied the same militant tactics that had been used during the wildcat strikes in the 1970s, including "spearhead" and "relay" strikes. Both types of strikes had a sizeable effect on the transfer of goods, at a relatively low cost for the unions.

At the same time, the official unions tried to negotiate a more fundamental solution for the impending loss of jobs at the Port. In 1989, these negotiations resulted in the so-called "Master Plan". Employers and unions agreed that reorganisations would not result in compulsory redundancies until 1995. One of the cornerstones of this agreement was the early retirement of about 1,200 employees who were older than 56. The financial means for this operation came from the extra reserves of the Port's pension fund.

In 1993, the employers and the unions entered into another agreement, the so-called ""Havenakkoordor "Port Agreement". Both parties agreed to maximise their efforts to avoid compulsory redundancies. However, that did not mean that they would be completely ruled out. Indeed, at the employers' request, the Subdistrict Court of Rotterdam ruled that they would be permissible under certain circumstances.

Commentary

Traditionally, the ports occupy a unique position in the Dutch system of industrial relations. Although strikes are very unusual in the Netherlands, the situation in the ports is very different, where both organised and wildcat strikes are quite common. Another unique feature are the controversies that arise every now and then between and within the employees' organisations: between the non-official unions and the official unions; between the two official unions; and inside the Vervoersbond FNV between the more radical and the more moderate wings.

For a long time, strikes concentrated on terms and conditions of employment, particularly wage issues. However, the decline of labour-intensive mixed cargo and the accompanying reorganisations have resulted in a shift towards strikes against the loss of jobs.

The radical tradition has always been especially prominent in the mixed-cargo sector, which in recent years has lost a lot of ground to the container sector. Employees in the container sector do not automatically support their colleagues in mixed cargo. This became clear in 1991, when an attempt by the Vervoersbond FNV to force employers to enter into one combined agreement for mixed cargo, the container sector and the labour pool failed, because the employees of the giant container company ECT refused to go on strike.

The fact that the significance of mixed cargo has declined does not mean that the Port of Rotterdam will cease to be a potential hotbed. Small strikes and other types of action can have major consequences for the Port as a whole, as well as for the Dutch economy in general. Both the continuing process of reorganisation and the pressure on employees to work more flexibly will most probably give rise to turmoil over the coming years. A long tradition of industrial conflict does not vanish overnight. (Robbert van het Kaar, HSI)

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