Steve Biggs, a dock worker and Unite rep at Southampton Container Terminal, spoke to Solidarity about his job.
The main issue facing dockers in all UK container ports is overcapacity.
With the new port at London Gateway opening this year, and no new volumes coming into the UK, the fear is shipping lines leaving Southampton, Felixstowe, Tilbury, and Thamesport are going to there. London Gateway is selling itself as a non-union port and offering lower wages and terms and conditions. Last year was a difficult time for us. There were redundancies at South Coast Port Services, our contractor company. They were all union members.
Containerisation came in during the 1970s and changed everything. Now the role of the docker is less labour intensive and more skilled, with more time spent driving cranes and straddle carriers.
There is still a special bond between dockers, and we all work as a team together and have some great characters. There is also the great tradition of family members working together — many of our dockers work alongside fathers, brothers, uncles etc., and now we have daughters, sisters, and wives working with us too.
Automation is a very topical issue. There was a conference in Australia at the end of April to discuss the issue. If you look at [the automated port of] Rotterdam, for instance, the union there has been proactive in making sure the dockers that have been replaced by machinery have been retrained, maintaining their numbers and reducing hours of work. This is a good example to learn from. Employers want to reduce their costs by driving down wages and terms and conditions. The question is: do we resist change, or make agreements now to ensure we are ready to deal with change when it comes?
I am employed by Southampton Container Terminal. That has about 550 staff. All of our dockers, controllers, and engineers are union members and number about 420. That leaves managers and office staff, and we are having a recruitment drive in June to get office workers into our union. We also have South Coast Port Services. They are a contract stevedore company who have about 200 staff. The vast majority are union members. We are all in the same union branch and are working closely together
Dock workers can be better organised by working together in these difficult times. That means establishing links not only in their own ports but with other UK and international ports. We must ensure that all shop stewards receive training in organising, as I believe organising is more important than recruitment. If you are organised, recruitment will follow. The effectiveness of winning in the workplace is the key to sustaining a strong and influential union.
There is international solidarity between dockers struggles through the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) Dockers Section Committee that meets regularly and discusses disputes and solidarity. There is also the Global Network Terminals campaign against the four giant companies — APM Terminals, DP World (which operates Southampton Container Terminal), Hutchinson Port Holdings, and PSA International. These four companies control over 50% of the ports around the world but have different standards in every one.
The ITF are trying to engage with these companies to enter into a global framework agreement to improve these standards.