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Environnements portuaires

 | 
Anne-Lise Piétri-Lévy
, 
John Barzman
, 
Éric Barré

Troisième partie. Métiers, Gestes, Techniques

Walking the thin line… Competitiveness versus balance of power in the port of Antwerp

Stephan Vanfraechem

Texte intégral

  • 1 Backx, J.P., De haven van Rotterdam. Een onderzoek naar de oorzaken van haar economische betekenis (...)
  • 2 In these “Water Treaties” the Belgian and Dutch governments agreed on a further deepening of the ri (...)
  • 3 See for instance the PhD research by Reginald Loyen (Catholic University Louvain), Macro-economisch (...)

1The port industry is renowned for its intense competition. P.J. Backx, former head of the Rotterdam port authority, stated in 1929 that “there are no rivalries so intense as seaport rivalries1. This is certainly true for the Hamburg-Le Havre range where some of the world’s leading ports (Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Le Havre and Bremen) have close competitors in their immediate surroundings. All share, to a large extent, a common hinterland and are therefore forced to seek a very competitive policy with an ideal mix of quick maritime accessibility, the presence of cargo, low taxes and costs and a flexible labour-organisation. In an era when ship owners seeking high efficiency are always on the look-out tor lower costs and a quicker turn around, even a small change in handling-costs or maritime accessibility can lead major shipping companies, and their cargo, to shift to one of the close competitors. As an example of this shift, we can point to Maersk, which, together with other large companies, moved its ships to Rotterdam in the early nineties because of the unfavourable maritime accessibility of the Scheldt, the gateway to Antwerp, and came back to Antwerp in 2000 after the deepening of the Scheldt as a result of the so called “Water Treaties” of 19952. The intense competition in this specific geographic maritime context has led to a wide range of macro-economic studies comparing the flows of cargo in the different ports and resulting in some databases3.

  • 4 Vanfraechem, S., Een sfeer om haring te hraden. Arbeidsverhoudingen in de Antwerpse haven 1919-1972(...)
  • 5 As an example of this we can point at the recent negotiations on the so called “Port Package” by th (...)

2One aspect of this competition that is still fighting for a place in the academic limelight is that of labour-relations and organisation despite its importance for understanding the intense competition between ports. My PhD research on labour-relations in Antwerp harbour4 proved this in the Antwerp-case: a flexible labour-organisation, embodied in flexible working-hours and high labour-productivity, was and is a very powerful weapon in this competition. It is very obvious that the port-authority and cargo-handlers put forward Antwerp’s high labour-productivity as an important advantage5. Such flexible labour-organisation demands first that both employees, as represented by their trade-unions, and employers, as represented by employers’ federations, be convinced of the necessity of such a competitive labour-organisation; and second a well-functioning system of labour-relations that provides the structural conditions for such a labour-organisation. The history of twentieth-century labour-relations in Antwerp harbour shows us that these two steps were not always obvious.

3Faced with a system of exploitation and domination by mighty shipping agents, a legacy of the nineteenth century, the collective bargaining that was introduced after World War I found great difficulty in getting rid of those abuses and replacing them with clear rules and agreements. Here, social-structural problems met with social-psychological problems. The employers’federations fought heroic battles for control over the port. The strife affected the performance of the port in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Once these problems were set aside, internal problems in the largest dockers union, specifically the troubled relation with its communist left-wing inside and outside the union structures, push the search for competitiveness to the background, despite the powerful performance of Rotterdam from 1948 onward.

1. Unite, Act, React, Win… the balance of power until the 1930’s

  • 6 For labour-relations in pre-war Belgium see Chlepner, B.S., Cent ans d’histoire sociale en Belgique(...)
  • 7 Huet, T., De groene: levenschets van een Antwerps havenarheider, Antwerpen, Patria, 1917, p. 3. (Th (...)
  • 8 Annales parlementaires-Chambre des représentants, session 1898-1899, Séance du 7 juillet 1899, p. 1 (...)

4The working conditions in the port of Antwerp at the end of the 19th century were characterized by a lack of communication between employees and employers. There were no fixed rules relating to working hours and wages valid for all employees, which led to exploitation. The lack of financial stability especially troubled the dock-workers. Most workers were hired on a daily basis and were often not able to earn a sufficient weekly wage. Because the work was open to anyone who presented himself at the port, the average dockworker could often work only three to four days a week. In times of economic recession this situation became extremely precarious. On top of the decreasing number of ships, dockers were confronted with a growing number of workmen from all different types of employment. The latter tried to supplement the wages earned in their own jobs by working in the port. Fixed wages didn’t exist either: the naties in particular attached great importance to being able to determine the wages themselves and rejected the idea of uniform wages. The naties were not alone in this: in the second half of the 19th century most Belgian employers insisted on pure economic liberalism, according to which the law of supply and demand should determine the wages6. There was hardly any regularity with regard to working-hours: the average daily working hours varied between ten and twelve hours. Working at night and on Sunday was very common. Hiring and paying port workers often took place in pubs run by the foremen, who represented the naties or the stevedoring companies. When they were not hired in the pub, port-workers rushed to the so-called “Luien Hoek” (literally “Lazy corner”) which the foremen of stevedoring companies often visited to hire dock-workers. The hiring process was often rather violent: “A group of young men are waiting impatiently for the hiring to begin. They sometimes carry on like madmen. Pushing, elbowing, shoving and stamping to be the first which inevitably leads to a fight to settle the dispute”7. There was no form of central recruitment. These customs led Edward Anseele, M.P. for the Belgian Workers’ Party to make the following comment in 1899: “Pour tous les ouvriers des docks, la bourse du travail, c’est le cabaret, c’est le coin de la rue”8.

  • 9 Archives of the Antwerp Shipping Federation, Session of the Committee, April 27th 1913.

