Flags of Convenience and the Boycott

The International Transport Workers’ Federation four-day boycott of “Panlibhonco” shipping began on 1st December. The West German Unions, although they originally voted for the ban, did not in fact support it, following upon a Court award of £30,000,000 damages in a strike case just settled. The Italian Unions refused to take part, and the boycott was ineffective in France where the great majority of the dockers belong to a Communist-dominated union not affiliated to the I.T.F. In Holland, where two-thirds of the dockers are non-union members, the situation was confused. An Amsterdam Court granted port employers an injunction to restrain the unions from joining the boycott. In Rotterdam, however, the Court refused to grant an injunction and the boycott was observed. Japanese supported the boycott in principle, but did not take active measures.

But union members in Britain, the East and Gulf Coasts of U.S., Australia, Belgium and Scandinavia, and in several other countries throughout the world, and the International Petroleum Workers’ Federation, supported the boycott, and by the last day 192 ships were idle.

What is it all about?
Many people have become bemused and bewildered and consequently not particularly bothered, because, in spite of the volume of discussion on flags of convenience in the newspapers until the recent boycott, the concern has been regaining the advantages or otherwise from the ship owners’ point of view. The recent action by the unions has come as a surprise element of the situation.

Panamanian registration of ships was first invoked in the days of American prohibition to enable liquor to be sold to passengers aboard liners. It was not long before other advantages became known in other countries. Registration was a simple and inexpensive procedure for foreigners; there was no taxation of profits, and owners were not subject to a variety of rules and regulations such as those which had accumulated in maritime countries over the centuries. Some of these were advances won at the cost of great sacrifices by the seamen in the class-struggle with the owners for better conditions and pay. Post-war currency restrictions in the non-Panlibhonco countries have been an additional factor. Above all, American shipowners, by registering ships in Panama, were able to avoid the obligation to ship American crews at (by European standards) much higher wages.

The man who bought the Bank at Monte Carlo
Some of the “Flag of Convenience” owners are public characters and are frequently in the news. Mr. Onassis, owner or controller of a fleet worth an estimated US$300 million, is one of them. According to Time (19th January, 1953) Onassis lunched with Prince Rainier several times and bought him a 137 ft. diesel yacht. The directors of the Casino were kept out of the Palace gates by royal carabinierii and they resigned to make room for Onassis’ representatives. The Casino had been losing money and the Prince was looking for new capital amounting to US$1,000,000. Onassis planned to register ships in Monaco after moving his offices into the Casino building.

Pictures from Ships
His brother-in-law, Mr. Niarchos, also a millionaire shipowner, is another character sometimes in the news. A fairly recent Tate Gallery exhibition of Mr. Niarchos’ pictures gave pleasure to a vast public. He has bought originals of Renoir girls. Degas dancers, Gauguin Tahitans and Van Gogh landscapes at prices which run into tens of thousands. Toulouse-Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant cost him £22,000; Renoir’s Mosque at Algiers, £24,000; Van Gogh’s small Thistles £16,000.

But manoeuvring with “Flags of Convenience” is not Mr. Niarchos’ only occupation—buying pictures such as these is another, for those with American incomes can spend 30 per cent. of their income, tax free, on works of art. provided they are destined for a museum. And during his lifetime he can enjoy them in his own home. Obviously it is more attractive to spend £50,000 on a picture like Renoir’s Girl in a Plumed Hat than to hand the money over to the Inland Revenue. The museum get the pictures when he dies, but he could not take them with him, anyway.

Patriotism—for workers only
For the workers, patriotism is held up as one of the greatest of the virtues, and countless war memorials throughout the world pay tribute to the effectiveness of this teaching. Surely it must be for the workers that the poem, “My country, ’tis of thee . . . Land where my fathers died . . .” is applicable, for millions of workers have been maimed or killed following the dictates of their ruling-classes. This recalls the story of the monkey who used the cat’s paw to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. But in the case of the Panlibhonco shipowners it seems to be a case of rather “Don’t do as I do, but do as 1 tell you”, for these characters seem intent on finding out ways of not paying taxes to not merely their native country, but to any government at all. How misled are such workers who risk life and limb fighting to protect, or extend the property of their employers, when they themselves own nothing worth fighting for.

