Transport Workers

Part of the struggle fought by the traditional maritime unions has been over manning levels but under many offshore flags the shipowner decides on a crew size commensurate with his own assessment of the numbers needed for efficiency and safety. Of course these decisions are influenced also by ideas of seaworthiness expressed by classification societies and insurers. Nevertheless, crew numbers as well as wage levels are inevitably lower on ships with so-called ‘free’ flags. It is in an attempt to redress the loss of employment by the members of maritime unions in what were the traditional sea-faring countries that the I.T.F. – the International Transport Workers’ Federation – comes into the picture. Most practitioners in shipping business have become only too aware of the ITF in the last decade or so but it was, in fact, first formed during the closing years of the 19th century as an international secretariat of transport unions all over the world.  It now has a membership of more than 400 trade unions from nearly 100 different countries and claims to represent more than four million transport workers. At the time of its formation there was no such thing as a flag of convenience but when that phenomenon emerged the ITF saw it as an attempt to undermine trade unionism in general and the standards of seafarers’ working and safety conditions in particular.  In 1950, at their Stuttgart Congress, the ITF adopted a ‘Plan of Action’ which in principle required all owners to adhere to certain defined minimum conditions.  Failure would result in boycott action to bring such owners to the negotiating table. Much of that resolution remains in place to this day. A more practical resolution was passed at their 1971 congress in Vienna when a standard agreement was drawn up for use by all ships whose crews were not covered by an agreement properly negotiated between union and employer.  Such agreements also included provision for contributions to an ITF fund set up to sustain the campaign and to provide, in addition, a charity to support seamens’ missions and other forms of welfare in port and on board.  The strength of the ITF lies in the fact that almost all transport unions are affiliated to it.  This means that immobilising a ship by arranging for services such as tugmen and lock-keepers to ‘black’ the errant ship is quite easy.  So many of the ITF’s ideals are praiseworthy that affiliated unions are quick to support any boycott.