5Against this background the employers’ federations formed at the turn of the nineteenth century found themselves as the sole and almost unthreatened leaders of the port. Not before 1907 did dockers’ trade unions, among which the social-democratic BTB (Belgian Transport Workers’ Federation) was the largest block, attempt to break the strong coalition between shipping agents, stevedores, ship owners and the city’s Chamber of Commerce. By a wild strike the BTB tried to force a wage increase of 1 BFr (Belgian Franc) for the dockers who handled grain. Until then they earned 5 BFr a day. The Antwerp Shipping Federation (ASF), which represented the Antwerp shipping agents, distinguished itself among employers’ federations by its furious reaction. It informed the latter through a series of meetings and general assemblies of the demands of the BTB and made a strong appeal for solidarity between the various port users. According to Steinmann, who was chairman of the ASF, at stake in the strike was not a wage increase but dominance over the port. After a long battle in which almost all the dockers were involved, the employers seemed to be the winners. In contrast with earlier actions, despite the fact that a general wage increase was not obtained, this strike was not entirely unsuccessful. It became clear to the dockers’ trade unions that if they held strong, the employers would in the future have to meet their demands. The large federations of shipping agents and stevedores also realised that the days of their absolute dominance over the port were now history: "Les socialistes ont montré que leurs adeptes sont disciplinés, cela est dangereux pour les luttes futures"9.

6From now on employers would face a strong union of dockers, able to mobilise a large “army” of dockers, thereby becoming a valid discussion partner. The period of paternalism was clearly over. However, because of World War I the evident consequence (the establishment of joint committees of employers’ federations and dockers’ trade unions) was postponed.

7One of the largest difficulties of the pre-war period was that there was no framework for employers and employees to meet to discuss labour conditions and salaries. Since the strike of 1907 the social democratic BTB and the catholic Transport Workers Federation had made a warm appeal for such joint committees to improve the social conditions in the port. But the federations of employers were not keen on doing so. In the immediate post-war period several small strikes made it clear that the federations of port users could also benefit from these joint committees.

8For the stevedores and ship owners the choice was: either try to hold strong against the upcoming trade unions, with the danger of being forced to accept the various claims as a result of strikes; or give priority to negotiations with the trade unions, thereby slowing down efforts to improve social conditions in the port and avoid having these claims imposed on them after a long and financially painful strike.

9By a Ministerial Order of November 12th 1919 a “National Joint Committee for the Port of Antwerp” was established. It was to discuss the labour conditions and salaries in the port of Antwerp. This joint committee was one of the first of its kind in Belgium and was innovative because it gave equal representation to employers (stevedores, shipping agents and ship owners) and employees (the social-democratic “Belgian Transport Workers Federation” and Catholic “Transport Workers”). The Joint Committee didn’t make a good start. Real collective bargaining on equal terms seemed impossible because the very powerful and wealthy Antwerp Shipping Federation objected to this equal representation.

  • 10 On this federation of Antwerp Shipping Agents see Devos, G., Vanfraechem, S., Full steam ahead. 100 (...)
  • 11 Between 1870 and 1914 the Belgian cargo-fleet only represented between 5.6 and 12.7% of the total i (...)
  • 12 Devos, G., The port of Antwerp’s spatial structure between tradition and modernization (1870-1914), (...)

10This federation of shipping agents was established in 1901 and remained “primus inter pares” among the other federations until World War II10. Until the 1950s, the chairman of the Antwerp Shipping Federation was the sole spokesman during negotiations or talks with the trade unions or dockers. The ASF was able to impose its will on dockers as well as on other employers’ federations (especially the stevedores). The basis of this powerful position is to be found in the dominance of foreign clients in the port of Antwerp. In the absence of a strong Belgian merchant marine, foreign ship owners were king in the port of Antwerp11. Antwerp shipping agents made contacts with these foreign ship owners and acted as intermediaries between them and Antwerp cargo-handlers (stevedores and naties). It was the shipping agents and not the cargo-handlers who, on behalf of the ship owners, chose and hired from the city (which was until World War II responsible for the digging of the docks and the construction of warehouses and quay-sides12) the quays and docks where the stevedores and naties loaded and unloaded the ships. As the shipping agents appointed the stevedore who would load or unload the ship, it is quite clear that the stevedore had good reason to seek a cosy relationship with the Antwerp Shipping Federation. This enormous potential (direct contacts with the foreign clientele and the ability to impose handling tariffs on the stevedores) can explain why the ASF was reluctant to accept that relations between employers and employees would now be based on mutual agreement rather than on dominance. Before the establishment of the National Joint Committee the ASF had always decided when tariffs, and therefore wages, would be changed. From now on, it had to take into consideration the views not only of the other employers’ federations but also of the trade unions.

  • 13 Scholliers, P., Loonindexering en sociale vrede. Koopkracht en klassenstrijd in België tijdens het (...)

11The National Joint Committee didn’t start under a good sign in the purchasing power. This problem concentrated the attention and hindered the operation of the NJC13. Dissatisfaction with the evolution of the basic wage clearly lay at the heart of most port workers’ actions in the early twenties. Labourers and employers often argued because the former believed that the basic wage insufficiently reflected the rising cost of living while the latter disagreed and even suggested that there had been a fall in the cost of living. This contradiction was evident in other sectors. The Belgian government did not remain blind to these problems and decided that stimulating discussion, including setting up joint committees, was not on its own sufficient to guarantee social peace. Developing a structure for joint discussion could not prevent the purchasing power of the wage earners from suffering and leading to conflicts and strikes in various sectors. The socialist minister of Labour, Joseph Wauters was not insensitive to these frustrations. As a result, at the end of February 1920, an official national index figure for retail prices appeared. These price indices could be a useful instrument for employers and employees discussing wage adjustments in a social context. The idea of index linking was also considered by many, not the least by the trade-unions, in the Antwerp port as a deus ex machina for social discussion. The index figure could be used as an objective yardstick for talks concerning the wage increase. The aim was to distance wage discussions and wage evolution from strikes. In 1923 the wages of the Antwerp dockers were linked to the national index.

