While the first 24-hour strike in 13 years is currently paralyzing the Port of Rotterdam, Niek Stam, head of the port workers' union FN Havens, hopes that the terminal operators will return to the negotiating table on the union's terms.
"The immediate goal for this strike is to restart the negotiations, but on our demands," he tells ShippingWatch.
The first step has already been taken. Niek Stam explains that the union in the afternoon of January 7th, after the strike had been launched, was invited to an informal meeting by the Rotterdam port authority, which is looking to explore the possibilities of getting port workers and operators, including APM Terminals, to resume the negotiations. But Niek Stam does not rule out the possibility of more strikes hitting the Port of Rotterdam.
"If we do not manage to restart negotiations after the first informal meeting, we will ask our members to go in strike again," he says.
Niek Stam explains that he is ready to negotiate throughout all of next week. But the negotiations must take place on the basis of FN Havens' demands, not the final offer made by the operators in December. He declines to set a deadline for when the negotiations must resume in terms of avoiding additional strikes.
FN Havens' is backed by port workers in the closest major ports, namely Antwerp, Le Havre and Hamburg. Niek Stam does not as such see a risk of the strike in Rotterdam spreading to other ports, though he explains that there is a collaboration.
"If ships are diverted to other ports and we think we should have repercussions for that, we'll pass the name of the ship onto the port, which will then treat the ship with a lot care."
A lot of care - what does that mean?
"That operation will slow down."
Feels forced to strike
Niek Stam stresses that he would prefer not to strike, but that the union feels forced to act. He explains that the port workers were originally promised that the automated Maasvlakte 2 terminals, which have a capacity of five million teu, would be used exclusively as additional capacity, but that the robots are now cannibalizing on volumes in the older terminals, with capacities of 12 million teu. As such, the worst case scenario is that 800 of 4,000 jobs are made redundant in the coming years, according to an external study that is recognized by operators in the Port of Rotterdam.
"The agreement was to initiate efforts to avoid forced layoffs," he says, before adding a suggestion for how to avert these layoffs.
The proposal is based on the fact that the average age for port workers in Rotterdam is 54 years. This means that 632 employees will be retired in the period ahead of 2024, which will over time solve a big part of the problem. FNV thus suggest a solution in which employees through a senior scheme will part time for 95 percent of their salary until they retire.
And if the port workers can also be allowed to handle on-land transport of containers between old and new terminals in Rotterdam, another 70 jobs will be secured. By distributing the work force in a more efficient manner between operators in the port, it should be possible to save another 100 jobs, and the target will thereby be met.
"This plan will cost somewhere around EUR 53-60 million over the next nine years. So in the next nine years we'll need around EUR 6 million annually, and then we're settled," says Niek Stam.
Unwilling to pay the price
He is not positive about the prospect of lowering costs by having port workers in the senior scheme work at less than 95 percent of their wages, even though their work hours would be reduced by 50 percent.
"In that case we would be paying the price. We don't want that, because we're not the ones who expanded the port. We opposed the expansion back in 2004, and already back then we warned that this would result in a social bloodbath," says Niek Stam, adding that the union is already paying for a senior scheme in which employees, for the last three years of their employment, work 75 percent of the time for 95 percent of their salary.
He also does not but the premise that layoffs form a natural part of developments in industries in which manual labor is replaced by machines.
"It's not natural. It's being forced through because the employees are not well organized. We are, and we're proud of that," he says.
The strike in then Port of Rotterdam will last until 3.15 pm CET today, Friday.