This article was written by our comrades from Wildcat in Germany. It looks at the current situation of overstretched global supply-chains. The focus is on container shipping and railroads, including interviews with dock workers in Germany, who have been on strike recently, and railroad workers in Germany and Austria. We suggest reading it in conjunction with this earlier text by Sergio Bologna.
AngryWorkers have been interested in the developments of logistics as a world-wide network of workers’ struggles. Some of us work at Heathrow airport, where we organise a solidarity network and workers’ newsletter. On the website we have published various texts related to the struggles in logistics, from dock workers in Genoa, to striking Amazon workers, to reports from truck admin workers. The current strikes of railway workers and dock workers in the UK demonstrate that global logistics is not an overwhelmingly complex system created by an abstract subject (‘capital’), but an inverted and enforced expression of workers’ manual and intellectual cooperation.
Heinrich Heine wrote in 1843 that the railroad was killing space, leaving us only time. Karl Marx condensed this into the famous sentence that the new means of communication and transport destroy space through time. Industrialization enabled capitalists to cover (even long) distances ever more quickly and, as transportation costs fell, to distribute production “beyond any spatial barrier” (Grundrisse). The expansion of energy use and transportation worked well for more than 150 years to open up markets and labour reservoirs, increase productivity, and shorten turnaround time.
This was preceded by the expansion of shipping – with the construction of canals for inland navigation and the development of intercontinental sea routes for the transport of slaves and “colonial goods.”
From the end of the 18th century, capitalists relied on steam power in mines and textile mills. To bring in coal, the railroad network was expanded in the 19th century, and locomotives and ships were also powered by steam.
Since the 1950s of the 20th century, huge oil tankers have been sailing the seas; petroleum was the raw material of the second half of the 20th century (ship propulsion, cars, heating, chemical industry).
A significant change of the terrain of class struggle was the introduction of the container in the late 1960s. It changed transport work and infrastructure enormously, allowing rapid reloading between ship, rail and truck – and the dismantling of jobs.
Since the 1970s, more and more investment has gone into building global transport routes. They were the prerequisite for breaking up large factories and outsourcing production. Starting in the 1990s, the world began to rely on just-in-time global supply-chains. “Logistics” was no longer treated as one corporate department among many, but as a sphere in its own right, with academia, management consultants, IT, security, and finance all trying to get their share of the new pie. The global logistics network led to downward pressure on prices worldwide; “responsive supply chains” were able to contain troublesome workers and their struggles.
But for the past few years, systemic problems have been emerging in the just-in-time regime. In the Covid pandemic, for the first time “broken supply chains” were felt all over the world simultaneously. Of all people, transporters are reaping huge profits from this years-long chaos. Their extra profits contribute to the rise in the price of all goods.
Demands for better working conditions and higher wages in transportation are now almost as popular as those for care workers. Truck drivers’ wages have risen significantly in some countries because there is a shortage of workers. Worldwide, one-fifth of jobs are unfilled; the war in Ukraine has created an additional shortage of tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Belarusian truck drivers.
So the time is right for labour disputes. And indeed, there are massive strikes in 2022. For the first time since 1978, North German dock workers went on strike again – for higher wages and against the “inflation monster”. In England, railroad workers, subway drivers and Amazon workers went on strike; workers at the largest English port, Felixstowe, just voted 92 percent in favour of a strike. There have been and are struggles at almost all major European airports, most recently pilots… Work stoppages are also taking place outside Europe. In South Korea, the export economy was on the verge of collapse after a truck drivers’ strike; the government used the military as drivers. In July, Amazon workers in the U.S. city of Atlanta organised the first walkout in the Southern States. 
Throughout history, militant class compositions have emerged in different “transportation regimes.” Dockworkers and seamen were able to organise internationally very early on and exert their power in struggles. Railroad construction was a sector where the first major labour struggles in capitalism occurred. Engine drivers and railroad workers were repeatedly able to achieve better conditions through their strikes. The enforcement of oil made one of the most militant parts of the working class redundant: the coal miners. Today, from London to Myanmar, we see riders organising; their willingness to fight is great, their position of power rather poor. Continuing the articles in the last issues on warehouse work and on the dock workers’ strikes in Piraeus (Greece), in the following we take a closer look at the terrain of struggle in the transport sector.
