Photo: Mick Rafferty Photo: Mick Rafferty

After working through the pandemic, making the bosses a fortune, and not getting a rise, tugboat crews are up for the fight, finds Mick Rafferty

Tugboat crews employed by Svitzer Marine at Teesport, the UK’s fifth largest container port, began strike action last week in a dispute over pay. After yearlong talks with the company, during a cost of living crisis, the company have effectively imposed a pay freeze on the workforce. In fact, the workers haven’t had a pay rise for two years. In response, the workers who are members of the union Unite, have voted for rolling strike action, recording a 100 per cent yes vote in favour of walkouts.

The tugboat crews, who have worked throughout the pandemic to ensure that shipping freight, which is carrying essential supplies for the UK, continued to dock safely. They are furious at the pay freeze as Svitzer have financially benefitted from a significant increase in volumes coming into Teesside over the last year.

Svitzer’s parent company, the shipping giant Maersk (A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S), is forecast to make profits of $16.2 billion (£11.84 billion) for 2021.

 Any industrial action Unite members decide to take will have a huge impact on Teesport, the North East and the wider UK economy. Teesport is a vital ‘gateway’ for the import and export of container freight, automotive components, steel, oil and gas.

The first strike began on Tuesday 1 March and lasted for 48 hours The strikers picketed at the gates of their depot, and turned back much of the transport trying to gain access. On the Tuesday evening this was also coupled with a demo and leafleting outside, and inside the Riverside Stadium, for the Middlesbrough FC match against Tottenham Hotspur. A petition destined for Svitzer CEO Kasper Friis Nilaus was also circulated.

I spent some time with the strikers on both days, at the Riverside, and the picket line. What impressed me was their optimism for a successful outcome to their dispute. They all expressed their amazement at the level of support they were getting from the general public, both at the Riverside Stadium event and on the picket line, particularly from motorists driving by giving them the thumbs up and sounding their horns.

One told me ‘‘Cost of living is at an all-time high, we’ve worked through covid with little or no support from the company, we made them £4.5m on Teesside alone’’ – ‘I would urge every stakeholder on Teesside to pick a side – global companies or Teesside constituents’’

Another said ‘‘We never missed a shift during the pandemic’’ – ‘You can’t just record profits like that then they turn around and say ‘look at all this money we’ve made off the back of you – you can’t have any of it’

This is all happening at a time when the Teesport area is becoming a Freeport, and the Tory Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, is saying that the Freeport Zone would bring ‘’Better wages for local people’’ Perhaps he should be passing this message on to the directors of Svitzer!

One of the strikers addressed the People’s Assembly demo in Middlesbrough on Saturday and received a rousing reception from the attending crowd that included local MP Andy McDonald, and recently resigned Labour Party NEC member Laura Pidcock.

The Unite regional officer Pat McCourt, who is handling the dispute said:

“Strike action will cause huge disruption at Teesport. It could bring the entire operation to a standstill. This is entirely of Svitzer Marine’s own making as despite numerous attempts to resolve this dispute through negotiations they have refused to make our members a pay offer.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:

“Svitzer can easily afford decent pay for this workforce but has instead chosen to pocket the profits at the expense of our members’ living standards.”

Well so far, the week’s activities have not prompted a response from Svitzer. The crews have now returned to work, albeit working to rule.

However, this coming week UNITE are hoping to send a delegation to demonstrate at the parent company Maersk’s AGM, which is being held in Copenhagen, Denmark.

There was another twenty four hour stoppage on the 9th and one scheduled for the 26th of this month, and more could be called in April and May.

The mood is positive, and the Svitzer workers certainly don’t seem to be in a mind to back down.

Mick Rafferty is a member of Unite the Union

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