Union Threatens Prolonged Action as Tempers Flare at Felixstowe
Halfway into the week-long strike which has essentially brought the UK’s largest container port to a standstill the war of words between the union representing the dockworkers and port officials is heating up. Union officials continue to reject what the port calls a fair offer with both sides threatening to deepen and prolong the dispute after a visit by the Unite the Union’s general secretary to the picket lines on Wednesday.
Reports indicate that nearly or all of the port’s crane drivers, machine operators, and stevedores who load and unload ships are staying away from work. Pictures show large crowds of picketers outside the port with the lines being maintained daily from early morning to 10 pm.
The port’s online calendar shows nearly all vessel calls canceled for the remainder of the week and through the weekend. While the strike was scheduled to end Sunday night, port officials announced they would keep the port closed on Monday, which is a bank holiday where most businesses are closed for the day. The move to close the port on the bank holiday is being viewed as a punitive action by Felixstowe as the dockworkers would normally have received higher holiday pay rates for the day. Eight vessels as currently scheduled to arrive in Felixstowe on Tuesday, August 30.
The escalation in the rhetoric came as a port spokesperson told the media that Unite was "promoting a national agenda at the expense of many of our employees." With the union’s general secretary visiting the picket line and meeting with the heads of the local, the port spokesperson said "A lot of our employees feel let down by Unite.”
Port spokesman Paul Davey told the BBC, that the port’s offer represented an increase of between 8.1 and 9.6 percent, depending upon the category of worker at the port, at a time when the average pay increase in the country was 5 percent. "We've got a shrinking economy, we're going into recession... I think that's a very fair offer indeed," he said on BBC Radio.
The union quickly disputed the port’s figures. They contend the average wage for the hourly workers is as much as 50 percent below the port’s figures. The union argues that Felixstowe’s offer amounts to only 7 percent.
Addressing the striking dockworkers Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite said “The company (Felixstowe Ports) is making an absolute fortune. It could pay 50 percent more on your wages and still be in profit. We are asking for 10 percent. What is the problem?”
Graham pledged to turn the union’s attention to “exposing CK Hutchison, the global company based in Hong Kong, which is the ultimate owner of Felixstowe Ports,” while also threatening to "escalate this dispute unless they come back with a revised offer because this is ridiculous." Pressed by the media, Graham said the dispute could continue until Christmas and disrupt the holiday supply chain.
Even before the latest threats to escalate the action, industry observers were predicting significant repercussions across the supply chain reaching far beyond the UK. CNBC citing data based on trade data analysis by MDS Transmodal reported that the total value of containers impacted by the eight-day strike is estimated at roughly $4.7 billion.
“The congestion is expected to worsen across Europe with an increase in blank sailings and the container rollovers as a result of these cancellations will further impact the supply chain,” predicted Josh Brazil, VP of supply chain insights for Project44.
The two sides remain dug in with their positions at an apparent deadlock in the negotiations. The port continues to call on the union to stop the labor action and return to the bargaining table. Graham continues to say that Felixstowe’s offers amount to a pay cut due to the current retail inflation rate. Unite cites the profits at CK Hutchison calling out the “crocodile tears” of Felixstowe employers claiming they can’t afford to pay the demanded wage increase for hourly workers.