APM Terminals Gothenburg’s Christmas message: No compromise – the Dispute escalates

2016-12-24 No openings in the company’s response. Instead new threats of mass lay-offs and an attempt to shut the SDU out from representing it’s members at upcoming redundancy negotiations.

Background – what has happened since the mediation ended?

Ever since the state mediation efforts ended on Friday the 2nd of December, the SDU Local 4 has instead tried to contribute to the establishment of constructive direct negotiations with the employer APM Terminals Gothenburg. The aim has been to try to find a solution to the conflict that has now been ongoing for nine months. The union has tried to heed the advice given to the parties by the state mediators, to avoid making public statements. Together with the national SDU leadership as well as our international organisation the IDC, the local has also been developing an idea of creating an entirely new production model for the terminal during a period of peace, in an effort to break the current deadlock.

While the union was working out the framework for a temporary compromise, the APMT Gothenburg management launched a massive program of cuts for 2017. According to the information the management presented to the employees, the terminal is currently losing millions of Euros in income every month, which it blames solely on the dispute with the dockworkers.
To handle a poor economic result, the management has developed a plan that includes reducing the crane gangs from 9 to 8 men (a manning level well below that of other, more productive European APM Terminals like Aarhus and Barcelona) and changing the work hours for different individuals within the existing shifts.

APM Terminals Gothenburg also used it’s info TV’s to declare that the so called efficiency measures were expected to result in a reduction of jobs, making all dockworkers on temporary contracts (at the time, the management couldn’t present any figures on how many there actually were) as well as 24 steadily employed redundant. The SDU estimates that the company’s initial plan includes cutting some 60 jobs in total. According to the company, redundancy negotiations will start on the 16th of January 2017.

The announcement from the management was expected and perceived as an extortion effort, intended at creating divisions within the workforce and trying to force the dockworkers to accept long sought concessions regarding their terms and conditions. The company’s message didn’t have the intended effect. A lot of people also saw the company’s statement as contradictory, as it tried to force the unions to accept a higher workload and drastic cuts in manning within the ship and yard operations under the pretense that it would somehow “save jobs”. 

An attempt to break the deadlock – IDC’s General Coordinator visits Gothenburg

At this point, the SDU still choose to ignore the provocations from the company and had invited the International Dockworkers’ Council’s General Coordinator Jordi Aragunde to participate in the Gothenburg membership assembly on the 15th of December. After discussions with Aragunde and others, the board of the SDU Local 4 presented two proposals to the union members.

The first proposal was that the union should offer the company a period (initially three months) without industrial action to allow for intense negotiations concerning a totally new production model, inspired by container terminals on the European continent. The framework for these negotiations would be the goals put forward by APMT Gothenburg’s CEO Henrik Kristensen in his correspondence with the IDC: Increasing flexibility as well as productivity without raising the overall labour costs.

The proposal also meant that the union opened up for a coherent agreement that would include introducing dockworkers from the pool of casuals to the task of driving staddle carriers if problems with Health & Safety risks, work rotation and threats to long-term employment security had been dealt with. The union members were supposed to elect a broad internal working group to discuss and develop concrete proposals for such negotiations.

In return the union expected counter-commitments from the company to do their part in normalizing realtions in the workplace and actually addressing all or at least the majority of the six very basic issues at the core of the APMT Gothenburg Dispute.

Plan B

The other proposal was a plan for continued industrial action in case the local APM Terminals management rejected the new initiative and kept pursuing it’s strategy of all-out confrontation. For such a scenario, it was suggested that the current overtime ban would be extended to the 28th of February and that new strikes would be organized in the beginning of 2017. All new strikes would be coordinated with the IDC and a call for global solidarity action would be issued, to increase the pressure on the APMT HQ and their owners the Maersk Group to intervene in the conflict.

After a lengthy discussion, some two hundred SDU members voted unanimously to support both proposals. The following morning, IDC’s GC Jordi Aragunde met with APMT CEO Kristensen to discuss the dispute and later that Friday afternoon, the company management was presented with a written proposal for renewed negotiations (with a copy being sent to the state mediators). The APMT Gothenburg management promised it would respond formally the following week.

APM Terminals Gothenburg’s response

The SDU Local 4 was invited to a meeting at 09.00 on Thursday the 22nd of December to receive the company’s response. However, that meeting lasted less than five minutes. The company management was very upset, claiming they had proof that the SDU had made union winter jackets to replace the company’s work wear. They seemed unwilling to even discuss what had happened and then stormed out of the meeting room again. Later in the afternoon the SDU’s local chairman Peter Annerback called CEO Henrik Kristensen and assured him that the union had in fact no visibility jackets with the SDU logo. At the company’s request, Annerback also sent written confirmation that the union still doesn’t disapprove of the APMT dress code, first presented by the company several years ago.

On Friday morning, the 23rd of December, the APMT management called a new meeting to present their response. This meeting was also partly focused on the dress code, as CEO Kristensen and Head of Operations Magnus Lundberg stated that the company was now going to prohibit the use of caps, hats and t-shirts with union motives or any other emblems from being worn under the company’s visibility clothing and safety equipment inside the terminal.

