On Wednesday, January 23, the Swedish Dockworkers Union (SDU) will initiate nationwide industrial action against the employers’ organization Ports of Sweden, with the aim of establishing a central collective bargaining agreement. The first round includes a total overtime stoppage in the northern ports and strikes in Helsingborg, Umeå, Karlshamn and Söderhamn. During the upcoming days, we will give further notice of strikes in other ports all over Sweden.
In 2018, the SDU and Ports of Sweden have met on several occasions for negotiations concerning the union's proposal to sign a national CBA identical to the one already in place between Ports of Sweden and the ITF affiliate Swedish Transport Workers' Union (STWU). However, after encouraging and constructive talks this winter, Ports of Sweden finally rejected all proposals that would make the SDU a fully recognized counterpart. As a consequence, the union is now forced into a struggle which risks becoming not only long lasting, but also very costly for all affected stakeholders.
In April last year, Ports of Sweden and its affiliated port operators introduced an exclusion policy against the SDU, modelled on the union busting practices of Maersk-owned APM Terminals in Gothenburg’s container terminal. The policy states that the union’s 1300 members from Piteå in the north to Malmö in the south shall be barred from all information, all negotiations and all day-to-day cooperation in the ports. SDU locals have been evicted from their union offices inside the ports. These drastic moves by the employers have all been attributed to the fact that the SDU is not a CBA stakeholder.
The most pressing urgency driving the fight for a national CBA is however the dramatic decline in workplace safety. Port of Sweden's new policy has deprived over one hundred elected Health & Safety officers throughout the country of their mandates, with the motivation that they belong to the "wrong" trade union. As some ports are 100 % affiliated to the SDU, there are currently no H&S officers present in these workplaces. Concern that preventable serious or even fatal accidents will occur is growing.
Unlike many other Swedish trade unions, the SDU has retained an extensive internal rank-and-file democracy. It is always the concerned members who decide how the trade union shall act in different situations. This applies to everything from local work pattern negotiations to central decisions. Accordingly, a national membership ballot was held this autumn concerning the rising crisis in the ports. With a powerful 84 % majority, the members gave the national board the mandate to declare the industrial action announced today.
So far, the employers’ organization Ports of Sweden has showed no interest in the needs and demands of SDU members. Instead of a proper contract with identical terms and conditions as the one already existing in the industry – which would ensure democratic representation and labour peace in all ports – Ports of Sweden tries to blackmail the SDU into signing a so-called side letter. A side letter is not a proper contract – it does not include wage scales, benefits, work patterns or rules of procedure. Instead, it is a terse piece of paper simply stating that the SDU is legally bound by all current and future agreements between the Ports of Sweden and the STWU, and that the union relinquishes it’s right to strike.
As side letters are almost unheard of amongst unions in the Swedish labour market, it is unclear whether it would give the SDU the right to reinstate it’s elected H&S officers and if it would allow leave for elected representatives to perform union work. What is clear however, is that port employers would not have to include the SDU in any future negotiations and agreements. That is, the union would lose the right to take industrial action without being guaranteed the rights of a full contractual party. What would be the point of having a rank-and-file union if it does not have a seat at the negotiating table?
The Swedish port industry needs cooperation and sustainable long-term solutions. This cannot be achieved by trying to force half of the country's dockworkers to dismantle their trade union organization. Enough is enough. The SDU will fight until an agreeable solution is reached and asks all IDC affiliates for practical support and solidarity action in this critical situation.
A short history of the SDU:
In 1972, some 800 dockworkers in northeastern Sweden were expelled from the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union (STWU) and from the national confederation of blue-collar unions (LO). The dockworkers had protested against the increasing centralization of the trade union, the abolishment of decisive membership votes on local and national issues and the divide between officers and rank-and-file members, but also against the growing dependency on the Social Democratic Party.
Later that year, the expelled dockworkers founded a new independent organization – the Swedish Dockworkers’ Union (SDU) – together with likeminded colleagues in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and other major ports across the country.
After a decade of dramatic but unsuccessful strikes to win their own national CBA, the SDU dockworkers became part of an unspoken compromise in the industry. The STWU formally kept it’s monopoly as the only official union stakeholder in the national CBA, but the employers recognized the SDU’s right to elect Health & Safety officers and to take part in local negotiations.
The SDU has a proud history of domestic and international solidarity work dating back to the 1970’s. Following the Liverpool dispute in the 1990’s the union played an active part in the establishment of the International Dockworkers’ Council.
Today, about half of the Swedish dockworkers are affiliated to the SDU. But still the national union confederation, LO, refuses to allow the union to affiliate or co-sign the national port industry CBA together with the STWU.