The I.T.F. and the Boycott
A statement from the International Transport Workers’ Federation says that the boycott has two main objectives: —

“Firstly, to draw the attention of governments to the problem and to protest against their inactivity on it.
“Secondly, to secure properly-regulated wages and working conditions on all ships flying flags of convenience. We would agree that conditions on board many such ships not under trade union agreements are no worse than on most European-operated ships, and in some cases are even better. But this this largely due to the campaign which the l.T.F. has carried on during the past ten years. There is. in any case, no guarantee that these standards will be maintained, because the crews have no trade union protection at present. Nor do they enjoy the security of employment or the benefits of social legislation which are generally to be found in the traditional maritime countries. What we are trying to do is in fact a straightforward trade union job, the kind of job which unions in all civilized countries have accepted as part of their normal function.”

The Statement later on says:—

“A further very vital aspect of this situation is the question of national defence in time of international emergency. How, for example, can any country claim to exercise effective control over ships which fly the flag of another nation? This is, in fact, a complete negation of the concept of national maritime sovereignty. In any case, as past emergencies have shown only too clearly, the real factor in exercising control over vessels is not their ownership or country of registration, but their crew. Here we would stress that Panlibhonco ships have become a haven for politically undesirable seafarers and others; consequently there can be no guarantee as to how such crews would act in an emergency situation.
“The l.T.F. has never adopted such a narrow-minded attitude and has no intention of doing so now. Our campaign is not based solely on the interests of the seafarers, but on those of the community at large—which arc equally threatened.”

Apparently these workers are more patriotic than the shipowners themselves.

Greek shipowners have accused British, Scandinavian and Dutch shipping interests of having inspired the boycott and the Greek Shipowners’ Union, acting on behalf of their co-operation committee of London threatened to lay up ships throwing their crews out of work. About 10 million tons of Greek shipping sails under the flags of Liberia, Panama and Honduras. Almost all the crews on them are Greek.

The owners’ declaration said: —

“’It would be obvious to all by now that this boycott . . . is simply one more manifestation of the hostility of certain shipping interests towards their competitors.’ Greek shipowners, the declaration went on, already had to face the bitter campaign by owners in the so-called traditional maritime nations, who were frustrated over bureaucratic restrictions and heavy operating costs in their own countries. The l.T.W.F. was inspired by British interests trying to blackmail flags of convenience to give advantage to British and Norwegian shipping which was not threatened by eventual repetition of the boycott.” (Times, 2nd December, 1958.)

The Daily Mail (5th December, 1958) published a feature article written by Mr. Niarchos, who on behalf of the Niarchos Group refuted in detail the charges of the I.T.F. After dealing with working conditions aboard his ships he said this:—

“If international federations of unions are to become concerned in matters of international business and relations between nations, they are assuming a new empire-building role far removed from their original mission of furthering the true interests of their dues-paying members . . . and the handling of genuine union problems will be completely obscured.”

Trade Union action
Trade union action to maintain or improve workers’ living standards commends itself to any Socialist, and particularly when it is international action, for this implies a greater degree of working-class solidarity, and it is this factor which is so encouraging about the boycott. The Capitalist press expressed satisfaction that the boycott was only partial, but it must also be remembered that much of the support which the various workers gave was not to advance their own sectional interests, but that of the seamen generally. The Financial Times in its editorial (2nd December, 1958) said of the boycott:—

“It is also international and this use of the international strike weapon could be a precedent for much more undesirable exertions of trade union power.”

We couldn’t agree more, but, of course, although a boycott may or may not serve one section of the Capitalist class, working-class solidarity is liable to be undesirable for the Capitalist class generally.


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