Truck, rail, ship: three traffic jams
In the just-in-time regime, trucks are considered “rolling warehouses”, ships an “extended assembly line”. With this system, capitalists not only reduce core workforces but also storage costs. Ideally all goods are delivered just-in-time when they are needed in order to be further processed (or resold). In this system, local disruptions have global effects. In 2004, the first “global traffic jam” occurred – due to a lack of workers at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. It lasted several weeks and spread across the Pacific and Panama Canal to European ports.  The capitalists countered with even more technology, more control, bigger means of transportation, more outsourcing – until the whole system buckled in the Covid pandemic.
Does Corona mark the end of cheap transportation?
More than 90 percent of the world’s goods are transported by ships. Before Corona, about 90 percent of ships were on time; by 2021, not even 40 percent were. Before the pandemic, a container ship from Asia to Europe took about 30 to 40 days; in 2021, it took an average of 18 days more. In 2019, an average loading and unloading operation at North American ports took eight hours; in 2021, 33 hours! In January 2022, 109 container ships were waiting for entry outside the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. In early July 2022, 100 ships were jammed in the North Sea – two percent of global freighter capacity. Shanghai, the world’s largest port, and the neighbouring Zhejiang province, from where about 20 percent of China’s exports are shipped, were at the brink of complete standstill for weeks because of the lockdowns. In June, nearly four percent of global capacity was stuck there.
Globally, the amount of goods on non-moving vessels has increased from about seven percent before the pandemic to 12 percent in mid-July 2022 (it was as high as 14 percent in mid-2021).
In the Corona lockdowns, large transportation capacities were initially shut down, transportation workers were stuck because of quarantine rules (on ships, in trucks abroad…), and some were laid off. Later many did not want to go back to their jobs and face the risk of a long quarantine (most severely in China); after the bad quarantine experiences, many seafarers do not want to renew their contracts.
Online orders have increased in the pandemic; in the U.K., for example, online sales nearly doubled as a share of retail sales between February 2020 and January 2021, to 25 percent now. In the U.S., the largest consumer country, online sales have increased 50.5 percent since 2019 and now account for 19 percent of retail sales. In addition, the lockdowns have seen a shift in consumption from services to tangible goods: Americans spent nearly a trillion dollars more on them in 2021 than they did before the pandemic (U.S. Census Bureau).
In the wake of this, freight rates have risen massively in price. According to the Drewry World Container Index, freight prices for a 40-foot container for the eight major routes  hovered around $1,500-$2,000 in the years leading up to the pandemic; by July 2022, they were close to $7,000 – having risen even higher during the pandemic. For long-term agreed freight rates, which account for nearly 90 percent of all transactions, prices have “only” doubled, but the upward trend is more stable.
Transportation price increases account for about a quarter to a third of global inflation and contribute disproportionately to the general increase in prices. Before Corona, transportation costs accounted for only a few percent of the total price of many commodities; now, at least for some significant goods, they are more expensive than the production costs themselves – which means that transportation from lower wage regions to the end-market is no longer worth it.
People who believe in the market might say, “Shortage of transportation capacity with increased demand drives transportation prices. So what?” Behind this, however, structural problems become visible.
Very many goods consumed in the West are produced in Southeast Asia. Many containers arrive full from China and return empty. This leads to a large price difference between expensive outward and cheap return journeys; in mid-2021, for example, a container transport from Shanghai to Rotterdam cost 15,000 dollars – in the opposite direction 1600 dollars. Many shipowners did not wait around to collect the empty containers after unloading, but went straight back to China with only a few full ones – the result of which is that to this day empty containers clog the ports of America and Europe. In Los Angeles/Long Beach, truck drivers are no longer allowed to enter the port with empty containers to park them and pick up full ones unless they can show that the empty container is already booked onto a ship. At the end of 2021, the world’s fifth-largest shipping line, Hapag-Lloyd of Hamburg, reported that they needed 20 percent more containers to move the same amount of goods as before.  A colleague from the Port of Hamburg told us in May that they could not touch a ship from the Chinese shipping line COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company) for three shifts because there was no more room for containers on the docks.
The more containers you stack on top of each other, the more you have to restack them to get to the right one; the “restacking rate” has increased by 60 percent by May 2022.  The Port of Hamburg is now renting new space for empty containers and collecting lucrative storage fees. The Port of Antwerp is also thus stabilising its revenues. The head of Duisport, which has a stake in a terminal in Antwerp, commented, “It looks nice on the financial balance-sheet, but operationally it’s doom.” 
