Hamburg Port and Elbe Closed as Pilot Boats Join Public Sector Strike

Hamburg port strike
Hamburg's busy container terminal showed as empty on the webcam as the moratorium on vessel movements began due to the pilot boat strike (Hamburg)

Published Mar 22, 2023 3:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

A public employees strike has effectively closed the Port of Hamburg, Germany’s busiest seaport and the second busiest in all of Europe, for 48 hours. Port officials began limiting vessel movements on the Elbe as of this morning and closed the port for all departing vessels later in the day with the strike expected to continue until Friday morning. The Port Authority said it had decided due to the massive restrictions imposed by the union to block the Elbe until further notice.

Germany’s Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft (United Services Union or ver.di) announced what it terms a “warning strike” in its ongoing dispute over pay for state and federal public employees. The union called for work stoppages across the country and late today posted on social media saying, “Thousands of federal and local employees in many cities and communities are still on strike today for the common demands in the current collective bargaining round.”

Talks are due to resume next Monday, March 27 in Potsdam on the union contract. Ver.di is demanding a 10.5 percent wage increase, or at least €500 more per month for the approximately 2.5 million public sector employees. Media reports said the government’s offer has been five percent in two trances and a one-time payment of approximately €2,500.

The operators of the pilot tenders serving Hamburg and the Elbe announced they would be joining the work stoppage. The union had said it expected several thousand hospital employees as well as daycare center workers, city sanitation, and other services to participate in the strike. Reports said that as many as 16,000 people across Germany have joined in for the effort with the trade union planning a massive protest march crossing the Hamburg city center on Thursday. They have also called for workers at Hamburg’s airport to join in the action after security workers walked off the job last month briefly paralyzing Hamburg’s airport.

“It will not be possible for pilots to board vessels coming into the port during the strike period,” GAC, the shipping, logistics, and marine services provider is warning customers in its GAC Hot Port News. Reuters estimated that at least 18 large vessels were scheduled to arrive in the Port of Hamburg. The number of vessels scheduled to depart that will be delayed is unclear.

Port rules require all vessels over 90 meters (295 feet) or with a beam greater than 13 meters (42 feet) to use a pilot for navigation in the harbor and along the Elbe. The moratorium for inbound vessels began at 10 a.m. on March 22. Starting at 5:30 p.m. Hamburg time all vessels requiring pilots were banned from any movements in or out of the port of Hamburg or along the river. Smaller vessels that are not required to carry a pilot can still operate in the port.

In addition to the pilots, it is anticipated that other key services for the maritime industry will be impacted. Locks, movable bridges, barrages, and the old Elbe tunnel in St. Pauli were all expected to be impacted and unavailable.

Last year, cargo operations in the port were repeatedly disrupted by a series of work stoppages as the union fought for a new contract for dockworkers across Germany. The first warning strike was staged in June 2022, and they continued for three months before the two-year collective bargaining agreement was reached.

As Germany’s largest seaport, nearly 120 million tons of cargo moved through the Port of Hamburg in 2022. The port handled more than 8.3 million TEU including 234 calls from ultra large container vessels, up six percent, last year. The port has more than 7,000 vessel calls annually and is also a hub for inland water transport.