French Dockers Battle To Preserve Special Status

Abrogation of 1947 law seen as concession to the `new Europe'. EUROPE

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

FOR days, seven freighters could be seen turning slowly at anchor opposite the chalk-white extent of Marseille's idle commercial port. On the shore, dockworkers continued their eight-month struggle to preserve their legal status, one of the highest in Europe.

While the target of the strikes is the French government, dock workers, as well as shipping executives and government officials concede that the core issue is the new Europe.

"The government's not calling the shots any more," says Andre Rouard, Marseille docker and union leader, "international interests are. The Europe of tomorrow, it's the end of legal protection for wage-earners."

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At issue is legislation abrogating the law that has governed the dockers' working conditions for over 40 years. On Tuesday, the Senate backed the new le-gislation, which the National Assembly passed on May 15.

To the dockers, the crucial issue is their independent status. Unlike factory workers, French dockworkers are not in the permanent employ of any specific company. Rather, shippers must contract with the union for their labor on a job-by-job basis, with methods, training, and supervision under the union's control.

Under the terms of the new legislation, dockers would become the salaried employees of individual shipping companies, losing between 1/3 and 1/2 of their number to layoffs and early retirement in the process. Competitive push

Michel Pechere, director of Marseille Port Authority, insists that the dockers' statute had to be altered. "If France has made the choice of being a real European country, we have no alternative. This is an international problem. And it is not the only situation for which there must be some agreement on the application of similar regulations throughout Europe."

Supporters of the new law cite the decreasing activity of French ports, especially in comparison to those in northern Europe. Between 1980 and 1990, commercial traffic increased by 160 percent at Hamburg and Rotterdam, by 150 percent at Anvers, and by only 20 percent at Marseille, according to French government figures. Rotterdam alone handles as much merchandise as all of the French ports combined.

"Clearly this problem goes somewhat beyond the issue of the dockworkers," says the delegate-general of the Marseille shipping companies, Jean-Michel Honnorat. "You have a critical mass in what we call the Blue Crescent of Lotharingia, that is, the node of wealth developing from Anvers and Rotterdam along to Bael.

"Obviously, it will take quite some time for France to reach that level, and it is by no means certain that we will do so with great ease. That is why the indispensable first step in any effort to catch up with the northern European ports is to reform our shipping procedures," he says.

Because the prices of land and sea transport are roughly equal throughout Europe, the cost of moving goods through the ports becomes particularly important, according to officials at the French Marine Ministry. Slight variations make the difference in a shipper's choice of port.

The dockworkers insist that abrogating their statute will have little effect on competitiveness. Since October, they have gone on some 33 one-day strikes, and during the National Assembly's deliberations, the entire country was virtually closed to seaborne merchandise for nine days.

In Marseille, over 1,000 dockers and their supporters blocked off the main street, and to a backdrop of music and banter, they cooked an enormous paella, open to the public at large for 20 francs ($4) a plate. But in spite of festive appearances, on May 22 they jostled with police and hurled stones through the plate glass windows of the Marseille Port Authority. Similar incidents occurred at Bordeau, Le Havre, Rouen, and other ports.

What is at stake, according to Gilbert Natalini, adjunct-secretary of the union's Marseille local, goes far beyond the specifics of benefits and compensation: "The dockers have their `statute' and they cleave to it. It is something that they won, something that is theirs. And we feel, acutely, that there is an effort to dispossess us [sic] of this heritage, which our elders managed to construct, stone by stone."

Indeed, while efficiency and competitiveness are the catchwords of this conflict, the dispute seems to have as much to do with power and politics as it does with economies.

"The government doesn't demand accounts from anyone else," said one docker during their demonstration, "only from dockers. They want to divide so they can rule. It's a political conflict, and we're right in the middle of it."

Renowned for protesting government policies it disapproves of, the dockers union is the most vocal wing of the largest labor confederation in France, the General Congress of Workers. Its traditional ally in the legislature has been the French Communist Party, which has declined in numbers over the last several years. Common social policy

With the drive toward European unity in 1992, moreover, the political arena extends beyond the frontiers of France.

"Unfortunately, the social conditions of European workers are never taken into account by the United Europe," Mr. Natalini explains. European Conventions treat only political and monetary conditions. "So in order to establish a single currency and a united policy, it will be necessary, at whatever cost, to put all French labor statutes back on the table - because they are the highest in Europe," he says.

"In other words, to integrate France to the lowest level - to the lowest common denominator, as it were - of working conditions in Europe, the existing statutes will have to be broken. And the dockers' statute is one of those," he adds.

Dockers plan another major nationwide demonstration for next Wednesday, and the conflict on the docks promises to last well beyond the publication of any decrees in Paris. It's one thing to pass a law, say the dockers, and another to apply it.

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