Workers at Britain’s biggest container port have gone on strike for the first time since 1989, with shipping companies and union leaders warning the action could impact supply chains and leave buyers waiting for goods.
About 1,900 Unite members in Felixstowe walked out of a pay dispute today, in the latest spike in industrial action that has affected a growing number of sectors of the economy.
Workers, including crane operators, machine operators and skidders, will take action after voting more than 9 to 1 in favor of strikes. The union said the eight-day shutdown will have a big impact on the port, which handles around 4 million containers a year from 2,000 ships.
The strike is the latest industrial action to hit the UK economy amid widespread disruption to rail and bus services over the weekend as transport workers seek better pay and conditions.
The current cost of living crisis, which has seen the price of food and energy bills soar, means that workers in many sectors are fighting for wage increases.
Felixstowe handles nearly half of the containerized freight entering the country and the action could mean ships have to be diverted to ports elsewhere in the UK or Europe.
A spokesman for Logistics UK said Felixstowe does not deal in “just in time” goods, such as food, and instead deals in products such as car parts and furniture.
However, shipping companies could be forced to change their routes and other ports – such as Southampton and Teesside – could be used to offload goods, they said.
The spokesperson said: “At this stage, we have no serious concerns. All our operators have planned alternative routes.
Transport companies have warned the strike could have a serious impact on business while trade organizations have said consumers could be hit by price hikes.
Adam Searle, managing director of CP Transport, said his business could lose between £60,000 and £70,000 if it doesn’t move any containers this week.
“Across Suffolk the bill could run into the millions and across the country many more,” he told the BBC.
“It won’t affect food supply chains as all fresh produce is already in stock, but it will affect the supply chain in terms of furniture, fencing and bric-a-brac.”
Maersk, one of the world’s biggest container shippers, said the strike could cause delays and force it to change its lineup of ships, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, consumers could be hit by price hikes and shortages of certain products, James Hookham, director of the Global Shippers Forum, told the broadcaster.
“Consumer prices are already rising due to dramatic increases in shipping rates since mid-2020,” he said.
“Further disruption in the UK will add to these cost pressures, although the temporary unavailability of some products may be the first noticeable effect for consumers.”
However, a port source said the strikes would be an “inconvenience and not a disaster”, saying the supply chain was now used to being disrupted after the pandemic.
“Disruption is the new normal. The supply chain has moved from just-in-time to just-in-case,” he added.
He also suggested that some suppliers of white goods such as fridge-freezers might actually want a break due to slowing sales due to the cost of living crisis.
The Port of Felixstowe said in a statement: “The company is disappointed that Unite has not accepted our offer to call off the strike and come to the table for constructive discussions to find a solution.
“We recognize these are tough times but, in a slowing economy, we believe the company’s offering, which is worth more than 8% on average in the current year and closer to 10% for lowest paid workers, is fair.”