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Swedish port conflict could lead to change in legislation

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

A long-running conflict in the port of Gothenburg has made the Swedish government consider changes in regulations covering industrial action. The reason the conflict has lasted for so long is a seemingly unsolvable fight for positions between two trade unions which both represent dockworkers.

The two trade unions are the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union and the Swedish Dockworkers’ Union. The latter was formed in1972 after a long period of dissatisfaction among dockworkers over increasing centralisation within LO-affiliated Transport. “The Dockworkers’ Unions is founded on the members’ authority: all important decisions on agreements and conflicts are made by affected members, and all officials are elected for limited periods by members in open and democratic elections,” is how the organisation presents itself on its website.

If you take Sweden as a whole, both trade unions have approximately the same number of member dockworkers, with a small advantage to Transport, but representation differs in individual ports. In the port of Gothenburg for instance, 85 percent of workers are members of the Dockworkers’ Union. That is why Hamn4an, which the Gothenburg chapter is called, wants a collective agreement with APM Terminals, the company running the local container terminal.

Risks penalties

There is only one problem: APMT is already bound by a different collective agreement, the national agreement between the Transport Workers’ Union and the employer organisation Ports of Sweden. And if an employer enters into two collective agreements which cover the same work, it still has to adhere to the one which was signed first – in this case Transport’s agreement. If the employer fails to do so, it risks having to pay a penalty for being in breach of the first collective agreement. 

In order to solve this dilemma, APMT has offered Hamn4an a so-called hängavtal – a local collective agreement that is identical to Transport’s agreement.  Thus, Hamn4an would still not have any influence over its members’ wages and other employment conditions. Nevertheless, the hängavtal would still grant the organisation a range of special rights which according to labour legislation only apply to trade union organisations bound by collective agreements: The right to information and consultation, the right to paid time off to do trade union work and extended rights to participate in the employer’s working environment management.

Hamn4an turned the offer down, and came up with a counter-offer. The organisation proposed that the Dockworkers’ Union, Transport and Ports of Sweden should negotiate a tripartite agreement, as equal partners. That, on the other hand, Transport did not want to do, and as a result neither did the employer’s organisation.

The right to take industrial action

And that is where things stand right now. Since Hamn4an has no collective agreement with the employer, it is free to take industrial action, and since April 2016 there has been a string of selective strikes, blockades and total cessation of work. Since 19 May this year there has also been a running lockout of the trade union’s members.

The employer’s organisation claims that the container terminal has been forced to run at 60 percent of total capacity over the past year because of the conflict. At the end of May, the Minister for Employment, Ylva Johansson, announced that the government will carry out an inquiry of the right to take industrial action “in order to protect the collective agreement’s position in the Swedish labour market”.

According to the government, the long-running conflict in the port of Gothenburg is an example of a situation where the Swedish model does not work as it should, because the social partners themselves cannot solve the question of which organisation should be agreeing to a collective agreement. If industrial action were to be taken for other purposes than to force though a collective agreement regulation, and employers risk strike action despite having a collective agreement, the Swedish model’s legitimacy will be compromised, the government argues. The right to take sympathy action in order to support a legal conflict between other parties will not be part of the inquiry, however.

Does not want to take sides

The Minister for Employment stressed that she did not want to take sides in the conflict, but that the Swedish model must of course be able to work also in the port of Gothenburg. The situation is serious, and represents a threat to the Swedish economy and jobs, according to Ylva Johansson.

No-one has been appointed to lead the inquiry yet, as far as we know. Whoever it will be, will have a sensitive task to perform. On the trade union side, no-one seems keen on the idea of limiting the right to take industrial action, regardless of which of the unions would benefit in such a case. On the other side, it is not impossible that just the “threat” of an overhaul can get the parties concerned to agree to a solution which makes the inquiry unnecessary. These things have happened before.

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