12However, because of the frequent strange leaps of the index and the delay before it led to a strong wage raise, the trade-unions kept having difficulties convincing their members that collective bargaining was the way. The National Joint Committee seemed unable, or unwilling, to make a clean sweep of all the abuses in the Antwerp port, causing resentment among the dockers. Dockers were still being hired in small pubs, on the street and at the warehouses. There still wasn’t any legal or semi-legal protection of the profession of dock-worker: everybody who wanted to work in the port could do so. This complicated the situation for the regular dock-workers who found themselves confronted with all kinds of labourers from other sectors on the waterfront. As a result, several small wildcat strikes broke out. These “wild” strikes put the representatives of the employees in an awkward position. They presented themselves as being the only recognised spokesmen of the dockworkers, but the incidents on the waterfront seemed to prove them wrong.

13Because of this disturbed relationship between dockers and trade unions, the employers began to question whether they had to continue to try and come to an agreement with the BTB and Catholic Transport Workers Federation, when it was now clear that the latter could not give a full guarantee that such an agreement would be accepted by the majority of dockers. One of the reasons why employers agreed to negotiate labour conditions and wages with the trade unions in the NJC, was precisely because they could no longer accept that wildcat strikes would paralyse the port of Antwerp and make foreign clients reluctant to send their ships to Antwerp. When they started negotiating in the NJC they hoped that the labour representatives would stand for compliance with the agreement. The various waterfront strikes, showed that this was no longer the case. The largest trade union, the Belgian Transport Workers Federation (BTB), especially, could no longer guarantee that its members would accept the agreement and the fact that wages and labour conditions should be discussed in a joint meeting with the employers. The Antwerp Shipping Federation and other federations (Chamber of Commerce) now openly questioned the necessity of the NJC.

  • 14 City Archives Antwerp (Modern Archives), nr. 2263/2: Social conflicts 1924-1927, Police report, pol (...)
  • 15 De Beule, N., Het Belgisch Trotskisme 1925-1940, Gent, 1980, p. 152. (Belgian Troskyism 1925-1940); (...)

14This tense situation reached a climax in 1928: “Three dockers sitting on a bicycle came rushing past the ships inciting the labourers to stop work, because the stevedores had refused to pay a wage increase. These 3 people are not known to us”14. The chaps on a bike were actually part of a communist action group, which belonged to the Trotskyist Opposition15. Although they counted no more than a few dozen dockers amongst their members they succeeded in convincing the dockers to go on strike and demanded an immediate wage increase of 8 BFr. The new wage would then become 62 BFr a day. Both trade-unions disapproved the communist action. Especially the BTB found itself in a tight corner. It had to cooperate with the employers to try to put a brake on the strike and to convince the dockers that collective bargaining would bring them greater profits than a wildcat strike the outcome of which was doubtful. There can be no doubt that the existence of the NJC was at stake.

15After arbitration by the city government, the dockers went back to work without having their wages raised. For the different federations of employers and the trade union the end of the strike was a covert victory. The employers and the trade unions had guaranteed compliance with the NJC agreements, thereby preventing a complete breakdown of collective bargaining in the port of Antwerp.

16After ten years of hard work, having to cope with the scepticism of the dockers and convince employers and employees that they could both benefit from collective bargaining in the National Joint Committee, the NJC had become a valid alternative to the wildcat strikes and other uncontrolled actions of both employers and employees. The internal problems that hampered the smooth operation of the NJC in the 1920s had been solved and the balance of power was steadier than ever before. The trade unions succeeded in becoming the sole spokesmen of the dockers (accepted as such by employers and dockers) and the federations of employers were fully aware that playing “cavalier seul” had become no more than a treasured memory of the past. Every now and then the balance of power would waver, but the principle of collective bargaining was no longer questioned. External influences would more and more set a stamp on social policy in the port of Antwerp. Competition with the surrounding ports, who had till then not stirred up feelings, became more prominent from the mid thirties on and guided the social policy of the employers. The only question that remained was to what extent the trade unions would follow them in the latter in their attempts to prepare Antwerp for a competition that would become extremely severe, especially after World War II.

2. There are no rivalries so intense as seaport rivalries. The introduction of competition in the port of Antwerp

2.1. The 1920s and 1930s : Antwerp as “quickest and cheapest port”

  • 16 Mommen, A., The Belgian economy in twentieth century, London, Routledge, 1994.
  • 17 The standard wage per day was 64 BFr in February 1930 and had by April 1932 dropped to 54 BFr. In S (...)
  • 18 Centrale des employeurs du port d’Anvers (Cepa), Yearly reports, Labour-statistics, 1929-1935.

17In the early 1930s Belgium was confronted with the outbreak of the worldwide economic crisis. The industrial production of 1932/1933 dropped below the pre-war level16. The port of Antwerp had to deal with a serious drop of tonnage handled. Employers tried to find a way out through the National Joint Committee. The linking of the wages to the (descending) national index made it possible to lower the wages17. Unemployment now was a daily reality for many Antwerp dockers. In 1932 and 1933, 6000 to 7000 dockers, this is 50 % of the total, could only work three days a week. Only ten percent of them were able to work every day18.

18Under these conditions, the trade unions found it very difficult to convince the dockers that collective bargaining was the only way to get out of the crisis, but during the first half of the 1930’s they succeeded in preventing the outbreak of wildcat strikes and by doing so guaranteed a stable social climate. The trade unions thought that calling a strike was not the right tactic. They were especially reluctant because of the uncertainty over duration and results.