By the fall of 2021, supermarket shelves in the U.K. were getting emptier and up to 90 percent of gas stations were running out of gas because many migrant drivers had gone back home due to Brexit, chaotic quarantine rules and lousy working conditions. As in South Korea, the government put the military in charge of trucking.
The driver shortage was not sudden – long before Corona, younger people avoided the job. A truck driver in the U.S. today earns 60 percent less than 40 years ago. In Germany, a truck driver is paid 10 to 20 percent less than workers in the same performance group in other industries – and many are not even paid according to collective agreements. The EU’s eastward expansion in 2004 and the introduction of the “freedom to provide services” have led to undercutting competition in wages. A large proportion of drivers come from Eastern Europe and drive for 500 Euros a month. In addition, trucking companies force single drivers to do many jobs that used to be done in pairs or threes.
The war exacerbates the congestion because containers related to Russia either have to be inspected meticulously or not touched at all because of the sanctions (for example, in the port of Rotterdam, Russian business accounts for 13 percent, in Hamburg, 9 percent). Moreover, Russia and Ukraine account for almost 15 percent of the world’s seafarers: 200,000 come from Russia, 76,000 from Ukraine. More than half of Ukrainian sailors were on ships when the war started – at the beginning it was said that one fifth wanted to fight. Often Russian and Ukrainian sailors work on the same ship. There are also reports of problems with wage payments for Russian sailors because of sanctions against Russian banks.
Ships too big
Mega-container ships can only be handled in a few ports suitable for them. In 2015, the head of the world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, grumbled that a 46 percent increase in container ship capacity was offset by only a 20 percent increase in loading productivity. Since then, ships have continued to grow – and the speed of handling mega-container ships of more than 13,500 TEU (20-foot standard containers) is declining from 26 loading movements per hour to 24 to 25. It takes bigger cranes – their loading and unloading cycles take longer because they have to travel further distances with the wider ships. 
Out of the port, distribution falters because truck drivers are lacking – theoretically, one truck with a driver would be needed for every single container; on average a large container ship with 24,000 loaded containers unloads about 4-6,000 containers in a single port – that’s how many truck trips would be needed. In the further distribution beyond the port boundaries there is again a lack of trucks – and of freight trains, which have trouble running on time due to an increase in railroad construction sites.
The giant container ship Ever Given, which was stuck in the Suez Canal in March 2021, belongs to a Japanese leasing company owned by the largest Japanese shipyard; the ship is registered in Panama and sails under a Taiwanese shipping company; the voyage was organised under German management and the ship was manned by an Indian crew. It took four months after the rescue to clarify who would pay for the damage; only then could the ship leave Egyptian waters, carrying goods worth three billion dollars.
The situation is similar in the ports – land and facilities have different owners, are operated by different companies, which in turn have contracts with subcontractors, etc. This ownership structure makes it almost impossible to solve problems that arise. If it is unclear who has to take over necessary investments, in the end no one will take them over. This is especially dramatic when it comes to safety issues; in ports (fatal) work accidents occur more often than anywhere else.
Monopoly prices in bottlenecks
Prices are rising not only because of more expensive fuel, a lack of infrastructure and a shortage of labour. Twelve percent of all global shipments pass through the Suez Canal; the Egyptian Canal Authority has doubled or tripled passage fees depending on the type of cargo. In July 2022, it announced record fiscal year revenues of seven billion dollars, a fifth more than the year before.
There are many such bottlenecks on global shipping routes. Because of the drought, the Rhine-Main waterway is now becoming a bottleneck. Three quarters of all German inland waterway transports go via the Rhine – coal, oil, chemical products… The world’s largest chemical factory – BASF Ludwigshafen – obtains 40 percent of its raw materials this way. At the low water level at the beginning of August, the ships could only be loaded to one third. Because of the shortage, Rhine shippers were able to enjoy rising freight rates – and also demanded the “low water surcharge,” a contractually fixed higher price if they had to use more ships because of low water levels.
