Monday, March 4, 2013

Dock and Airline Workers Demonstrate in Global Transport Union Disputes

US and Europe See Protests This Week
Shipping News Feature

US – SPAIN – UK – Union troubles this month will witness picketing on both sides of the Atlantic after, exactly as we predicted in January, dock workers responsible for loading grain were locked out of their jobs in Vancouver, Washington by their employers and today demonstrations, supported by Spanish and British airline staff, begin at the prospect of job cuts at the International Airlines Group’s (IAG) subsidiary, Iberia. Labour relations in North America have deteriorated further after the lock out at the United Grain Corporation (UGC) terminal last Wednesday. The company is owned by the giant Mitsui Corporation’s US subsidiary which has a host of food production and distribution and logistics organisations in its portfolio.

No press release was forthcoming from United Grain or Mitsui but the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is scathing in its attack on what it considers an ‘unlawful and aggressive’ act. The union accuses UGC and Mitsui of relying on evidence which it has never publicly produced with the allegation that a single union worker damaged equipment, the union claims the story was fabricated to give the employers an excuse to do what they had previously threatened. ILWU Coast Committeeman, and co-negotiating chairman Leal Sundet, commented:

“This lockout has been part of Mitsui’s plan from the beginning of negotiations. For the past two months Mitsui’s hired security guards have been shadowing and harassing our members every day at the United Grain elevator. This shows they’ve been itching to lock us all out, rather than negotiate a fair contract like their US based competitors.”

In the days preceding the Mitsui-United Grain lockout, ILWU Locals 4, 8, 19, 21 and 23 ratified an interim agreement with Mitsui’s US based competitor, TEMCO. ILWU International President Robert McEllrath stated:

“The TEMCO agreement was achieved because American companies, farmers and workers recognise a common interest in our country’s resources and economic well being. That common interest is not reflected in the grain companies that have unilaterally implemented a contract that undermines American working standards at their competing facilities.”

The ILWU has worked since the 1930’s under the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers’ Agreement, which currently covers six grain terminals owned by Japan-based Mitsui (United Grain in Vancouver), and Marubeni (Columbia Grain in Portland), Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities (elevators in Seattle and Portland), and US-based Cargill and CHS (TEMCO elevators in Tacoma, Kalama and Portland). In November, several multinational grain corporations operating in the Pacific Northwest including Mitsui-United Grain gave ILWU workers a final offer that the union said demanded ‘deep concessions’ the Grain Handlers’ collective bargaining agreement having expired on September 29. All employers except TEMCO subsequently imposed the contract, which the union considers ‘substandard’ three months later but of all the member-elevators of the Grain Handlers’ Association, only Mitsui’s United Grain has locked out its employees.

Mitsui’s American subsidiary has made it clear that it aims to increase US grain exports, particularly to China, and to do so it will be competing against other large producers. Shipping costs have descended sharply against the heights reached a few years ago and therefore the company has presumably decided that cutting costs at source is a competitive necessity. The ILWU says quite baldly that UGC/Mitsui have aggressively prepared for a lockout, spending enormous resources on an out-of-state security firm and now the employers have fabricated a story as an excuse to do what they’ve wanted to do all along.

Meanwhile in Europe today Iberia workers beginning their second phase of industrial action are being supported by their international colleagues. As they kick off a week of demonstrations in Spain they will be joined by delegations from unions supporting their struggle to prevent the loss of thousands of jobs at the airline. British Airways staff will also be showing their support for Iberia workers and their rejection of the IAG plans in the United Kingdom.

The Unite union’s General Secretary, Len McLuskey, will today unveil a giant banner outside the union’s office in London Heathrow Airport – reading Déjà vu Willie Walsh, IAG: We are all Iberia, IAG: Iberia somos todos – ahead of a demonstration outside the IAG offices by Unite BA members at the airport on Wednesday. Unite is the UK’s largest trade union and represents personnel across British Airways and crucially, has experience dealing with Mr Walsh who was previously CEO at Aer Lingus from 2001 where he introduced numerous cost cutting measures before moving to head up British Airways where he is credited by many in turning around a failing giant.

Now, as head of the conjoined BA and Iberia brands, Mr Walsh once again finds himself facing a hostile attitude from workers’ organisations with International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Civil Aviation Secretary Gabriel Mocho commenting:

“IAG is more than just any one airline it is a community of workers. They have made it plain that they are all in this together. They will all stand up for the threatened staff and for a successful Iberia and British Airways. We are pleased to see that even the conservative Spanish government, a shareholder in IAG, is showing its alarm over the company’s reckless plans, which tear up the proposals negotiated by the Spanish unions for phased cost cutting and redundancies.”

The tone of Unite’s General Secretary Len McLuskey when asked for his response had a familiar ring and was even more acerbic as he commented:

“If Willie Walsh thinks British Airways staff will keep quiet while he attacks their colleagues in Iberia he is wrong. We all support those threatened by Walsh’s reckless plans. The message from Britain to IAG is clear: We are all Iberia.”

Some Madrid and Barcelona flights have been cancelled but the impact on BA air freight carriage is likely to be negligible according to the airline’s press office. Last week the Unite union’s members who had been striking in a tanker drivers’ dispute at Grangemouth as their contracts transfer from BP to DHL, returned to work when matters were resolved when a pay and pension dispute was settled.