Labour conflict hits harbours

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Long-simmering conflicts between the owners of Norway’s harbours and members of a transport union representing harbour workers are now threatening harbour operations all over the country. Ship loading and unloading already have been disrupted near Stavanger and in Oslo, and sympathy strikes are threatened in Tromsø and Mosjøen.

Operations at harbours all over Norway, not least here in Oslo, are threatened by an ongoing labour conflict. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Helge Høifødt

Operations at harbours all over Norway, not least here in Oslo, are threatened by an ongoing labour conflict. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Helge Høifødt

The conflicts stem from attempts by harbour owners, mostly either local municipalities or private firms, to streamline operations and follow political directives to move more cargo transport in Norway from its over-burdened roads to its coastal sea lanes. Millions are being invested in harbours around the country to help them move goods in and out more quickly.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Monday, though, that the Oslo harbour authority (Oslo Hav) was facing work slowdowns over its efforts to transfer crane operators to a terminal company and override a 100-year-old agreement giving members of the union Norsk Transportarbeiderforbund special rights to do the loading work.

Aiming to increase productivity
Harbour operators also in other ports along Norway’s vast coastline contend it will increase both productivity and profitability if full-time employees of terminal companies can load and unload ships. The union, backed by Norway’s large labour confederation LO, is fighting to retain its members’ special rights to bring in transport workers to do the job of transferring all vessel cargo between ship and shore.

Bernt Stilluf Karlsen, chairman of Oslo Hav, is now directly challenging the longtime labour agreements, which also allow the union members to stop work in the middle of loading or unloading a vessel, for example, to take a lunch or coffee break. He told DN that the current situation is  “inflexible and expensive,” adding that it functions as a “monopoly” over all loading activity at harbours all over the country.

The union responds that Karlsen and other harbour employers around Norway are simply trying “to get rid of harbour workers” and vow he won’t succeed. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that on Monday night, the unloading of a German cargo ship in Oslo was halted when a team of three union members refused to move when Oslo Container Terminal wanted to have its own workers take cargo off the vessel Spica J.  The terminal gave up its effort, in the interest of health and safety.

“I’m very disappointed that it’s not possible to organize harbor operations in Norway more efficiently,” Karlsen told Aftenposten. He called Monday night’s action a “blockade” by the transport workers’ union, and said the union workers’ security clearance on the docks will now be evaluated. That could effectively prevent them from working, adding to the conflict.

Sympathy strikes are threatened in Tromsø and Mosjøen from December 7 in support of union members who’ve been similarly challenged at Risavika Terminal near Stavanger. The union claims its labour agreements have been violated and that its dockworkers are needed. One ship finally left the dock in Oslo on Monday with more than 20 containers still sitting there. Berglund