Norwegian dockworkers were stung by an EU court decision this week that claims their monopoly on loading and offloading ships is illegal. They’re not giving up their ongoing battle to preserve their century-old grip on Norwegian harbours, though, and even look set to try capsizing Norway’s overall trade pact with the EU in the process.
The decision handed down by the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) Court ruled that the priority for ship-loading work claimed by members of the Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union at 13 ports in Norway violates the terms of the European Economic Area (EEA) trade agreement Norway has with the EU, commonly referred to as the EØS-avtale in Norway. It obligates Norway to follow EU regulations in a wide variety of areas in order to maintain access to EU markets.
The EFTA Court held that an exemption of collective bargaining agreements from EEA competition rules “does not cover a clause whereby a port user is obliged to give priority to another company’s workers over its own employees,” or allow unions to impose a boycott on the port user.
In this case, the “port user” is Holship Norge AS, a Danish freight-forwarding agent that sued for the right to use its own employees to load and offload ships at the harbour in Drammen. Holship lost in both the local- and appeals court in Norway, after the Norwegian courts ruled that the dockworkers’ union’s longtime agreement granting them priority for such work should apply. That upheld the dockworkers’ effective monopoly on the work, rooted in old international conventions aimed at protecting them.
Supreme Court sought EFTA Court’s advice
Holship ended up appealing to Norway’s Supreme Court, which decided to seek advice from the EFTA Court before making its own ruling. Holship was predictably pleased by the EFTA Court’s judgment, with its lawyer claiming that “a 100-year-old monopoly in Norway is over, and we will have more reasonable and efficient harbours.” The conflicts, however, appear long from over.
Norway’s Supreme Courth (Høyesterett) is under no obligation to follow the EFTA Court’s judgment against the dockworkers, and their union officials predictably hope it won’t. “I don’t think the Supreme Court will follow (the EFTA Court’s) advice,” Lars M Johnsen, leader of the Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union told newspaper DN. Tor Arne Solbakken, deputy leader of Norway’s largest trade union confederatoin LO, also claims that the EFTA Court hasn’t had the last word in this case.
“The Supreme Court will now make an independent evaluation of the case, so it’s still an open question,” Solbakken told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “The Norwegian court system has shown in several cases that it’s able to stand on its own feet.” He’s hoping, like Johnsen and his dockworkers, that Norway’s high court will uphold the decisions of the country’s two lower courts.
“That’s completely unrealistic,” claimed Professor Mads Andenæs of the University of Oslo’s law school. He’s considered an expert on European law and he suggested it would be all but unthinkable for the Norwegian court to ignore the EFTA Court’s advice, after first seeking it. DN noted that there’s also been a history of tension between the EFTA Court and Norway’s court system, after the Norwegians failed to consult it in the past, and it’s unlikely Norway’s high court would provoke further conflict by defying the EFTA Court’s judgment.
It’s not at all surprising, Andenæs added, that the EFTA Court ruled as it did against the dockworkers. “There is no general immunity for collective bargaining agreements in the EEA or EU law,” Andenæs told DN. “Free movement (of goods and services) applies here (in Norway) just as in other places. That’s why the (Norwegian) Supreme Court will follow EFTA’s judgment.”
That, in turn, is likely to unleash more protests from the dockworkers and other union officials who aren’t willing to give up their fight to save the dockworkers’ jobs. They cite the international conventions set up long ago, however antiquated or inefficient they may be, because principles are at stake.
“We’ll hang on until we win, so it’s a question of holding out longer than the employers (like Holship, or terminal owners who’ve been using their own workers),” Johnsen claimed. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Wednesday that the dockworkers have basically received all their pay from their union after their jobs were taken over by others, as other union members keep supporting them.
They’re already threatening to stir up a strike this summer if they manage to allign themselves with other unions within their labour federation, for example terminal workers who load cargo from ships onto trucks, in a solidarity strike. That could disrupt trade enough to grab attention, but there’s been disagreement within the labour movement, and LO’s own legal experts will be consulted first. Other unions have also been part of Holship’s suit against the dockworkers, because their members’ jobs were at stake.
Attacking the EEA/EØS agreement itself
Another option for the labour movement is to attack the EEA agreement itself, which long has been under fire by some labour officials, politicians including those at the small, protectionist Center Party and other activists. Some Norwegians claim the agreement makes Norway beholden to the EU without being a member. Others claim that without the agreement, Norway would have trouble selling its seafood, oil, gas and other exports to its biggest market.
Johnsen seemed undaunted, claiming to Aftenposten that if the freedoms promoted by the EU “hinder Norwegian collective bargaining agreements from applying to Norwegian harbours, we’ll just scrap the EEA agreement.” Union-fueled efforts to do that could set off a political and legal earthquake in Norway, but even last year’s LO congress was itself divided on the issue. It’s bound to come up again at next year’s congress.
The decision from the Norwegian Supreme Court (called Høyesterett) is due later this spring. As DN reported, harbour conflicts are likely to continue long after that. The dockworkers were already advertising a “solidarity” rally at the Sjursøya container terminal in Oslo on Thursday.