From Wildcat magazine no.109. We helped with the translation of this article. You can read the original here.

Beverly Silver pointed out in the early noughties that more than a third of all ‘labour unrest’ from 1870 to 1996 was in the transport sector, ahead of ‘manufacturing’ at 21 percent. But while factory workers were able to force entrepreneurs to make impressive concessions, transport labour became cheaper and cheaper and, at least since the 1990s, the basis of the entrepreneurs’ counterattack – “globalization.” This allowed them to have goods manufactured wherever on the planet they paid the lowest wages. 

For nearly two years now, reports have been pouring in about ‘constrained supply chains’, rising transportation costs and shortages of goods. Never before has there been so much congestion and delay. Pandemic measures in particular severely disrupted just-in-time production and its synchronization through global logistics. In addition, there were ship disasters and freak weather conditions, as well as labour shortages and worker struggles. Shortages of truck drivers are the talk of the town, bicycle couriers are leading self-organized strikes, and in many places there are wage increases. By the end of 2021, dockworkers were on strike in Liverpool (UK), Algeciras (Spain), and Hamburg (Germany). One of the most significant struggles is being waged by dockworkers1 in Piraeus, west of Athens in Greece. They are attacking key, common problems – the risk of accidents on the job, and subcontracting.

Ports and ships are very dangerous workplaces

The introduction of the container 50 years ago and the related standardization of transhipment processes greatly streamlined the connection of ship, rail and truck transport. Containerization reduced the number of workers needed at the port, thereby lowering labour costs. Today, more than 60 percent of consumer product shipments are containerized.

With the cheapening of transportation, it became easy for entrepreneurs to put up new factories far from politically strong workers. So not only did industrial workers and unions lose their fighting power – many cities in the US and Europe also lost their industrial base, plunging communities like New York into financial crisis.

This was not a purely ‘technical’ development. It was flanked by political decisions. For example, the US government passed the Shipping Act in 1984 under Reagan and the Ocean Shipping Reform Act in 1998 under Clinton, exposing the previously regulated transportation industry to the ‘free market’. This brought the breakthrough of the container: from 1980 to 2017, global container shipments increased from 102 million to 1.83 billion tons. Previously, transport prices were comprehensible to all and pretty much the same. Now, secret pricing agreements became possible. This led to a race to the bottom, and ultimately to a monopoly structure with pricing power. This in turn opened up the possibility of making profits by operating ports or individual areas within them. Entrepreneurs began to take an interest in ports, and the ‘privatizations’ began. Certain activities were outsourced to companies, which in turn outsourced sub-activities to other companies. More and more subcontractors squeezed in between workers and port management. Worker groups became smaller, and wages diverged. Solidarity and collective worker influence over working conditions crumbled.

For the past 30 years or so, the Internet and computerized logistics have enabled global synchronization and planning of supply chains. Workers have to work faster, longer and more irregularly. This leads to greater fatigue, the leading cause of workplace accidents at ports.

The combination of containers and computerization created huge ports and massive infrastructure problems. Container ships became ever more gigantic, and port and hinterland transport operators couldn’t keep up with the adjustment. Ships with a draught of 16 meters and a cargo of more than 20,000 TEUs2 can now only call at a few ports, creating chronic bottlenecks due to a lack of space and manpower, as well as dilapidated hinterland connections. That’s why congestion is not currently easing. As a result of congestion and Covid measures, hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been trapped on their ships in the last two years, sometimes for more than a year. But for the shipping companies, the congestion has been great business in these two years; they have been able to increase transport prices tenfold due to their monopoly position, and made record profits in 2021.

Between 1980 and 2020, the deadweight of the global fleet of container ships increased from eleven to 275 million tons. This has been accompanied by massive pollution – one ship emits about as many pollutants as 50 million cars.3 Thousands of containers fall from ships into the sea every year. Drifting steel boxes endanger other ships, and put an estimated 10,000 tons of plastic into the oceans each year.4

The original ‘economies of scale’ of containerization, according to which the transport price of a good decreases the more units are transported simultaneously, have come to an end. They only exist now if you ignore environmental problems and other ‘external costs’. In reality, inefficiencies and accidents are growing. The ships and cranes are extremely dangerous to workers because of their size, the space they take up and their design (heavy, moving steel structures) – for example, there are five times as many fatal work accidents in port facilities in the US than on average.

