Why are workers at the Port of Felixstowe on strike again? What both sides say about the dispute

Members of the Unite union man a picket line at one of the entrances to the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, Britain's biggest and busiest container port, after backing industrial action by 9-1 in a dispute over pay.
Credit: PA
Workers on the picket line at the Port of Felixstowe in August. Credit: PA

It's the UK's busiest container port - and it has ground to a halt again.

That is likely to remain the case until at least next week, after workers at the Port of Felixstowe walked out on Tuesday for the first of eight days of strike action, in a dispute over pay.

It follows a walkout in August, the first strike to hit the port since 1989, and which also lasted for eight days.

Crane drivers, machine operators and stevedores - who unload the ships - are among the members of the Unite union to take action, claiming that the pay offer imposed by the port's owners is not good enough.

The disruption caused by the shutdown from 21 to 28 August rippled out into the supply chain, and the many industries and businesses reliant upon the port's economic activity - and the same is expected to happen this time. So what is at the heart of the dispute?

What offer has been made to staff?

After discussions broke down, seemingly irreperably, the port said it would implement the 2022 pay award of 7% plus £500, which would be backdated to 1 January 2022.

That top-up means the increase in the first year of the deal would be equivalent to between 8.1% and 9.6%, depending on the worker's salary.

The port said that this award was an improvement on an offer made before the August strike - at that point it was a 5% rise plus a £500 lump sum.

However, the offer that is being imposed by the port still lags below inflation - which stands at a 40-year high - meaning that in real terms, the workers' pay packets will have less buying power.

Activity at the port has been scaled back after 1,900 workers walked out. Credit: PA

What does the union say?

The union Unite said that its members had asked for a pay rise to keep up with inflation - the rate at which the cost of living is increasing - which the Bank of England said hit 10.1% in July, with a predicted peak in October of 13%.

Robert Morton, Unite’s national officer, said that workers at Felixstowe had been reluctant to begin taking industrial action, adding they had "never been militant people".

“This is the first strike in the port for 31 years," he said in August. "However, at the beginning of the negotiations we asked [members] what they wanted and they said, ‘we want you to go and negotiate and come back with at least the rate of inflation. If it’s anything less than that, then don’t bring it back'."

The last pay offer was not put to members for them to vote upon, said Mr Morton.

He added: “It’s the members that make the decisions in my union, not people like me and we’re adhering to their wishes. So when we get further up the negotiations, perhaps we will put an offer to them, but it certainly won’t be at 7%.”

He said his members were "working (outside) in all kinds of weather, they’re very highly skilled people and I think they deserve more from the company who is making massive profits".

Both sides have become firmly entrenched in their positions. Credit: PA

What about the port?

Paul Davey, head of corporate affairs at the Port of Felixstowe, has previously said that the had port improved its offer to staff over the course of negotiations.

“The offer that was on the table at the time they voted to strike was 5% plus £500. It’s now 7% plus £500," he said in August. "We have moved considerably during the course of the negotiations.

“Unite started the negotiations asking for 10% and they ended them asking for 10%. There’s only one party here that’s tried to find a deal.”

When pushed about workers being asked to take a real-terms pay cut, he said it was "happening to everybody", adding that the current pay deal would only run until December 2022.

“On January 1, there’s another pay deal due, so we can deal with future inflation and next year’s issues next year. The deal that we have offered them is much better than the vast majority are getting," he added.

Mr Davey said a typical worker at the port was paid on average 40% above the national average, adding: "The pay offer that we’ve offered is twice what other people are getting. So our workers will be much better placed to weather the cost-of-living storm that we’re seeing than the vast majority of people in the country.”

Goods from Felixstowe are distributed to every corner of the UK. Credit: PA

What impact will the strike have?

The Port of Felixstowe handles 48% of the container cargo that arrives in the UK - some four million containers on 2,000 ships - often long-haul non-perishable goods that have come from the Far East.

Around 4,000 lorries and 38 freight trains leave the port every day, taking the goods to every corner of the UK.

Any slowdown in activity will affect the hauliers and lorry companies that work from the port, as well as the associated businesses - for example, the firms that repair and maintain the vehicles, or shops and cafes which serve the drivers.

Unite national officer Robert Morton said: “The supply chain will be severely disrupted, I accept that. That’s one of the unfortunate parts of things like this."

Workers say they want a higher pay rise to keep up with inflation. Credit: PA

How will this be resolved?

The union said its position was to ask for a minimum of the rate of inflation according to the Retail Price Index - a figure of 12.3%.

“Like all negotiations, you don’t always get what you want," said Mr Morton. “However, if we can sit down and thrash this out, there will be a figure between 7% and 12.3% that’s acceptable to my membership.”

Following the announcement that union members would strike again, the Port of Felixstowe said it was "very disappointed", adding: "The collective bargaining process has been exhausted and there is no prospect of agreement being reached with the union."

The port has repeatedly made the point that its pay offer is higher than those on offer in many other industries, and says another, smaller branch of the Unite union has already accepted the offer put to its 500 members.

However, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said the union remained "entirely focused" on promoting and defending the jobs, pay and condition of its members

She said: "This is a tremendously wealthy company which can fully afford to pay its workers a fair pay increase but has chosen not to in order to boost their already huge profits.

"The Felixstowe dock workers are receiving the union's unflinching support," she said.

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