13 Days Remaining

Wednesday 22nd
posted by Morning Star in Features

As usual, media coverage has concentrated on people inconvenienced by industrial action. NICK MATTHEWS digs a bit deeper

I SOMETIMES think that the 21 miles separating England from France are the longest 21 miles anywhere in the world. The lack of attention to what is going on there is quite staggering.

There has been a great deal of coverage of the fallout from the industrial dispute involving the formerly co-operatively owned MyFerryLink, particularly of the plight of migrants desperately trying to enter Britain on lorries and trains headed in our direction. There has been far less coverage of the dispute itself.

The co-op at the centre of the dispute emerged out of the collapse of cross-Channel operator Sea France, which used to be owned by French state railway company SNCF. Eurotunnel bought the ships from the French government and the Syndicat Martime Nord union, led by the charismatic Eric Vercoutre, persuaded 600 Sea France workers to put their redundancy money into a workers’ co-operative to enable them to operate three former Sea France ships.

All seemed to be going well. They captured 12 per cent of the cross-Channel traffic and it was reputed that the crews worked much more efficiently as a co-operative than under the previous owners. The future of the co-op based in Calais is now, to say the least, highly uncertain.

Though the ferries are actually owned by Eurotunnel, that company contracted the management of the service to the co-operative. The dispute began when Eurotunnel withdrew from the agreement at the beginning of June with the inevitable result, if nothing changes, that the co-op will be forced into administration.

The reasons for this are rather complex, but the trouble seems to have begun when Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority ruled that Eurotunnel was breaking competition law by owning the ferries as well as the Channel tunnel.

This decision in January led to Eurotunnel putting the ferries up for sale. In response, the co-op joined together with a broader social-enterprise venture so that it could make a formal bid for the whole business, one of several Eurotunnel received.

While all this was ongoing, however, the case was grinding on through the courts in Britain to the Supreme Court.

Then last month came a major surprise — the court ruled that Eurotunnel was not, in fact, in breach of competition law.

Despite there no longer being any reason for the sale, Eurotunnel says that it is going ahead — and that its previous decision to terminate the deal with MyFerryLink will not be revoked. Two ferries are to be sold to DFDS and one to a freight operator.

This is all rather odd as Eurotunnel and MyFerry Link had been jointly involved in a long legal battle to keep the new service going against P&O, the biggest cross-Channel ferry operator, and the British competition authorities who had fought them all the way on the grounds that Eurotunnel should not own a ferry company.

Then, just as the legal battle was won, Eurotunnel scuttled its own ships, leaving 600 workers high, dry and very angry.

The suspicion is that Eurotunnel sees this as an opportunity to break Mr Vercoutre and his militant union.

As I write, ferry workers are continuing their occupation of the two MyFerryLink vessels that were formerly operated by the co-operative and are now leased to DFDS by Eurotunnel.

DFDS has complained to French Transport Minister Alain Vidalies about the situation at Calais, where one ferry company — P&O — is able to operate normally but DFDS cannot.

DFDS vessels have now been “barred” from Calais for a week and the financial implications could be significant.

But this is part of a wider pattern, going back to the famous Viking and Laval legal battles between trade unions and ferry companies.

The late lamented RMT general secretary Bob Crow said that collective-bargaining rights were being hollowed out by EU diktat and EU court rulings which encourage social dumping and severely weakens trade unions’ powers to defend workers.

“(European Court of Justice) decisions in the Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxemburg ECJ cases take us back over 100 years to the Taff Vale judgement, when any trade union activity was perceived by the bosses to be ‘in restraint of trade’,” said Crow.

The present legal framework around secondary industrial action means that this small co-op of unionised workers has to struggle alone, as any action in support is pretty much impossible. At this stage, one has to admire their tenacity in pursuing this dispute against overwhelming odds.