  • 19 Where in Antwerp the building and the equipment of the quays and docks was strictly a matter of the (...)
  • 20 For some contemporary studies on this competition in the Hamburg-Le Havre range see Backx, J.P. De (...)
  • 21 « La voie suivie sera celle qui, dans son ensemble sera le meilleur marché. On ne s’étonnera donc p (...)
  • 22 DE Keuster J., op.cit., p. 216.

19During the crisis of the 1930’s it also became clear that the Antwerp Shipping Federation, still a dominant player, was well informed on the evolution of the cost-structure of surrounding ports. Since the end of the 1920’s the ASF collected annual reports on the ports of London, Hamburg, Bremerhaven, Dunkirk and Rotterdam. They wanted to examine whether, or to what extent, the crisis was harming the image of Antwerp as the “cheapest and quickest port”. Without going into full details, it is clear that such ports as Flamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp could all present some advantages to potential visitors. Just as Rotterdam offered a modern port-infrastructure19 (cranes, etc.) to handle cargo, especially bulk goods, and boasted a good maritime accessibility, Hamburg could rely on very cheap railway-tariffs, the so-called “Seehafenausnahmetariffe”, that compensated the longer sea-journey to Hamburg. In comparison to Rotterdam, which was merely known as a transit-port, Hamburg could also fall back on its function as a commercial and industrial pole, which made it less dependable on the simple transit of goods. As for Antwerp, it could put forward the presence of cargo to be picked up, which made the port interesting for liners looking for return-freight. But the Antwerp port was particularly renowned for its low tariffs and the high performance of its dockers20. When you take into account that the ship owners not only picked their port of destination because of its good natural access, but also took into account the cargo-handling tariffs and port facilities21, it is quite understandable that Antwerp employers did everything in their power to secure this trump card. The low costs and high efficiency of Antwerp were acknowledged by the other European ports. A Dutch reporter expressed it as follows: "… le port d’Anvers, en considérant objectivement la position des deux autres ports nord-européens, possède trois conditions qui influencent favorablement son mouvement commercial: sa situation géographique, son bon marché et sa main d’œuvre très entraînée et très spécialisée dont la réputation est faite"22.

  • 23 See the PhD-research by Frank Seberechts, Politieke en institutionele geschiedenis van de haven van (...)

20Till the worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s Antwerp, in comparison with Rotterdam, Hamburg and Bremerhaven, positioned itself fairly well as far as labour costs and efficiency was concerned. In 1932 this advantage became less obvious because Rotterdam and Hamburg, supported by national and city governments, succeeded in lowering some tariffs23. Nevertheless Antwerp remained the cheapest because of the devaluation of the Belgian franc in 1935 and the low tariffs for handling goods (loading and unloading the ship). Employers had little or no reason to use the argument of competition or rivalry during the collective bargaining on labour conditions and wages. This changed after the great strike of 1936 and its consequences for the labour organisation in the port. The rivalry with Rotterdam now came to the front and became the central theme in collective bargaining in the port of Antwerp.

  • 24 Louis Major-who would become the leading man of the BTB after this strike of 1936-reflected as foll (...)
  • 25 This Edo Fimmen was at that time secretary-general of the ITF and was since some time feared by man (...)

21The 1936 strike put an end to a period of peace and quiet, which had dominated the port since the strike of 1928. During this period, employers and employees had concluded a “mariage de raison” and had faced the difficulties of the economic crisis in “holy matrimony”. Successive drops of wages had, for the common good, been accepted by trade unions and dockers. The BTB had succeeded in soothing all kinds of dissatisfaction by the dockers. However in 1936 the dockers ran out of patience. To them the outcome of 17 years of collective bargaining (1919-1936) was largely insufficient: there still weren’t any central hiring-halls, the financial stability, or the lack of this stability, was still a daily problem for most dockers and the reservation of dock-work for registered dock-workers was still at the level of planning. This meant that the demands of the 1936 strike were to a large extent a copy of the demands of the 1928 strike24. On June 3rd, 10.000 dockers refused to go to work and marched to the offices of the BTB. The leaders of the BTB soon realised that they could not neglect this spontaneous movement of 10.000 dockers. After a very hectic meeting in the Antwerp Sportpaleis where Edo Fimmen promised the financial support of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the BTB agreed to support the strike and asked the employers to examine the demands of the dock-workers25. The most important demands were: raise the standard wage by 14 BFr up to 64 BFr and reduce working hours. By reducing working hours the trade unions wanted to lower unemployment in the port of Antwerp. They believed that this measure would make more dockers able to find an appropriate job in the port. The action caught the employers by surprise. They regretted that they had been given no opportunity to prevent the strike and made it quite clear that the demands of the dockers could not be examined and were unfeasible.

22After the intervention of the Minister of Fabour and the city’s Mayor, both parties agreed to sit around the table. The minister of Fabour Delattre wanted at all cost to prevent other sectors from following the port workers by calling a strike. He increased the pressure on the employers by stating that if there were not a quick solution, they would be responsible for the spread of the action. In spite of their initial reservations, the employers had to accept to raise the standard wage by 12 BFr. The new standard wage was now 62 BFr for 8 hours work. Despite the efforts by the Belgian government, the strike spread to other sectors and became a national strike at a later stage. To end this national strike, the national government headed by Prime Minister Van Zeeland accepted the introduction of the 40-hour week in hazardous industries. Pretty soon negotiations began in the National Joint Committee to introduce the 40-hour week in the port of Antwerp. These negotiations met the demand of the trade unions to reduce working hours in the port.

  • 26 Archives of BTB, National Joint Committee for the port of Antwerp, Session of December 29th 1936.

