Labor Dispute Intensifies at Spanish Ports

Port of Barcelona (file image)

Published Feb 9, 2017 4:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

Spain's minister of public works has announced sweeping plans for liberalization of hiring at the nation’s ports, which could lead to the loss of 6,500 unionized jobs over the next three years. On Thursday, the nation’s longshore unions protested the move and threatened a series of labor actions if the government does not withdraw the plan.

Under current Spanish rules, port operators have to hire stevedores from one local staffing company, known as a SAGEP (Sociedad Anónima de Gestión de Estibadores Portuarios). In 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that this arrangement was a violation of EU laws on freedom of establishment, and ordered Spain to open up the system to competition. The Spanish government says that the nation pays a penalty exceeding $25,000 for every day that it does not comply with the court order – and the fines are set to quadruple.

Faced with the elimination of the traditional system, Spain's longshore unions have responded with outrage. “The Spanish Government threatens the growth of the Spanish economy and seeks to make the dockworker profession disappear from national ports,” said Jordi Aragunde, general coordinator of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC). "The Ministry of Public Works intends to act on a decree that prevents the country’s economic recovery."

The International Transport Federation also voiced strong opposition to the decree. "The Spanish government is tearing up the rule book with a callous disregard for Spanish jobs, Spanish prestige and international conventions. Their plans go beyond belief," said ITF president Paddy Crumlin. Crumlin pointed out that the Spanish dockers had just reached a new labor agreement with the port employers' association in mid-January. 

Strikes planned

On February 20, 22 and 24, Spanish longshoremen at dozens of ports will go on a rolling strike, stopping work every other hour for one day at a time. Some union locals may not wait that long: officials at the Port of Barcelona say that a covert strike has already begun. On Thursday, longshoremen at the port reportedly stopped work and held an assembly to debate the government's reform plan, leading to long delays and traffic queues at the terminal gates. 

The operator of the Port of Valencia said in a statement that union "boycott measures" have already cut into productivity by 60 percent, "causing serious economic damage to the entire logistics chain." The port said that the dockers had organized a slowdown and were "hampering the allocation of personnel" needed for loading and unloading operations.

Manufacturers, agricultural exporters and ports say that they will be hit hard if the unions go on a prolonged strike. Spain's auto manufacturers ship about 6,000 vehicles out of the country every day, many of them by sea; reports suggest that automakers like Nissan and Ford are already stockpiling parts and lining up storage for finished vehicles at their Spanish plants.