A stacked deck

Agreement: Spain's ports are now one step closer to stevedore reform. Credit: Jorge Franganillo Agreement: Spain's ports are now one step closer to stevedore reform. Credit: Jorge Franganillo

COMMENT: The five-month long industrial relations conflict in Spain’s ports has ended, but has it ended in a satisfactory way?

On the surface Spain’s government has achieved what it set out to - the adoption of the Royal Decree which secures a European Union-mandated liberalisation of port services, a key part of which is enabling port employers to source labour from the open market and not just a unionised pool. This measure will finally become active at the end of a three-year transition period agreed between port employers and unions.

Following the adoption of the Royal Decree, the EU has applied a fine of €3m to Spain for the period in which it was not in compliance with its ruling on the liberalisation of port services. There was an expectation that this fine, the second fine applied to Spain for the same offence, could have been as high as €27m and so at a political level this is also seen as a positive result.

From the labour standpoint the port unions have achieved their biggest goal – no retrenchment of labour – the workforce of 6,000 personnel – within the three-year transition period, aside from any early retirement arrangements made.

So, what did the port employers get? The short answer for some parties could be exactly what they wanted, which was a return to full working as soon as possible over and above everything else. For others, those who saw this reforming moment in time as a real opportunity to implement comprehensive structural reforms to put the industry on a much more competitive footing, then the answer clearly has to be ‘not enough’ by any stretch of the imagination.

What was actually delivered to employers by labour, mainly in exchange for the promise of job security, was acceptance of a 10% reduction in wages and agreement on certain organisational and productivity aspects designed to enhance efficiency. There was also agreement by the unions to sit down and negotiate a full Collective Bargaining Agreement in the spirit of the content of the new Royal Decree.

Poor result

Measured against other dock labour system reforms, which have been necessary to put the respective host countries’ supply chains on a more competitive footing in order to meet modern-day needs, these latest reform steps can be seen as a poor result. Through a combination of threats, strong actions – slow working and strikes – and the tactic of divide and rule among employers, labour has come out on top at the end of the conflict.

Where does most of the blame lie for this situation? Without doubt, it lies squarely at the door of those employers who relatively early on were prepared to do an individual deal with unions to get their terminals working or similarly free from the threat of strikes or go-slows. Hutchison’s Barcelona Europe South Company (BEST) and APM Terminals Algeciras both made deals earlier on. When companies such as these commenced individual actions to quickly resolve the costly port conflict with port labour it was only a matter of time until fractures appeared in the united front presented by the port employers association ANESCO. This quickly led to the reality of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ among other port employers including those who originally had been prepared to go the distance.

Negotiations between ANESCO and the port unions are underway regarding a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. But what real prospect is there for serious and meaningful structural reforms when one set of players – the unions – know they have the ability to deal the cards in their favour?

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