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Workers at 5 German ports walk out in a ‘warning strike’

Workers at the Port of Hamburg, Europe’s third-largest container port and the largest railway port, have followed through on their threat of a strike. 

In addition to Hamburg, the German ports of Emden, Bremen, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven are also impacted by striking workers. About 70% of Germany’s port workforce is unionized.

One of the port employers, HHLA-Unternehmenskommunikation (HHLA), told American Shipper the German trade union ver.di called for a warning strike from 3 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at all German seaports. 

The Central Association of German Seaport Companies (ZDS — Zentralverband der Deutschen Seehäfen e.V.,) described the warning strike over wages “with great incomprehension.”

“We are in the middle of an absolutely exceptional situation. Global supply chains are severely disrupted. On the one hand, a large wave of delayed ships is approaching us; on the other hand, there are major bottlenecks in rail freight traffic. Calling for warning strikes now is absolutely irresponsible,” ZDS said.

“It also does not do justice to the current collective bargaining in any way. We have a comparatively high wage level in German seaport operations. In the last round of negotiations, given the currently challenging inflation rate, we made an offer that compensates for the losses of our employees in real wages. This offer is in line with many other current ver.di collective bargaining agreements. The fact that strikes are now being called in the current crisis framework is completely unacceptable. We call on the ver.di Federal Tariff Commission to refrain from strikes and to negotiate on the basis of our good first offer.”

Leonard Kuntscher, ZDS spokesman told American Shipper, “This is the first strike in decades. In the last negotiations, the union got our demands. Tomorrow, the negotiations will continue. The union is demanding compensation for inflation and additional increases. In total, the demands amount to a 14% increase in one year. Our offer from May is for a plus of up to 7% in two years. 

“The strikes [Thursday] will last only a few hours and are related to the negotiations [Friday]. In principle, there is a good chance that we can conclude the negotiations [Friday] at our third meeting. In any case, our side is ready to talk and compromise. Accordingly, we have little understanding for the warning strikes [Thursday]. Whether there will be further strikes depends on the negotiations [Friday].”

American Shipper previously reported the possibility of a work stoppage.

Andreas Braun, EMEA ocean product director for Crane Worldwide Logistics, told American Shipper that because of the port’s significance in feeder connections, this is going to affect the efficiency of containers being processed both in and out of those ports.

“Feeder operators see up to five days’ delays waiting for berth to pick up their containers, round trips between, as an example Rotterdam-Dublin-Rotterdam, increased from six to nine days, and more vessels need to be injected by the feeder operators to keep the schedule somehow reliable,” Braun said. 

The Port of Hamburg is a key port for automobile exports. 

American Shipper reviewed the bills of lading using ImportGenius from May 1 to Monday. Items ranging from auto parts for Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen, tire products for Michelin, lithium batteries for Ford and Siemens arrived into the East Coast ports along with BMW motorcycles. BASF and Bayer are also major exporters.

In addition to autos, building products like laminate flooring, furniture from Ikea, Royal Caribbean spare vessel parts, Red Bull products and marketing displays, food and even Steinway piano parts were also included in recent shipments.

According to Crane Logistics in an alert to clients, there are more than 40 container vessels waiting for port discharge and arrival. A total of 150,000 containers are waiting to be exported. Rail services were already suspended due to containers on rails and containers piling up as a result of the labor slowdown prior to the strike. Construction was also listed as a factor in the suspension. American Shipper has reached out to the rail division for an update on the impact of this strike.

It is important to remember that this strike not only impacts the importer or exporter, it hits the logistics provider and ocean carriers as well. A vessel or container at rest is not making money. Some logistical providers noted on the bills of lading are C.H. Robinson, DHL and Seko Logistics. Ocean carriers include Maersk, APL, CMA CGM and MSC.

Braun tells American Shipper he anticipates this strike to go between three and five days, and this will only add to the congestion problems created by the recent labor slowdown.  

“The supply chain has already been disrupted for at least four to six weeks,” Braun said. “This strike will drastically slow down any movements on export and import, and at the same time congestion in front of the ports will rise.”

Exports from the five German ports have been significantly impacted due to the labor slowdown.

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“The labor at the Port of Hamburg going on strike is particularly bad timing,” said Craig Grossgart, SVP for the global ocean product at Seko Logistics. “The carriers are trying their level best to get back on base so they can provide some semblance of service again and now to throw this spanner in the works just as Shanghai is opening seems to be selfish and ill-considered. 

“If we are going to get out of this supply chain mess that we are in today, every component of the supply chain has to work towards the greater good and demonstrate some selflessness,” Grossgart said. “Here in the U.S., the railroads need to get empty cars to the West Coast, waterfront labor has to show up to work, customers have to try to return chassis and boxes earlier. Not helpful Hamburg.”