23After the first meeting of the National Joint Committee on the 40-hour week in the port of Antwerp there could be no doubt that the employers strongly opposed the measure. The representative of the Antwerp Shipping Federation stated: "Neither the 40-hour week, nor the 7-hour day has been introduced in any surrounding port; the reduction of the workday by one hour would have a negative effect on the tonnage of goods loaded and unloaded and would raise the handling costs in comparison with surrounding ports. The rise of wages and other social benefits has put the costs in the port of Antwerp to such a high level that it is dangerous to exceed this level and harms the activity of the port of Antwerp"26.

  • 27 The National Joint Committee for the Port of Antwerp was originally established for being the sole (...)

24Parallel to the negotiations in the National Joint Committee, the employers tried to turn decisions to their advantage by making an urgent appeal to the minister of Economic Affairs to prevent the introduction of the 7-hour day in the port27. The arguments were the same as quoted above. By order of the minister a special research committee was set up. It had to examine whether introducing the 7-hour day would indeed harm the port. Pretty soon it began to dawn on the different federations of employers that their expectations had better not be too high. The minister of Labour and his colleague of Economic Affairs wanted to prevent at all cost a new strike in the port of Antwerp and so supported the 7-hour day. The Antwerp Shipping Federation and other federations accepted the fact. On September 28, 1937, the 7-hour day was introduced in the port of Antwerp.

  • 28 “Antwerp has always prided itself on being the “cheapest port on the continent”, but there are many (...)

25During the following years the employers’ federations would not stop stressing the fact that the introduction of the 7-hour day had weakened the competitiveness of the port of Antwerp. In their annual report of 1938 the Antwerp Shipping Federation stated that Rotterdam and Amsterdam had made great progress in handling general cargo. According to the ASF this had to do with the labour cost in Rotterdam, which was now, after the introduction of the 7-hour day in Antwerp, at the same level as the labour cost in Antwerp. Prior to this introduction, the labour cost in Antwerp represented only 60 % of the Rotterdam labour cost. The specialised maritime press shared similar concerns28.

26On the eve of World War II employers and employees found themselves again confronting each other. The trade unions were slightly euphoric and considered the introduction of the 7-hour day as a new victory for trade unionism in the port of Antwerp. The rivalry and competition with Rotterdam didn’t seem to trouble them. The employers on the other hand realized that the port of Antwerp slowly was losing its principal advantage in this competition namely low labour cost and high efficiency of cargo handling. They were fully aware that the danger came from the north

2.2. After World War II : Antwerp as an expensive port

27Immediately following its liberation, Antwerp enjoyed enormous activity. It became the distribution centre for supplies and goods for the allies. The surrounding ports had been largely destroyed during and after the war. Rotterdam lay completely in ruins. The Antwerp port worked at full capacity. This significant activity influenced employment, which reached new heights. While the average number of port labourers in the period 1935-1938 fluctuated between 15 and 18000, in the summer of 1945 it rose to at least 20.000.

  • 29 Slomp H., Van Mierlo, T., Arheidsverhoudingen in België, Utrecht, Spectrum, 1984, (Labour relations (...)

28Pretty soon the employers and employees of all sectors sat around the table and started renegotiating wages and labour conditions. It was clear that a return to the pre-war wages was completely out of the question. The central government, which in the pre-war period had allowed employers and employees to negotiate freely, would now interfere. The Belgian government wanted to put a stop to the staggering inflation and tried to do so by imposing a limit on wages. It hoped to stabilise the Belgian Franc. Collective bargaining with little or no interference of the government was no longer possible. The central government established a “National Conference of Labour” in which employers, employees and government were represented. The national joint committees had to execute the decisions of the National Conference29.

  • 30 Nijhof, E., Gezien de dreigende onrust in de haven Arbeidsverhoudingen in de Rotterdamse haven 1945 (...)
  • 31 City archives Antwerp (Modem Archives), nr. 63350: note CEPA « Note sur l’augmentation des dockers (...)

29The National Joint Committee held its first post-war session on October 12th 1944 and decided to follow the proposal of the National Conference to raise the wages by 60%. The new standard wage would now be 131 BFr. In August 1945 the wages were raised by another 20%. The new standard wage was now 156 BFr. Soon it became clear that the National Conference did not have the authority to impose a maximum wage on the different sectors. In the port of Antwerp all kinds of other raises followed. Antwerp lost its reputation as a cheap port. An unstoppable wage spiral began. This has to be understood in the rather specific situation of the port of Antwerp in the immediate post-war years. As mentioned above the activity was enormous as were the profits of the stevedores. More and more the trade unions noticed that the central government was unable to stabilise the Belgian franc and that the National Conference of labour was a farce: all sectors granted extra pay increases. This made the trade unions change their strategy. Now the only goal became to raise the wages in this way so that they compensated the higher cost of living. Due to the successive pay increases as compared to the successful central incomes policy of the Dutch government, the labour cost in Antwerp now became a real problem30. The Antwerp port that had in the interwar years been renowned for being the cheapest now became one of the most expensive ports in Western Europe especially compared with Rotterdam31.

Year

Antwerp

Rotterdam

Wage (7 hours)

% (1938)

Wage (7 hours)

% (1938)

1938

72 Belgian francs

100%

81 Belgian francs

100%

1947

190 Belgian francs

263%

126 Belgian francs

153%

1948

195 Belgian francs

271%

130 Belgian francs

159%

30This became painfully clear from 1948 as Rotterdam became fully operational again and started to win back the traffic that it had lost due to its non-activity in the immediate post-war period. Facing the growing activity in Rotterdam and realizing that Antwerp was no longer the cheapest port in Europe, the federations of employers started to worry again. The different remarks and declarations that were made, were mere variations on the remarks made after the introduction of the 7-hour day in 1937. Employers again complained about the high labour cost and reduction of working hours. According to the ASF the fact that a working day in Rotterdam counted 8.5 hours and only 7 hours in Antwerp, hindered the growth of Antwerp.

