Striking port workers in Marseille don’t know how good they have it, a French business lobby says.
In full-page advertisements today in Le Point magazine and in Les Echos newspaper earlier this week, the lobby lists why operating a crane at the industrial port of Marseille is the “Best Job in the World.” An 18-hour workweek, eight weeks of vacation a year, a gross monthly salary of 4,000 euros ($5,581) and guaranteed lifetime employment, it says.
The ad shows a white sandy beach with two cranes looming behind lush vegetation, in a tongue-in-cheek play on a 2009 tourism campaign called the “Best Job In the World” by the Australian state of Queensland seeking a caretaker for a tropical island on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
“A great plan,” the ad says “Become a crane operator.”
Contesting the ads, the main port union yesterday plastered the walls of the lobby’s office with 250 payslips showing workers make less. The moves show a hardening of stances in the 18-day strike that has paralyzed oil terminals at Fos and Lavera. The work stoppage has left more than 50 fuel tankers unable to unload cargo, cutting crude supplies to refineries and raising the specter of fuel shortages in France.
The strike led by the CGT union may end up costing refiners more than 30 million euros, and other industries and businesses even more. It has cost the French chemicals industry 550 million euros in lost revenue because bulk chemicals carriers aren’t able to dock, according to the Union des Industries Chimiques.
“Locally, people are scared of criticizing the CGT so we decided that the only way to get our plight publicized is through the national press,” said Nicolas Barthe, secretary general of the lobby Union pour les Entreprises des Bouches du Rhone, which represents 10,000 mostly small businesses in the area. “We are calling for government intervention to end this strike because we are dying.”
The CGT union says the ads are false and misleading. Port workers make up to 2,000 euros a month and work 35 hours a week, it says. CGT representative Pascal Galeote, who is leading the oil terminals strike, couldn’t be reached for comment. He has said that talks with management at the port haven’t made sufficient progress to end the strike.
The ads are “added provocation,” said Bernard Vivier, director of Paris-based researcher Superior Institute of Labor. “Local businesses are seeing clients fleeing and the port sinking. The government may have to get involved.”
The war of words is escalating an already tense situation. Yesterday, the Socialist mayor of Marseille’s first district called on the workers to end the strike.
“The strike by a few dozen port employees is causing a serious problem for Marseille,” Patrick Mennucci said. Strikers are “hurting the local economy already in difficulty.”
The strike to counter government efforts to make French ports more efficient and a broader nationwide protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to increase the retirement age to 62 years from 60 years have disrupted transport, schools, power plants and businesses, and are threatening to cause lines at gas stations.
Total SA, Europe’s biggest refiner, is halting operations at its French plants following the strike, increasing the likelihood of fuel shortages.
With the ports strike, exports are being diverted through Barcelona, Genoa and the North Sea at extra cost.
The strike by Fos and Lavera oil terminal workers as well as cutbacks on shift work led by the CGT for all cargo is related to a 2008 law that was aimed at making French harbors more competitive. Under the plan, workers operating equipment such as cranes were to be moved from state-owned ports to privately run cargo handling companies in a bid to make shifts more flexible and work more efficient.
The oil terminals at Marseille were effectively exempted from the changes on the grounds that they are of “national interest” and workers will remain employees of a planned unit that will be 60 percent state-owned.
Under the plan, 220 oil terminal workers will be transferred from the Marseille port authority to the unit, to be called Fluxel. They will keep all of their benefits until retirement and can come back to the port if the unit runs into financial difficulty, according to an Oct. 1 port statement.
“All guarantees have been given” for an end to the strike, Marseille port director Jean-Claude Terrier said Oct. 4 following talks with the union to end the conflict.
In its latest demands, the CGT wants payslips of workers at to the new entity to be on the port authority’s letterhead, while questioning the logic the change, the port authority said.
Claire Battedou, spokeswoman for the port, declined to comment on the accuracy of the business lobby’s advertisement about working conditions of crane operators at the port.
The French port of Marseille has a long history of labor strife. The CGT shut down ports for 170 days to protest against a 1992 law that moved dockworkers to non-state companies. More recently, a strike at the oil terminals in March 2007 lasted 17 days and a 12-day strike in December 2008 cost refineries 26 million euros, according to industry group UFIP.
“The port is being taken hostage,” French Junior Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said on LCI TV today. “They are killing the port.”