Despite the fact that I am no more working for a Port company, I continue to stay tuned to what happens in the global port community (and you can follow this too through the news links on the right hand side of this blog). Unfortunately, the big news in the latest days, apart from the Russian wishes to invest in Indian ports and the swallowing of Comanav and Cheng Lie by CMA CGM, was the end of the very long strike in the Port of Marseille. An other one you might say, and you would be right. So let's have a look at what happened and the economic and social consequences.
The strike began more than two weeks ago, by a blockade of the oil terminals (Marseille first and foremost activity) by the CGT union workers of the Port. The alleged reason was that future gas terminals belonging and operated by Gaz de France (and not by the Port of Marseille, contrarily to the existing facilities) would be served by Gaz de France (GDF) own personnels. Gas terminals have obviously massive safety issues and are probably the most dangerous ones in case of an accident, especially for neighboring communities. Port Autonome employees have not the required training, don't answer to the terminal operator and are not under its responsibility either from a legal point of view. But European regulations on safety make very clear that the operator is still liable if an accident occurs due to a contractor's employee (which would be the exact situation if Gaz de France used Port Autonome staff). Very understandably so, GDF refused to use Port Autonome employees. The strike began, the conflict blocking not only the oil terminals but also soon the roro and container terminals.
The loss for the Port of Marseille, already a very marginal port in the Mediterranean game, became very quickly enormous, reaching dozens of millions of Euros according to Mer & Marine news website. The government, main shareholder of Gaz de France, decided that the damage was too big and asked GDF to accept the union claims. In the end, to ensure the employment of 5 totally worthless unionized employees, this blackmailing game has hurt pretty bad the local economy, the already abysmal port reputation and more largely the credibility of French Ports. The private interests of a small mafia has (again) been preferred to the greater interest of millions of people, employees, families and companies.
Let's make no mistake here. I don't deny the obvious importance and necessity of unions to defend the interests of employees. These interests are all too often forgotten by soulless companies and exploiting managers. But there are also limits to social conflicts. When unions are fighting for salaries, economic improvements, work conditions and safety, I am all for it. But when unions, and it was obviously the case here, are only defending a monopoly, working against safety, against the improvement of economic conditions and of employment, I would say the government should on the contrary show some balls and do its job. The strike blocked terminals of other operators which had nothing to do with this. The police should have been sent to unlock the situation, the tribunal should have condemned the strike as obviously illegal and the union people on the blockades should have been fined and sent to jail. It is NOT an attempt on the striking rights of employees to break a strike when it is clearly breaking the laws.
In the end, Marseille has and will again lose traffic to the ports of Genoa and Barcelona or Valencia. The Port will again see its activity limited to its direct hinterland, which is geographically limited to the area south of Lyon. Employment in the Port will stagnate and economic growth which could be buoyant like in all other Mediterranean ports (with growth rates up to 9 or 10%) will remain limited to a couple of percentage points. All of this for five union people...