  • 32 Gotovitch, J., Qu’est-ce que le Parti Communiste de Belgique. A quoi a-t-il servi? Quelques proposi (...)

31Precisely at the moment when the port of Antwerp and the social partners had to present some structural answers to this problem, the dockers’ trade unions were somewhat hindered in their movements. In the post-war years the BTB was confronted with a distinct communist faction inside (until 1947) then outside (after 1947) the union-structures. Although this communist Action-committee only counted 107 paying members, it was able to mobilise large numbers of dockers, which made it a very powerful opponent of the official union-structures and forced them to take into account its demands. The presence of this communist Action-committee partly reflected a general tendency whereby the Belgian Communist Party (KPB) had become a powerful actor in post-war Belgium32. The KPB was clearly “on a roll” in 1945-1947 as its active role in the Belgian resistance after 1941 yielded massive growth in party membership and election returns. In the February 1946 elections, the KPB took 23 seats in the Belgian Parliament and also obtained three ministers in the government led by socialist Achiel Van Acker. On a national level communists and social-democrats cooperated closely both in party as in trade-union affairs. To move in the opposite direction in the national port was not an option. In addition, a critical undercurrent appeared, which had lost faith in the union management. The Action-committee didn’t buy the employers arguments that Antwerp was losing ground and that a fast and drastic reduction of the labour-cost and increase of the workday were absolutely necessary for its survival. The immediate post-war years (1945-1950) were dominated by this difficult relationship between the communist and social-democratic fractions in the BTB, both of which fought for control over the several thousands dock workers. If they didn’t want to lose control over their members the union leaders had to take into account the remarks of the Action-committee and did so. The BTB didn’t follow the appeals of the employers’ federations to reduce labour-cost and temper the aspirations of the Antwerp dock-workers.

32However, it is clear that this was merely a tactical maneuver. By the end of the 1940s the communist threat, both nationally as locally, had disappeared or shrunk to almost inexistent, and the BTB then followed the employers’ arguments and became a strong supporter of structural corrections to the labour-organisation in Antwerp. A growing interest for the port facilities developed together with a growing understanding that labour costs in the port of Antwerp were too expensive and had, at least, to be stabilized. Under the direction of Louis Major the BTB entered a new era.

33The leaders of the BTB tried to convince their members that the time had come to stand on the barricades again. Not to defeat the stevedores and shipping agents in Antwerp but to beat the port of Rotterdam. At a general meeting of BTB members, Major described the future of the port of Antwerp as follows: "In a common market this competition will become more and more dominant. The expansion and the modernisation of the port is simply a necessity In a new Europe without frontiers our port will have to face the competition of other ports. Our main target should be not to maintain our traffic but to expand it!" This statement by Major, which was quite revolutionary for the BTB, was heavily appreciated and supported by the members of the general meeting.

34A first clear example of this new vision can be found in the negotiations for wage increases in May 1955. Even before the negotiations had started Major and his colleagues warned the dockers that expectations had better not be high. The dockers asked a raise of 30 to 50 Belgian francs (BFr). Major reacted by saying that even 25 Belgian francs were too much. Exceeding those 25 Belgian francs would counteract the different trials of the government to lower the prices of the Belgian manufacturers. Eventually a pay increase by 12 BFr (where 30 BFr was originally asked for) was proposed by the employers. Major said to the dockers: "this proposal is a maximum. Take it or leave it".

35Major and his colleagues condemned the high aims of the dockers with regard to the salaries. It was said that these aims were unrealisticaly high and would make it even more difficult for Antwerp to compete with Rotterdam. In September 1959 a new delegation of dockers presented itself to the secretary of the BTB, Decrom, and asked for a new pay increase by 40 to 50 BFr. Decrom reacted furious and told the dockers that their demand was "crazy".

36The BTB was also re-examining the introduction of the 7-hour day in 1937. The different federations had always said that the 7-hour day was a clear disadvantage for Antwerp especially when compared with the situation in Rotterdam where a working day included 8.5 hours. The trade unions had always countered this by pointing at the high efficiency of the Antwerp dockers. However, when in 1956 dockers asked for the introduction of the 5-day week in the port of Antwerp, this was immediately rejected by the chairman and secretary of the BTB. They realised that this plan was going to be unacceptable for the employers. A 5-day week could only be accepted when other ports did the same.

37Decrom even went further and stated in 1961 that a return to the 8-hour day was inevitable when the 5-day week would be introduced. When the 7-hour day was maintained, this would mean that weekly working-hours would be reduced to 35 hours, which would put the port of Antwerp in a very vulnerable position in comparison with the other Dutch and German ports.

38When it became clear that an international agreement on the introduction of the 5-day week in the European ports was unfeasible, employers and employees agreed to try to find a solution that was acceptable for both parties. Eventually the 5-day week was introduced with this restriction that daily working hours were extended to 7.5 hours. The trade unions followed the employers in their argumentation that this was a “conditio sine qua non” if they wanted to survive the tight competition with Rotterdam, Hamburg and Bremerhaven.

Notes

1 Backx, J.P., De haven van Rotterdam. Een onderzoek naar de oorzaken van haar economische betekenis in vergelijking met die van Hamburg en Antwerpen, Rotterdam, Nijgh en Van Ditmar, 1929. (The port of Rotterdam. A survey on the causes of its economic importance compared with Hamburg and Antwerp).

