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Tuesday, January 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Port-liberalization plan prompts protest in France

The Associated Press

STRASBOURG, France — Dockworkers fought with police and smashed windows at the European Parliament building Monday during a violent protest over a proposal to liberalize port services across the European Union.

Strikes and work slowdowns also disrupted cargo handling at several ports as trade unions pressed their opposition to the plan even as EU legislators predicted it would be rejected.

Police used water cannons and tear gas to try to keep thousands of protesting dockworkers away from the EU legislature in this eastern French city. But the mob surged forward, hurling rocks, logs and metal fences to shatter large sections of glass in the glass-and-steel building, located on the outskirts of Strasbourg.

Earlier, police fired pepper gas into crowds of demonstrators after port workers hurled flares, canisters, glasses and stones at the security services during a violent march through the city center.

One policeman was hospitalized with a head wound, and 11 officers suffered minor injuries, according to the parliament's press service.

Workers in yellow vests accompanied by marching bands set off smoke bombs and waved banners saying "Victory to the dockers."

Some cars were set alight, and smoke mingled with the smell of pepper spray hung heavy in some parts of the town. The protesters moored a boat on the river outside the parliament.

At least 6,000 workers from all major European ports, including Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg and Marseille, and from as far away as Australia and the U.S., participated in the demonstration organized by several trade unions.

At the same time, workers closed down cargo handling in Antwerp, Belgium — Europe's second-biggest port — and strikes affected harbor work in Portugal, Germany and Denmark. Workers in Sweden and in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Europe's largest port, held short work stoppages.

The European Parliament looks set to reject new plans to liberalize cargo handling at EU seaports on Wednesday, two years after voting down the previous draft legislation on port services.

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"This law is not good for any European port," said Eduardo Chagas, secretary general of the European Transport Workers Federation. "We believe it is not supported by anybody, not even the ship owners."

The bill, tabled by the EU's executive commission, proposes opening cargo handling to competition, ending the situation in many European ports where loading and unloading is run by monopoly handlers.

Tens of thousands of dockworkers in several EU nations went on strike last week over the plans.

Similar strikes and rallies took place across Europe in March 2003, with angry dockworkers hurling metal barricades at riot police in Strasbourg the day before a parliament vote on the previous version of the bill.

The draft legislation was rejected by the assembly in November 2003, but was tabled again by the commission, which argued it was needed to cut costs and create a more transparent and competitive environment in European ports, many of which receive state aid.

Dockworkers' unions fear it would lead to lost jobs and lower wages and safety standards. They are concerned about proposals in the bill allowing ship crews to handle cargo themselves, and want qualified stevedores to continue carrying out dock work, arguing the job is too specialized to leave to personnel on board the docking ships.

Britain, Germany and the Netherlands have all spoken out against port liberalization.

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