Dockers & Seafarers

Maritime Roundtable 2016:
Montreal, Canada 20-23 September

Liepaja dockers fight union busting

United we stand Liepāja is a relatively small town on shore of Baltic Sea, in Latvia. It used to be an important Soviet navy base, but right after withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1992 the free port began to develop rapidly. There are a number of private port companies now. I have been working as a docker in the biggest one since 1997. We didn't have a trade union organization at that time, we were just working hard and patiently hoping for owner's benevolence in giving us some benefits. But we failed in our ridiculous hopes! Even more - the new owner came with new plans of worsening conditions. Then we realized that we need to organize and protect our interests. It took only a few weeks to collect information, establish contacts and join the Water transport trade union federation (UTAF), associated with ITF and ETF. In 2005 we came to negotiate with our employer as a newborn trade union “Liepājas Osta LM darbinieku arodorganizācija”. But for several reasons, it took 18 months until the first collective agreement was signed. All our workers realize how things have changed now and where we could be without organizing. During last 7 years we have organized almost all our dockers and warehouse workers and the number of trade union members increased from 37 to 101. Of course, we can't just enjoy results and rest on laurels. Our employer quite often tries to bend rules to avoid complying with signed agreements.

Here I wish to share an example of union busting in our domestic style. Half year ago we were about to finish four months long negotiations and update our collective agreement. At the same time we encountered attempts to breach existing collective agreement (lower payment rates). When we tried to talk about the issue with employer, the only answer we got was: "If you (trade union) remain too demanding, very soon there won't be dockers in our company - all your jobs will be given to subcontractors!"  Such a brisk example of social dialogue! But we remained persistent. On several occasions we refused to perform jobs that weren't paid in accordance with the collective agreement. In these days some of my colleagues heard one of the board members yelling about exterminating trade union from our company! On this background, employer took action.

Three representatives of the port administration committed search in the premises and in the lockers, where dockers keep their personal things and clothes. Neither me, as trade union leader, nor any docker were invited to be present during the search. The same day they alleged that stolen pieces of scrap metal were found there. They didn't call police, neither provided any evidence except several photos of unknown origin, showing pieces of metal. This allegedly found scrap metal was never seen by anyone else than the lucky finders! We are not fooled - all this was about to distract us from our negotiation goals and perhaps even undermine our daily performance.

10 dockers were accused in theft and very soon a decision was made that they all will be fired. According to Latvian labor law, a trade union member can't be fired without approval from trade union. No doubt - we couldn't agree with the false accusation. Nevertheless, 10 dockers were suspended for 3 months with no pay and court’s permission was asked to fire them.

We submitted 10 individual applications to court on behalf of the 10 dockers to prove the suspensions illegal, claim unpaid wages and compensation. Today, we have court decisions on 5 cases: 4 applications of firing were rejected, 1 suspension was admitted illegal with wage backpay for 3 months and compensation € 1500 for moral sufferings! By now, our team is happy to see all of them back at work and get paid properly! Quite a promising beginning, isn't it? It was a great job done by our highly professional legal adviser Dace Kaminska with full support and dedication by the UTAF president Aleksejs Holodnuks. We also credit thanks to our Baltic FOC/POC coordinator Aleksander Meier for his advice and moral support. However, we realize – this is not yet the end of the story: employer is determined to continue legal process in higher court and waste time. I’m absolutely sure that fighting back was our only choice. At the moment, workers’ morale is high and we need to plan our next steps to win the improvement of conditions we aimed.

Submitted by: VIKTORS PANASJUKS from ŪTAF (Latvijas Ūdens Transporta Arodbiedrību Federācija), Water Transport Unions' Federation of Latvia)


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