2 In these “Water Treaties” the Belgian and Dutch governments agreed on a further deepening of the river Scheldt, in order to make the port of Antwerp accessible to larger ships. On these “Water Treaties” see: Vanfraechem, S., De Waterverdragen, A bridge over troubled water, in Francois, L., Art J., Docendo discimus Liber Amicorum Romain Van Eenoo, Gent, Academia press, 1999, pp. 347-364; Vanfraechem S., ‘Goede nabuurschap’ De Waterverdragen tussen België en Nederland 1960-2002, Gent, Academia press, 2003 (in print).

3 See for instance the PhD research by Reginald Loyen (Catholic University Louvain), Macro-economische functieverschuivingen in de haven van Antwerpen tijdens de 20ste eeuw (Functional shifts in the port of Antwerp during the 20th century) (PhD thesis, 2002). See also his comparative Antwerp-Rotterdam research. Loyen, R., Van De Laar, T., Trade and transhipment in Antwerp and Rotterdam, in: Janzen O. (ed.), AHNS-yearbook, St-John’s, 2002 (in print).

4 Vanfraechem, S., Een sfeer om haring te hraden. Arbeidsverhoudingen in de Antwerpse haven 1919-1972, Gent, PhD thesis, 2002, p. 532. (A heated atmosphere: labour relations in the port of Antwerp 1919-1972). In English see: Vanfraechem, S., From the Union Générale to the Major Act, in: Momentum. Antwerp’s port in the 19th and 20th century, Antwerp, Pandora, 2002, pp. 153-168; Vanfraechem, S., “For better and for worse”. The bumpy road to collective bargaining in the Antwerp port, in: Mac Guiness, A., Francois, L., Murdoch, S., Maritime core and imperial periphery, Tuckwell Press, 2002 (in print).

5 As an example of this we can point at the recent negotiations on the so called “Port Package” by the European Commissioner for Transport. The Commission suggested to stop or forbid each form of monopoly on the labour market in the European ports. Every firm but also every European citizen should have the opportunity to work in every European port regardless of his or her nationality and shouldn’t be kept out by any kind of monopoly. The Antwerp port-authority and the cargo-handlers supported the dockers’ trade unions in their protest against this European measure. They stated that an abolishment of the monopoly-the so called “Major act” that reserves dock-labour to the accredited dock-workers-would lead to a decrease of the labour-productivity, which-according to the Antwerp port-users-was the major advantage of the Antwerp port that largely compensated the high labour-cost.

6 For labour-relations in pre-war Belgium see Chlepner, B.S., Cent ans d’histoire sociale en Belgique, Brussel. 1972; De Wilde, B., De collectieve arbeidsverhoudingen (1880-1940) in: Luyten, D., Vantemsche, G., Het sociaal pact van 1944. Oorsprong, betekenis en gevolgen, Brussel, Vub-press, pp. 39-54. (B. De Wilde, Collective bargaining (1880-1940) in: Luyten, D., Vanthemsche, G., The social pact of 1944. Origin, meaning and consequences.

7 Huet, T., De groene: levenschets van een Antwerps havenarheider, Antwerpen, Patria, 1917, p. 3. (The «green»: Outline of an Antwerp docker). On labour-relations in the nineteenth-century Antwerp see also, de PELICHY, C.G., L’organisation du travail dans les ports flamands sous l’Ancien Régime et à l’époque moderne, Louvain, 1899.

8 Annales parlementaires-Chambre des représentants, session 1898-1899, Séance du 7 juillet 1899, p. 1935.

9 Archives of the Antwerp Shipping Federation, Session of the Committee, April 27th 1913.

10 On this federation of Antwerp Shipping Agents see Devos, G., Vanfraechem, S., Full steam ahead. 100 years of Antwerp Shipping Federation, Antwerp, Pandora, 2001, p. 132.

11 Between 1870 and 1914 the Belgian cargo-fleet only represented between 5.6 and 12.7% of the total incoming ships in the Antwerp port. The British flag represented 50 to 60 % of the incoming ships, with the German flag as a strong second who represented 30 % at the eve of World War I. Devos, G., La flotte marchande belge et le trafic portuaire à Anvers (1875-1939), in: Curveiller, S., Clauzel, D., Les champs relationnels en Europe du Nord, XVIIIème-XXème siècles (deuxième Colloque Européen de Calais), Calais, 1998, p. 108.

12 Devos, G., The port of Antwerp’s spatial structure between tradition and modernization (1870-1914), in: Momentum, Antwerp’s port in the 19th and 20th century, Antwerp, Pandora, 2002, pp. 79-98.

13 Scholliers, P., Loonindexering en sociale vrede. Koopkracht en klassenstrijd in België tijdens het Interbellum, Brussel, Vub-press, 1985. (Index-linking and social peace. Purchasing power and class action in Interwar Belgium); SCHOLLIERS, P., Index-linked wages, purchasing power and social conflict between the wars: the Belgian approach (internationally compared), in The journal of European economic history, 1991, 2, p. 415.

14 City Archives Antwerp (Modern Archives), nr. 2263/2: Social conflicts 1924-1927, Police report, police commissioner’s office 12th district, 18th June 1928.

15 De Beule, N., Het Belgisch Trotskisme 1925-1940, Gent, 1980, p. 152. (Belgian Troskyism 1925-1940); Gerard-Libois, J., Gotovitch, J., L’an 40. La Belgique occupée, Brussel, 1971; Gotovitch, J., Du rouge au tricolore. Les communistes belges de 1939 à 1944, Brussel, 1992, pp. 13-56.

16 Mommen, A., The Belgian economy in twentieth century, London, Routledge, 1994.

17 The standard wage per day was 64 BFr in February 1930 and had by April 1932 dropped to 54 BFr. In September 1934 the standard wage in the port of Antwerp was temporarily frozen at 46 BFr. Archives of BTB, National Joint Committee of the port of Antwerp, Session April 14th 1932 en September 6th 1934.

