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Transport strikes put supply chains under duress again

Labor actions to impact air traffic in France, cargo at UK ports

Container operations at the Port of Felixstowe. (Photo: Shutterstock/nigel baker photography)

It’s not just a potential U.S. rail strike putting supply chains at risk. Air traffic controllers in France are taking Friday off, and dockworkers at two major U.K. ports have scheduled work stoppages.

The pandemic, a giant cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal, floods and droughts, and worker shortages have created two years of havoc for businesses and consumers that depend on freight shipments. Now potential disruptions are coming from within. Workforces, emboldened by a tight labor supply amid high demand and ongoing shipping delays, and expecting to be compensated for sacrifices made to keep economies going during COVID, feel they have leverage. 

Workers at the ports of Felixstowe and Liverpool are preparing to strike in the United Kingdom, and the actions will overlap.

Unite, the union that represents dockworkers at the Port of Felixstowe, has scheduled a  work stoppage for Sept. 27 until Oct. 5. Stevedores also went on strike for eight days in August.

Felixstowe is a major port, handling about 48% of all containerized imports in the U.K. 

Union leaders say Felixstowe Dock and Railway Co. and its Hong Kong-based owner, Hutchison Port Holdings, are offering only a 7% raise when inflation in the U.K. is above 12%.

Unite also said longshoremen at the Port of Liverpool would not report to work from next Monday to Oct. 3 in a dispute with Peel Ports Group over pay. Peel Group says it has offered a pay package equivalent to an 8.3% increase.

Logistics company C.H. Robinson also alerted customers that port operations will be suspended or reduced on Monday in a show of respect for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

During the strikes, it noted, truck deliveries will also be severely limited and temporary storage charges may occur for cargo that can’t get on a vessel or exit port property. 

In Germany, unionized workers and the bargaining unit for management at Hamburg and other ports reached agreement on a 9.4% pay hike after multiple rounds of contentious negotiations that led to strikes before a court-imposed moratorium in late July. The disruption created container backlogs that took a few weeks to whittle down.

Meanwhile, talks between terminal operators and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dockworkers on the U.S. West Coast, have bogged down. The ILWU has pledged not to go on strike, but there are growing concerns that informal work slowdowns could increase. Major sticking points include a local dispute with the Port of Seattle/Tacoma and automation, with workers in Southern California not working ships calling at the automated section of Pier 400 in Los Angeles, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Against this backdrop, major U.S. freight railroads have embargoed many types of freight and are making preparations to shut down on Friday after failing to reach a collective bargaining agreement with two large unions. The prolonged strike could exacerbate intermodal congestion and inflation in the country, analysts say.

Longshoremen in Europe and the U.S. say ocean carriers and port terminals have raked in huge profits since the COVID crisis and should now share more of that wealth.

Air traffic control dispute in France

The French Civil Aviation Authority DGAC has asked all airlines operating in France to reduce their flight schedule from all French airports by 50% on Friday, when the main union representing air traffic controllers in France has called a one-day strike. 

Air France on Wednesday announced it will cancel 10% of its long-haul flight schedule and 45% of short- and medium-haul flights. 

Data from Cirium shows there are more than 1,800 flights scheduled in France on Friday, the bulk of them on intra-European routes, SimpleFlying reports.

DGAC said it is working with navigation regulator Euronav to help airlines avoid the country’s airspace. Bypassing French national airspace could put strain on airline operations throughout Europe.

The industrial action is scheduled to last from 6 a.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday. The air traffic control union SNCTA cited the need for higher pay to cope with inflation and more hiring as reasons for the strike. 

The impact on air cargo is expected to be modest given the short duration of the strike. Air France is also maintaining most of its international flights, which carry the bulk of air shipments booked with the airline.

It’s the latest in a series of labor actions that have contributed to a bumpy summer of congestion and thousands of flight cancellations for travelers and shippers in Europe. Airports such as London Heathrow and Frankfurt in Germany capped daily passenger counts to keep the system from bogging down. 

In July, ground staff at Lufthansa walked off the job for a day before the sides resolved their differences. A last-minute agreement between pilots and the German flag carrier averted a two-day strike last week. Cabin crew at Spanish operator Iberia Express conducted a work stoppage this summer.

In Australia, airport ground services company dnata recently reached a tentative agreement with workers that prevented a 24-hour work stoppage at large airports.

Typhoons, heat waves, COVID lockdowns and geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia have hindered airline operations as well.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


Lufthansa cargo shipments slowed by ground staff strike in Germany

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]