Strike threat at Felixstowe prompts fears of intermodal chaos
Members of the Unite union have voted overwhelming today, Thursday, in favour of strike action at the Port of Felixstowe. Fears have already been expressed over disruption to intermodal traffic at Britain’s biggest container shipping terminal and its busy rail freight facility. The dispute over pay has been triggered by a ballot that returned almost four to one of the entire membership in favour of rejecting a five per cent pay offer and taking industrial action. No date has yet been set, as UK industrial relations legislation requires two week’s notice of any withdrawal of labour.
The news that Britain’s biggest container port faces strike action came as a shock to the logistics sector, and to UK rail freight operators, who all have scheduled services from the port’s extensive rail terminal. However, the loudest alarm is for the UK economy in general. The port handles almost four million TEU annually, and is responsible for almost half of the entire containerised trade in the UK. Each day the port dispatches up to 38 intermodal trains to destination terminals all over Great Britain.
In a position to offer a better deal
This latest strike threat comes as a huge blow to the UK economy. A strike at Felixstowe would, at a stroke, cripple British trade routes. While shore handling capacity exists elsewhere around the UK, larger vessels are limited in the availability of deep water berths, and rail capacity would be stretched to replace the schedule from the east coast port. Shipping lines would also face difficulties rerouting to ports in the south or west coasts of England (such as Southampton or Liverpool) and smaller ports on the east coast would be unable to berth large ocean going container ships.
The anger of the unions revolves around how they say the profits from operations have been shared. A statement, widely reported, from Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, said that the owners, Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company were in a position to offer a far more generous settlement. “This is an extremely wealthy company that can fully afford to give its workers a pay rise”, she said. “Instead it chose to give bonanza pay outs to shareholders touching 100 million pounds [120 million euro].”
Growing tide of unrest
A statement from Felixstowe remains optimistic that strike action can be averted. The company says that both sides are still talking and there are hopes that the grievances can be resolved. In the event of a breakdown resulting in strike action, there are however other port operators who, conceivably, could step in. Immediately, the combined facilities of Tilbury and London Gateway, recently granted freeport status, owned by Forth Ports and DP World respectively, have the advantages of nearby location, handling capacity and rail connections.
Felixstowe has, for a long time, been the focus of rail improvements. Capacity enhancements have been planned for both the branch line from Ipswich which serves the port, and the infrastructure in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in general – not least around the cathedral city of Ely, where fears were recently raised over teh future of the enhancement project.
The growing tide of industrial unrest is threatening to see the UK face a flood of industrial action. While the railways have been repeatedly beached by wave after wave of strikes, this dispute at Felixstowe threatens to leave everyone’s economic planning high and dry.