ITF measures and strikes against foreign vessels in German ports


In recent months, we have seen an increasing number of cases of boycotts and strike measures against vessels under foreign flags in German ports by the International Transport Workers Federation (“ITF”). In particular, the port of Bremen has seen at least five different incidents/cases of ITF measures against vessels that do not carry a valid ITF Collective Bargaining Agreement on board.

Such action by the ITF generally takes two forms:

  1. Usually, the ITF seems to prefer to initiate active strike actions against vessels once they have berthed at the terminal in Bremen. Such active measures often include actions by the terminal employees against the vessel, such as disturbing cargo operations by occupying parts of the vessel, thereby making discharging operations too dangerous.
  2. Less commonly, but harder to deal with, have been the cases where the ITF (in cooperation with cargo recipients) only threatens to boycott the vessel and notifies the port terminal of such intent. The terminal usually responds by not offering the vessel a berth to discharge the cargo, due to the threatened boycott action.

The former scenario happens more frequently and has already given rise to court cases in the regional court of Bremen. In those cases, it was argued by the vessel owners that active boycott actions were violating German collective labour law. It is worth noting that, under German law, the ITF is not recognised as a workers union, since it is an international head organisation for local unions. Although this has not been decided by a higher German court, the ITF might in fact not be recognised as a proper union under German law. Consequently, the ITF is usually represented locally by Verdi, a German union for service workers. However, Verdi may only initiate strike actions with the aim of reaching an agreement between the vessel owners and itself but it may not boycott a vessel for the purpose of achieving an agreement between the vessel owners and the ITF.

In the above mentioned court cases against the ITF in Bremen, final judgments were never rendered, because the parties would always settle their dispute amicably. While the details of such settlement agreements have not been made public, we have been informed that the ITF paid significant damages to the vessel owners in those settled cases.

In contrast, the latter scenario as described above under b) is less straight forward. This is because on the one hand, there are few available legal remedies against such mere threats and, on the other hand, there is not only one party acting against the vessel but two (cargo interests as well as the ITF). From our experience, if the ITF is able to cooperate with the cargo recipients, then owners are in a much less favourable situation. Such situations only occur where the cargo recipients have a contractual right to refuse acceptance of the goods if the vessel carrying the goods does not have a valid ITF Agreement. If, contrary to the contract, the vessel does not in fact not have such an ITF Agreement on board then, irrespective of whether the vessel otherwise adheres with international conventions such as the MLC Convention, German law allows the cargo recipients to refuse acceptance of the goods based on the contractual clause guaranteeing an ITF Agreement.

We advise all owners of vessels not currently operating under a valid ITF Agreement to check their charter parties and cargo contracts for clauses guaranteeing an ITF Agreement before entering a German port and also to carefully consider the possible advantages and disadvantages of an association with the ITF union.

Article authors:
Eckehard Volz / Anna-Sophie Spiess

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