Erik Helgeson is one of the people who has been representing Hamnfyran in the conflict. Foto: SVT/TT

How the labour conflict in the Port of Gothenburg became of critical importance for the entire Swedish labour market

Uppdrag granskning ·

It started as a brawl between a global shipping giant and a trade union that goes its own way. But the conflict at the Port of Gothenburg has come to concern something much larger – and something that can cause fundamental changes to the entire Swedish labour market.

A conflict breaks out in Gothenburg’s municipal container port in spring 2016. The Swedish Dockworkers Union’s Branch Four, commonly known as the “Hamnfyran” (“Dockworkers 4” or “Local 4”) takes its members out for two day-long strikes.

There are two parties in the conflict. One is the Dockworkers 4 trade union branch, and the other, the global port giant APM Terminals. They made an entrance in Sweden in 2012, when the company took over the operations of the container port in Gothenburg. Behind them, APM has the world’s largest container shipping company – the Danish Maersk group.

For the municipality, it’s a quite profitable deal: APM Terminals paid more than one billion Swedish kronor to win the agreement, which has a term of 25 years. The goal is to double the volumes in the terminal. But among the customers, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the Danish company, and the container volumes in the port actually are decreasing.

The largest union in the harbour

The Swedish Dockworkers Union, the Hamnarbetarförbundet, is an odd bird in the Swedish labour market, because it stands outside the major labour organisations. Ambiguous, according to some. Uncompromising riot makers, according to others.

In the early 1970s, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation-affiliated Swedish Transport Workers’ Union was split up and former members formed the new Dockworkers Union. The splitting up left scars, the effect of this remains significant until this day.

In Gothenburg, the Swedish Dockworkers Union is the largest – but nevertheless it is still the Transport Workers’ Union that holds the collective bargaining agreement with APM Terminals.

– The Dockworkers Union does not respect that it is the Transport Workers’ Union that has the national agreement, comments Henrik Kristensen, CEO of APM Terminals Gothenburg AB.

Peter Annerback and Erik Helgeson, Hamnfyran’s representatives, say that their problems began when new management took over in in 2015. Hamnfyran has had trade union rights, the right to appoint trade union safety representatives, and they have also been involved in negotiations with the employer.

When the new management arrived, everything changed.

– We had a massive amount of unresolved personnel matters, people who were caught between things in various ways. They failed to invite our safety representatives to investigations of accidents and neglected their responsibilities with the notification of dangerous situations or dangerous work tasks that needed to be addressed. Everything was built on; we had long lists on multiple sheets of paper with various unresolved outstanding issues, notes Erik Helgeson.

A loophole – or not

In the Port, it’s Hamnfyran who could offer APM Terminals industrial peace, because they have more members than the Transport Workers’ Union. According to Henrik Kristensen there is a “loophole” in the Swedish legislation that has caused the conflict.

– It’s a loophole that allows a trade union to strike at a company when there already is a collective bargaining agreement in place at the workplace.

But Mats Glavå, one of Sweden’s foremost labour law experts who works at the University of Gothenburg, is critical of how the conflict has been described and dealt with by the entire employer side. According to Mats Glavå, the loophole in the Swedish model that Henrik Kristensen talks about, does not exist.

– There is no loophole. That is the basic rule. The basic rule is that trade unions that do not have a collective bargaining agreement may engage in industrial action. That’s what the Dockworkers Union does.

The labour conflict quickly escalated with additional two-day-long strikes, the parties becoming even further apart from each other. After Hamnfyran went on strike for an additional 26 hours in November 2016, both parties requested that the national government step in and mediate.

The suggested agreement submitted by the mediators does not give Hamnfyran independence nor does it put them on an equal level with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union. Hamnfyran said “No,” – and went out on strike again.

The mediators are criticised

On Tuesday, 24 January 2017, they had a work stoppage for eight hours. It is the first – but also the only time – during all of 2017. After that, Hamnfyran requested that the mediators be replaced.

– Their perception of the Swedish model is that LO and the employers’ associations Arbetsgivarföreningen make up collective bargaining agreements. There is no flexibility for the workers to choose something else, remarks Erik Helgeson.

The Union criticises that the mediators “proved to have a far too strong relationship to the LO family” and think that is why the mediation did not succeed.

Mediator Jan Sjölin has been working for 30 years in the Swedish Trade Union Confederation’s Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union and has like the other mediator, Anders Lindström, a background within the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

– We have of course informed Hamnfyran of that, and very clearly so. To the extent that we make the same assessments and judgments about the legal situation as the employer’s side does, we do not do that because we are on the side of the employer. We make the same assessments of factual circumstances, states the mediator Jan Sjölin.

The mediators continued and early in 2017, a new opportunity arose to resolve the conflict when the nationwide collective bargaining agreement between the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union and the industry organisation Sveriges Hamnar (Ports of Sweden, part of the Swedish Confederation of Transport Enterprises) expires. The Dockworkers Union proposes that, via a joint agreement with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, industrial peace will be established in Gothenburg and all Swedish ports.

– It would have been the easiest and simplest solution for the labour market as a whole. If the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union and Hamnfyran sign a joint agreement, fine. The problem is finished with, notes Jan Sjölin.