China’s ‘Dragon Head’ in Europe

That’s what Xi Jinping called the container port of Piraeus, which was privatized and massively expanded as part of the ‘New Silk Road’. 433,582 TEUs were handled here in 2008; in 2019, it was 13 times that. The port rose to become the fourth largest European container port, after Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, until the pandemic.

Piraeus is on the busy route from the Suez Canal to Central and Northern Europe. The vast majority of containers come from Asia, or go there. Only a very small portion goes directly to the hinterland by truck or rail. The port serves feeder traffic. Smaller cargo ships deliver and distribute containers for the Ultra Large Container Ships.

The privatization process began in 2005. It aimed “to break up worker relations, because they were very cumbersome” according to former port chief Harilaos Psaraftis5. At that time, the Greek government wanted to sell the port outright to Chinese logistics company COSCO. The privatization was initially prevented by workers’ struggles and an EU ruling that it violated competition rules, because COSCO would have benefited directly from state subsidies. The second attempt started in 2008 with an international tender process, under which the only container terminal was to be awarded with a long-term concession (35 plus 5 years). At that time, the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) employed about 1700 port workers – clerks, drivers, crane operators, etc. – covered by full-time collective bargaining agreements (although the PPA had long been trying to increase productivity. It had not hired new people since 1989, and workers had to work massive overtime). The state held 74 percent of PPA.

After almost two years of struggle against privatization (long strikes, rallies, campaigns, occupation of the container terminal, court cases against privatization, etc.), COSCO finally won and established its own wholly owned subsidiary, Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT), in 2009. It has been operating most of the container port (Pier II and later the newly built Pier III) since 2010. PPA employees were relocated to a smaller dock (Pier I). No one was laid off; employees nearing retirement were allowed to take early retirement.

PCT hired workers (only male) through subcontractors. The most important one is called DPort Services. It employs about 1700 people, most of them part-time (16 instead of 22 days per month), without a collective agreement and at lower wages than PPA employees. There are no allowances for night shifts, holidays and Sundays. Safety measures are poor. Workers report bullying by supervisors and pressure to increase productivity.

In 2016, COSCO acquired 51 percent of PPA; in 2021, the share was increased to 67 percent. The next investments are to be in a fourth container pier, an additional terminal for car handling and – despite the pandemic – new facilities for cruise ships.

In July 2014, workers had organized a 24-hour strike. This led to the formation of a new union in the PCT – ENEDEP, which is heavily influenced by the party-communist PAME union. PPA unions such as the Dockworkers’ Union (an independent union, in Greek Ενωση Λιμενεργατών ΟΛΠ) showed solidarity with their colleagues in the PCT. Ships in the PCT were not touched, there was a constant presence on the picket line, provision of legal counsel for negotiations, etc. ENEDEP demanded full-time jobs, regular seven-hour days and a 35-hour week, wage increases for all and no distinction between new and old colleagues, permanent jobs, and safety measures. In response, DPort Services promoted the formation of a 600-700-member, company-affiliated union (SEEDP) in 2018.

The 2021 strike

Until 2005, nine colleagues worked in a gantry crane team at PPA. After CBA negotiations failed, it was decided in arbitration that a team must consist of only six workers. Since COSCO took over, PCT and its subcontractors employ only four dockworkers (only men) at Piers II and III.

On October 25 2021, the authors of this article happened to be in Piraeus discussing work safety with people from the Dockworkers’ Union, when bad news came in over the phone:
46-year-old dockworker Dimitris Daglis, employed by DPort Services, had been hit and killed by a gantry crane at the end of his shift. Dimitris was part of a gantry crane team of four and was responsible for the “twist locks”; which are used to connect containers together for storage. These locks on each of the four corners must be released in order for a gantry crane to lift the containers. Within a few hours, a strike call was written and distributed. The strike officially began at 11pm on the morning of October 26th. About 300 workers and supporters gathered in the square between the COSCO administration building and the entrance to the piers. Workers, unionists and other officials gave speeches. A banner was unrolled from the administration building: “No more deaths for COSCO profits, solidarity is the workers’ weapon!”