18 Centrale des employeurs du port d’Anvers (Cepa), Yearly reports, Labour-statistics, 1929-1935.

19 Where in Antwerp the building and the equipment of the quays and docks was strictly a matter of the city council, in Rotterdam the port-companies themselves invested in the port-infrastructure. In Antwerp the city council would hang on to this use-tradition until World War II. Only then it became clear that the city-who was on the verge of bankruptcy-was no longer able to keep up with the needs of the port for modern and stronger cranes. From the beginning of the 1960s the city council would begin with offering long-term concessions to the different port-companies who now became responsible for the equipment of the docks and the quays themselves. On this difference between Antwerp and Rotterdam see DEVOS, G., Van Driel, H., De regulering van de overslag in de havens van Antwerpen en Rotterdam van 1870 tot 1950, in Neha-jaarboek, LXIII, 2000, pp. 145-165. (The regulation of cargo-handling in the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam from 1870 to 1950).

20 For some contemporary studies on this competition in the Hamburg-Le Havre range see Backx, J.P. De haven van Rotterdam: een onderzoek naar de oorzaken van haar economische beteekenis in vergelijking met die van Hamburg en Antwerpen, Rotterdam, 1929, p. 276 (The port of Rotterdam: a survey on the origins of its economic importance compared with Hamburg and Rotterdam); De Keuster, J., La concurrence entre les trois grands ports nord-européens: Hambourg- Rotterdam- Anvers, Antwerpen, 1930, p. 231; Van de Velde, M., Le port d’Anvers, Aperçu de la situation économique et politique du port national belge en comparaison avec celle des ports de Rotterdam et Dunkerque, Antwerpen, 1928, p. 213; François S., Le port d’Anvers. Sa fonction nationale et la politique commerciale après la guerre, Paris, 1935, p. 258.

21 « La voie suivie sera celle qui, dans son ensemble sera le meilleur marché. On ne s’étonnera donc pas de voir le trafic effectuer un trajet fort long pour aboutir à un port où les frais sont réduits et où les frets maritimes sont bas », Van de Velde, M., op. cit., p. 188.

22 DE Keuster J., op.cit., p. 216.

23 See the PhD-research by Frank Seberechts, Politieke en institutionele geschiedenis van de haven van Antwerpen 1930-1950, Gent, 2001, p. 1003 (The political and institutional history of the port of Antwerp 1930-1950).

24 Louis Major-who would become the leading man of the BTB after this strike of 1936-reflected as follows on this strike. “Labourers clearly wanted to ensure that not only the amount of wage of a single week was considered but, in particular the average wage level received by the labourers each week. It was much more a matter of reorganization of port labour and working conditions than a simple issue of wage difference. Finding a solution for the uncertainty of the situation was clearly at the heart of every article which appeared about the demands made.” Archives Amsab-Institute for Social History Gent, Fonds Louis Major nr. 604, Essay by Louis MAJOR on “Survey on the causes and consequences of the general strike in the port of Antwerp, June 1936”, p. 34.

25 This Edo Fimmen was at that time secretary-general of the ITF and was since some time feared by many employers and employers’ federations in the port of Antwerp. They especially feared his rhetoric capacities. The former chairman of the Antwerp Shipping Federation, Emile Deckers reflected on a meeting with Fimmen in 1928. « Un certain Fimmen. beau parleur, gentil garçon, plein de qualités. J’avais vu cet homme, merveilleux polyglotte possédant sept langues, fomenter ta discorde… », Deckers, E., La pacification sociale au port d’Anvers, in Bulletin d’études et d’informations de l’école supérieure de commerce Saint-Ignace, 1929, 3, p. 301.

26 Archives of BTB, National Joint Committee for the port of Antwerp, Session of December 29th 1936.

27 The National Joint Committee for the Port of Antwerp was originally established for being the sole framework of negotiation for employers and employees. However when a strike was called in the port, the employers tried to break it not only by negotiating in the National Joint Committee but also by making a strong appeal to the different ministers, mayors and governors of the province of Antwerp.

28 “Antwerp has always prided itself on being the “cheapest port on the continent”, but there are many who fear that the present demands of all classes of workers will go far to make this slogan a fallacy. Meanwhile neighbouring ports are reducing their charges…Can it be wondered at that many view the future with no little concern?” Lloyds List and Shipping Gazette, July 7th 1936, Antwerp its general unrest and its probable effects.

29 Slomp H., Van Mierlo, T., Arheidsverhoudingen in België, Utrecht, Spectrum, 1984, (Labour relations in Belgium); Chlepner, B.S., Cent ans d’histoire sociale en Belgique, Brussel, 1,972.

30 Nijhof, E., Gezien de dreigende onrust in de haven Arbeidsverhoudingen in de Rotterdamse haven 1945-1965, Amsterdam, 1988 (Given the unrest in the port…. Labour relations in the port of Rotterdam 1945-1965); Slomp, H., Van Mierlo, T, Arbeidsverhoudingen in Nederland, Utrecht, 1984 (Labour relations in the Netherlands); Windmuller, J.P., Arbeidsverhoudingen in Nederland, Utrecht, 1970 (Labour relations in the Netherlands).

31 City archives Antwerp (Modem Archives), nr. 63350: note CEPA « Note sur l’augmentation des dockers intervenue à Anvers en comparaison de la hausse intervenue à Rotterdam et Amsterdam », s.d.

32 Gotovitch, J., Qu’est-ce que le Parti Communiste de Belgique. A quoi a-t-il servi? Quelques propositions pour en comprendre l’histoire et la signification, in Brood en rozen. Tijdschrift voor de geschiedenis van sociale bewegingen, 1997, 4, p. 21; Gotovitch, J., Du rouge au tricolore. Les communistes belges de 1939 à 1944, Brussel, 1992

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