Felixstowe port workers have been on strike from Tuesday and are out until next Wednesday. We spoke to Unite activist Ozzy Osborne about the strike, at Britain’s largest port.
Felixstowe is a major workplace. It deals with 48 percent of British container goods traffic – and it’s not just Felixstowe taking action. Liverpool dock workers are on strike until at least Monday, with the total worth of goods going through the two ports each week amounting to $7 billion. Business site Bloomberg writes that ships are forming queues outside ports: ‘three box carriers are anchored outside Felixstowe, four more are waiting outside London Gateway and another is parked near Southampton.’ It’s reported that Southampton dockers, not on strike themselves, are refusing to handle cargo diverted because of the strike in Liverpool.
All this can have a major impact on British industry, Ozzy explains, because so many manufacturers use ‘just in time’ production methods. ‘Car plants depend on parts arriving “just in time” so they can easily arrive just too late – steering wheels or brake pedals for Peugeot in Coventry. That’s when phone calls start getting made – and the real power those workers have kicks in. The entire manufacturing sector relies on components from Felixstowe.’
Like many other strikes, this one is over pay. The company is imposing a 7 percent pay rise – in practice a pay cut when inflation is at 12 percent. Felixstowe is owned by multi-national giant CK Hutchison, which is registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. The world’s largest port owner, in 2021 they made £79 million in profit, while since 2017 they have paid out £198 million in dividends. They own businesses from phone networks to hotels, and infrastructure from sewers to docks. The company is ultimately owned by Li-Ka Shing of Hong Kong, the 31st richest man in the world and worth £29.8 billion according to Forbes magazine. And the Hutchison empire links up with some of the richest organisations in East England, the colleges of Cambridge University. The biggest container handling facility at Felixstowe is Trinity Terminal – named, Ozzy explains, after Trinity College Cambridge, who own the land where the terminal is located.
Felixstowe doesn’t have a reputation as a militant workplace – this is the first strike there for 35 years. But 82 percent of the 1,900 Unite blue collar members have voted to strike, on a 78 percent turnout. The strikers have had consistent support from Unite leaders and officials, with senior organisers on picket lines as well as General Secretary Sharon Graham coming down. The involvement of workers in the strike is impressive. Ozzy comments, ‘The picket line was amazing. People with flags, PAs, barbecues. This is serious.’
The strike is solid – no workers are going in, no work is being done. Ozzy says that you can see the effect of the strike on local roads: ‘I see container traffic on the A14 all day every day as I’m driving to work. And for days there’s been nothing there, literally no containers moving. It’s a complete shutdown, highly effective.’
The strike has had support from other dock workers, with Liverpool dockers visiting to show solidarity. Solidarity is being organised in East Anglian towns including Cambridge and Colchester, while Ipswich Trades Council has been actively involved in support and is relaunching next month – secretary Mark Jones comments that, ‘representatives, activists and affiliated unions to the trades council have turned up at the picket lines each day since this strike began’.
It’s a similar story at Liverpool – Manchester TUC sent over a delegation in solidarity, and one activist told us, ‘The level of support from passing cars and trucks is truly impressive. They have also had support from many organisations, internationally, and from delegates at Labour conference, though they are disgusted at the lack of support from Starmer.’ In fact, though Corbyn and a number of other left MPs went to show solidarity, not one front-bencher did so, and dockers marched to Labour conference in protest.
With no resolution to the dispute at Felixstowe, there’s the possibility of a third strike after next week. Unite has already announced a second strike at Liverpool from 11 to 17 October, and that more workers are joining the action. There’s also potential for dockers to coordinate action with railworkers – almost a third of Felixstowe’s throughput uses rail. The rest of the goods use HGVs – and with shortages of truck drivers after Brexit, that’s a group of workers with increased workplace strength. Finally, in the next few months we’re approaching Christmas, where celebrations depend on importing everything from food to toys. Felixstowe dockers are fighting powerful global capitalists – but they have the power to win.