The demands were:

On October 27 there was a demonstration through Piraeus, and on the 29th one on motor scooters from downtown Athens to the port. Workers spread info about the strike on social media under the hashtag #WorkersLivesMatter. More and more ships were jammed outside the port. Ship crews were radioed about the strike.6

COSCO claimed that Dimitris had died outside his working hours, and tried to make the strike illegal, but lost in court. ENEDEP negotiated with COSCO. After a few days, the Minister of Shipping tried to mediate.

After seven days, the workers managed to get two demands – COSCO hires one additional worker per team, and abolishes the ‘contra shifts’. As a result, the ‘General Assembly of Workers at Pier II and III’ decided on October 31 to suspend the strike, but target a new one for November 5th and 6th. By then, the other demands were to be negotiated. On November 4th, COSCO relented and also promised the establishment of a safety committee and a CBA, which has not been signed to date. The workers continue the struggle.

The next strike, on December 1st, lasted 48 hours after the contractors (COSCO, PCT, DPort Services) stopped recognizing ENEDEP as a negotiating partner. The reason given was that ENEDEP received only 475 votes in the union elections, while the yellow union SEEDP received 1076. (Under Greek labour law, the more representative union – the one with more member votes – has the right to sign a CBA).

On January 19, 2022, another fatal accident almost occurred. A few meters away from a worker, a container fell from the stack onto the ground.7 After a workers’ meeting at the piers, ENEDEP announced a 24-hour warning strike for February 7th. The workers continue to demand a collective agreement, the application of the labour law for heavy and unhealthy occupations, and the permanent hiring of all temporary workers. This is because COSCO had hired new workers only on a temporary basis during the pandemic. This time, the court ruled that the strike would be illegal. Nevertheless, 300 workers met at six in the morning to protest. The state sent riot police. The Pier I PPA colleagues stopped work for three hours and demanded the cops leave. Cops stayed, but were not deployed.

Workers use the ‘dragon’s head’

The CCP wants to build a large vertically integrated logistics group with the China Logistics Group. Already, one in four of the world’s container terminals is operated by Chinese companies. COSCO has owned parts of 13 European ports for about ten years. The company owns the world’s largest fleet of nearly 1,400 ships, it holds shares in shipyards and other logistics companies, and it has a stake in the China Logistics Group. In 2021, the Port of Hamburg opened up to Chinese participation, fearing it would otherwise lose cargo to Piraeus.

The Chinese infrastructure and investment strategy has put new power into the hands of Greek port workers. With the strike and persistent mobilizations, they are showing that it is possible to force a seemingly overpowering opponent, a billion-dollar Chinese state-owned company backed by the Greek government, to make improvements. As a result of the strike, Piraeus 2021 fell back to fifth place in terms of TEUs handled, behind Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg and Valencia.


[1] Most of the women work in offices. 15 work directly on the docks.

[2] TEU is the abbreviation for Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit; 20 feet is roughly equivalent to six meters, which is the length of a standard container. The most common ISO containers are eight feet (2.44 m) wide and either 20 feet (6.096 m) or 40 feet (12.19 m) long.

[3] The phenomenon of ‘empty flights’ during the pandemic also shows the extent to which global logistics is reaching ecological limits, or has already far exceeded them. Lufthansa alone probably operated 18,000 empty flights in 2021, Brussel Airlines 3,000. Greenpeace is currently warning that there could be 100,000 empty flights in the EU in 2022. At the beginning of the pandemic, the EU Commission reduced the slots that an airline must use to avoid losing anything from 80 to 50 percent. Now the proportion is to be raised again to 64 percent.

[4] The phenomenon of ‘empty flights’ during the pandemic also shows the extent to which global logistics is reaching ecological limits, or has already far exceeded them. Lufthansa alone probably operated 18,000 empty flights in 2021, Brussel Airlines 3,000. Greenpeace is currently warning that there could be 100,000 empty flights in the EU in 2022. At the beginning of the pandemic, the EU Commission reduced the slots that an airline must use to avoid losing anything from 80 to 50 percent. Now the proportion is to be raised again to 64 percent.

[5] Liz Alderman: Under the Chinese, a Greek Port Thrives, 10.10.2012, in: The New York Times. The article states that port workers earned $181 000 per year – this is wrong and is intended to paint a picture of ‘overpaid’ workers that justifies the attack.

[6] PAME documented the mobilization with numerous videos on YouTube. Here is the video of the radio call

[7] Video.