Not an easy solution

The easiest solution. Nevertheless, it was not to be. The new agreements secretary of the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, Peter Winsten, rejects the proposal for a collaboration.

– We have a nationwide agreement covering all of Sweden and ports in Sweden. And we make the assessment from our union’s side that it works exceptionally well as it is right now, comments Peter Winsten.

Hamnfyran’s proposal for joint agreement falls flat.

– I think the simple explanation for the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union’s silence and LO’s silence is that they quite simply are hoping that APM Terminals will destroy the Dockworkers Union in the container terminal, and then subsequently they will be a domino effect where we are weakened throughout the entire country, says Erik Helgeson.

Why would they want that?

– Because they believe that there should only be one union for dockworkers and that’s the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union.

Instead, the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union and Sveriges Hamnar (Ports of Sweden) sign a three-year agreement – in the midst of the conflict. APM Terminals refers to the principle of a national agreement, even though it does not lead to industrial peace at the port.

– When we come to a new country, we look at how things work in the ports. If there is an agreement, such as the case here in Sweden, which has been in place and functioned in all ports for 40 years, then we will accede to that, explains CEO Henrik Kristensen.

The game plan changes

Uppdrag Granskning lets the labour law expert Mats Glavå explain the legal situation. And now the story takes a new course.

According to Glavå, it is unusual for the employer’s side, in this case APM Terminals, not to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the labour union organisation that can provide industrial peace.

– Since employers in this area are well aware that the Dockworkers Union has the majority of employees in some ports, yet they enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, they know that their counterparty cannot offer what is essential for the employer, namely to attain a situation of industrial peace.

In the spring of 2017, the game plan in the port changes. The labour conflict has been going on for over a year. On one side is Hamnfyran. On the other: APM Terminals in conjunction with Göteborgs Hamn AB, the Ports of Sweden, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union.

APM Terminals has notified about 20 dockworkers concerning their termination of employment. Hamnfyran has not gone out on strike since January. Instead, they have put blockades on hiring, overtime and contract workers from agencies.

Big consequences

Wednesday, 10 May, APM Terminals sends out a press release, in six weeks, it will completely close the large container terminal in the evenings and at night. The purpose of the lockout, writes APM, is to “induce the opposing party to cease with its industrial action.”

During the lockout, the Dockworkers Union pays a part of its members’ wages. APM Terminals receives money from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise’ Strike and Labour Conflicts Fund. Exactly how much, they will not say.

But for third parties, it has enormous consequences.

– It will be expensive. It will cost us two million kronor a day in additional costs, says Johnny Sjöström, CEO of the steel company Uddeholms AB in a radio appearance.

After one month’s lockout, CEO Henrik Kristensen announces that 160 dockworkers will lose their jobs. This is one-third of the employees, and almost all are members of Hamnfyran.

A source with good insight into the thinking of APM’s senior management describes the lockout as APM putting the nail right into the coffin:

– One killed the business that way, and it could only have been due to that they wanted to get rid of inconvenient personnel. Nothing else.

Afterwards, the mediators ask to be released from their mandate. They regarded it as being “completely meaningless and useless” to continue,” reports mediator Jan Sjölin.

– I cannot answer today, after seven months, exactly what is needed so that the Dockworkers Union will be satisfied. The Dockworkers Union has a share of the responsibility, in that they have not communicated to us. We have a part of the responsibility in that we failed to pick up with that broadcast, in the case that it ever occurred.

The minister gets involved

But Erik Helgeson at Hamnfyran has a straightforward answer to the question of what they are demanding.

– In practice, we want to be an equal union party together with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union. We do not want to force them out, but we want to have the same rights.

Since 30 June 2017, the conflict has been on idle, no industrial action is underway. But Ylva Johansson (S), the Minister for Employment and Integration, throws new fuel on the fire when she goes out and says that the Swedish model, in the case of the Port of Gothenburg, is not working as it was intended.

– That is why, I am prepared to go as far as legislation in a matter that for us Social Democrats is of course very sensitive, says Johansson.

However, Mats Glavå, the professor of labour law, warns of the consequences of such legislation.

– Due to that the situation in the port is unique, a solution should be created for that particular situation, not a legislative solution that could fundamentally alter the Swedish model. The right to engage in industrial action is governed in the Swedish constitutional legislation, plus Sweden is bound by international conventions; so this is essential, comments Mats Glavå.

Is there no place for a small independent union of this kind?

– This shows that many do not think so.

A new proposal

What started as a conflict between one employer and a few hundred dockworkers is about something entirely different today. The issue is about whether Hamnfyran has finally met their superior. APM Terminals is now taking those dockworkers made redundant and hiring them via staffing companies, and the parties have commenced litigation against each other in the Labour Court.

At the end of the interview with Uppdrag Granskning, the mediator Jan Sjölin says that he would like to return to the Port, in order to make a new attempt. But he also comes with an entirely new idea.

– Hear my suggestion with an open mind: If everyone in Gothenburg joins the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, then those who are currently in the Dockworkers Union will join over the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union’s local branch in Gothenburg. A simple solution.

Are they supposed to simply to go out of business?

– Yes, though they will govern. It will be them who will rule, quite simply. But of course this would mean that they become a part of the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, and they certainly don’t like that idea.

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