There is a STRIKE coming down the main Cargo highways of this world. No-0ne has heard about it. It will be devastating in its impact; but yet no-one knows about it. No newspaper or tv station has reported on it, but it will happen; and because of who is striking, and why these men are striking, it will change our very world. Imagine a Global World without the means which made it Global. What made it Global? It was the Container ship, and the professionals which crewed those ships.
Imagine a ship in the days when I was at sea, a half-century ago. We sailed into a port, and we usually stayed there for four or five days, whilst the cargo was unloaded; and then we moved on.
Fast forwards forty years, and the ship’s time in harbour is measured not in days or weeks: but in hours. The cargo holds, the winches and derricks, they’ve all disappeared. In the place of that series of four or five holds, there is now a series of vertical gantries, which hold that miracle of cargo handling, the container. The ship’s beam has widened to maybe four or five times the size of that old ship, and the ship’s length has maybe magically increased by a similar figure. You are now gazing at a modern Container ship. As the ship is berthed, along comes a colossal series of cranes, with a horizontal boom which is wider that the beam of this monstrous Container ship. A computer tells the crane driver which container to pick next, an automated trailer sits underneath the landing point, and; in an incredible time, the cargo containers disappear from the enormous holds, and are replaced with more, heading to a different destination. That monstrous ship can move on to the next port, and indeed where it used to take weeks, that cargo ship does the job in days.
But the one thing, the one spark which makes this modern miracle work so efficiently is men. Overwhelmingly male, the Officers, Deck and Engineers, supported by a crew of sailors and engine room aides, they tend to the vast engines which move those vast hulls around the globe; the chefs and stewards prepare the meals; they check the progress over the seas, and navigate those Container ships with pin-point precision from harbour to harbour, port to port.
Now imagine, if you would, a scattering of sand into that well-oiled machinery. In mechanical terms, the lubrication disappears, the engines slow and stop, the ships lie idle. The sand was a virus, Covid-19: the well-oiled machinery was the formerly efficient method of crew replacement which brought fresh, rested crew and officers aboard that ship at an appointed day and time. Notes and logs would be exchanged with the departing crew, they would leave, and head homewards, and that massive ship would have moved ever forwards to the next port. But suddenly, this huge exercise is halted. Why? Because too many ports in too many countries have imposed drastic restrictions on who lands, who departs, and even who gets medical treatment.
When all was happy, and transit trade was normal, thousands of seafarers were flown home, with new replacement crews moving on board to replace the old crew, and it all happened like clockwork. It was almost an Industry on its own, with small squads of deckhands and engine room staff together with the deck and engine room officers being marshalled and flown to the nearest transit point, just as their ship hove into sight. They would trans-ship, the old crew and officers would be ready to fly home. That backup disappeared almost overnight, so the shipowners simply told the Captains and Crew that they would have to stay on board, their contracts would be lengthened, and they would be transferred when such passage was available. Countries made plans for crew transhipment, but promises, easily made, were just as easily broken, and the crewmen and officers; more often that not, had to stay on board because replacement came there none!
So, thousands of complaints rolled into the headquarters of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and responding to their 300,000 members, overwhelmingly on Container vessels said one thing, and one thing only: “Enough is Enough: You have the right to return home!”. The one thing is, ships travel slowly, average speed of a large 16,000 TEU vessel is about fifteen knots (Nautical miles per hour). We must await the docking of a major vessel anywhere in the world, and possibly watch as history is made onwards from today, June 16th, and the crew walk off, or simply sit down, and refuse to work!