However, on this occasion the company actually also presented a one-page document in response to the SDU initiative. The response essentially repeated exactly the same company positions as before.

Zero company commitments – no compromises on the outstanding issues

In it’s written response, APM Terminals Gothenburg mentions several times that the company views the union’s proposed commitments ”positively” but fails to make a single counter-commitment of its own, neither regarding the outstanding basic issues or any other long- or even short-term adjustments of it’s personnel policy.

Instead, the document reminds future participants in the SDU’s internal working groups that “applications for unpaid union work must be submitted in writing in a timely manner” and goes on to schoolmasterly review the initial values of the union in such negotiations.

A side letter to the CBA for the majority union?

The company management's only counter-proposal is that it, again, suggests that the SDU Local 4 signs a series of side letters to the company’s existing Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union (STWU) and thereby give up the right to strike. The employer even suggests that this move would “automatically” regulate most of the outstanding issues in the workplace. That is an absurd statement that we will soon come back to.

During the fall and winter of 2009/2010 the Swedish Dockworkers’ Union and the national employers association Ports of Sweden were involved in extensive negotiations to discuss the possibility of such a side letter to the national CBA, as the SDU is the national majority union in the ports but still isn’t allowed to co-sign the agreement covering the industry. Already back then, it was acknowledged that a number of power-related issues needed to be addressed if such a side letter was intended to achieve anything except reducing the SDU to a subordinate of the CBA stakeholder the STWU. Regretfully, no such solutions could be found at that time. Interested readers can find reports from those central negotiations here and here.

One issue of particular interest during these central negotiations, was the question of how disagreements would be handled regarding issues that require an agreement between employer and union parties. For example, with just an unedited side letter to the CBA, the “side letter” union would have no chance to make its’ voice heard if the employer simply ignored it’s disapproval of a proposed work pattern and went ahead to make an agreement solely with the minority (CBA stakeholder) union. Such an agreement, signed by the contract stakeholders but rejected by the “side letter” union, would still bind all dockworkers, regardless of union affiliation.

For the SDU, such a contract proposal would mean that we as the majority union would be submitted to all the responsibilities and restrictions of a CBA stakeholder (including signing away the right to strike) but would only acquire some of the rights.

In the Gothenburg container terminal, where about 85% of the dockworkers have actively chosen to affiliate with the SDU, signing a series of side letters to the local CBA’s without any amendments or assurances would be even more unreasonable for the union. There is absolutely no reason for a union organizing an overwhelming majority of the workforce to sell its’ right to strike at a cheaper prize than other unions in the workplace. APM Terminals Gothenburg, of course, knows this. By now the company management is familiar with all our reservations but have no interest in trying to address them or finding a viable contract solution.
Instead, waving around the same impossible side letter proposal over and over serves as a convenient excuse for not engaging in real talks about the actual problems in the terminal.

The company’s claim on Friday that most of the SDU’s oustanding issues would be “regulated automatically” is in itself embarrassing. The current APMT Gothenburg personnel policy affects all employees in the company, regardless of union affiliation and profession. An employer that breaks the law, disregards CBA’s and even it’s own promises to the staff, that uses individual dockworkers as bargaining chips to push for collective concessions and that interferes in the unions’ internal democratic structures, will of course not be hindered by any side letter to the CBA if it is unwilling to change its’ overall approach to the employees.

The SDU Local 4 barred from representing it’s members at upcoming redundacy negotiations

The APMT Gothenburg management ended the negotiations on Friday by clarifying that it would not allow the union participate in upcoming redundancy negotiations, even though almost all the dockworkers that the company is threatening to lay off are SDU members. Thus, the final reply from the company’s management regarding the SDU’s initiative for a period of peace and constructive negotiations was an attempt to strip more than 50 dockworkers, threatened with losing their jobs, of their union representation.

What happens now?

The APMT Gothenburg’s response to the union’s peace offer can’t be regarded as anything but a continuation of the company’s strategy of total confrontation with the dockworkers. 

The union will still prepare elections for the internal working groups, that will work on proposals for a new production model, a coherent salary model and manning agreements for all sections of the terminal.

The strategy decided on by the members will be followed through. If the current management is unwilling to seek agreements, find negotiated solutions or even listen to its’ employees, it won’t be able to break out of the downward spirale the terminal has been caught in for the last two years.
Sooner or later we will meet either a more cooperative attitude or new faces on the other side of the bargaining table. When that happens we will be prepared, able to present a constructive mutually benificial proposal to turn things around and start building an efficient and reliable port where the employees feel welcome and safe.

On the other hand, there is no longer any reason to hold back. In accordance with the decision of last week’s membership assembly, the SDU Local 4 has now given notice about a new overtime ban coming into effect on the 6th of January and lasting until the 28th of February.

The job of coordinating new strikes at the APM terminal in Gothenburg with direct IDC support action on a global level will start after Christmas. We will request solidarity action form the whole IDC network and we know that many of our fellow dockworker trade unions are ready to help out.

A new General Assembly for the SDU Local 4 membership will be held in January.