Centralization and overcapacity
Shipping lines are companies that operate ship transportation, either with their own or with chartered ships. Three large shipping alliances control over 80 percent of the world’s container ship capacity. They took advantage of the transport crisis to raise prices and have made record profits. This is protected by law – the EU Commission allows cartel pricing through a regulation called the “Block Exemption Regulation for Maritime Consortia.” And due to the “tonnage profit calculation” stipulated by the German Income Tax Act 1998, Hapag-Lloyd does not even pay one percent profit tax. This taxation method is not based on profit, but on freight volume.
The investments of these shipping companies reinforce unproductive centralization processes: purchases of even more large ships, aircraft, port terminals, freight forwarders; stakes in other corporations; takeovers and mergers.
The most ludicrous inefficiency becomes apparent in the relation between expected growth of shipments on one side and shipbuilding on the other. Between 1980 and 2005, container traffic had grown by almost nine percent annually, but in some years the ratio of ship orders to existing capacity (“orderbook to fleet ratio”) rose to over 50 percent. In the global crisis of 2008 this overcapacity became manifest; in the following ten years, there were repeated crisis peaks. In 2009 Hapag-Lloyd, which today does not know where to put its billions in profits, had to be rescued with state money and state guarantees, and the city of Hamburg became the largest single shareholder. In 2013, ship financiers collapsed, including HSH Nordbank, Bremer Landesbank, DVB Bank, Nord/LB. In 2016, the world’s seventh largest shipping company Hanjin went bankrupt. In 2013, there were still 20 major shipping companies; in 2018, there were eleven left. Since that year, the “orderbook to fleet ratio” has levelled off at around ten percent. But since 2020, profits have been bubbling up – thanks in part to agreed capacity limits among the three major alliances. (Which is new. Prior to Corona, the two leading carriers, Maersk and MSC, had engaged in fierce undercutting competition – “The ensuing price battle escalated globally and demolished all carriers.”) 
In the course of 2021, the number of ship orders has already risen again to around 15-20 percent of existing capacity. In absolute terms, never before has so much capacity been ordered as today. If these orders actually become real ships, the freighter market will sink into oversupply for a long time. The ships will be ready in three years, but demand for transport is already falling. The Baltic Dry Index, a relatively reliable indicator of global economic development based on seaborne commodity shipments , has fallen nearly 40 percent in recent months and is only just above pre-pandemic levels.
New business models in the logistics bubble
Investment firms like Blackstone are injecting all that investment-seeking money not into maintaining or improving infrastructure, but into warehousing space.  Ports, warehousing properties and ships are considered “assets” – capital-speak for asset investments that are expected to yield an annual return. There has long been a “port bubble” and, more importantly, a “warehouse bubble.” During the demand boom of the last two years, many companies ordered in stock and built up inventories – now, in view of the slowdown in demand due to inflation, large retailers in particular are sitting on their inventories. The Jade-Weser Port in Wilhelmshaven is a perfect example of the “port bubble” – it was built with a lot of government money and finally opened in 2012; to this day, it is not even operating at 30 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, more and more infrastructure is falling into disrepair, which is nonsensical. Capitalist logistics are in inverse proportion to social utility, their consumption of space and energy is enormous, and many transport actions – for example, the excessive return shipments – are equally nonsensical. Now, “supply chains are to be regionalized”; the aim is to move away from the risk of just-in-time delivery to “nearshoring” and “friendshoring,” i.e., by producing goods nearby or “with friends” (for example, no longer in Russia). The CEO of the world’s largest parcel logistics company, DHL, called for a focus on “circular economy” – electronic equipment in particular should not be thrown away and produced anew, but collected and repaired.  The “collecting” is done by DHL, of course. (Renault, by the way, is already doing this: its factory in Flins no longer produces new cars, but restores used ones). The consumer goods industry with its long transport routes and short product life cycles is coming under fire – from logistics itself!
Port of Hamburg, end of May 2022
Conversations with workers at various European ports, interviews with rail workers, the rail strikes in the UK , etc. reveal that there is widespread anger among workers. They are angry about incompetent bosses who put a lot of (state) money into automation and digitization projects; or about IT workers and start-ups who boss you around and just burn money. Inflation is also a big issue. The following conversation took place shortly before the strikes in the Port of Hamburg.
Where does the current willingness of your colleagues to strike come from?
Something important happened in last year’s round of collective wage bargaining. On Whit Monday, they had to cancel the extra shifts because many workers in Hamburg and Bremerhaven had refused to sign up. That was impressive. And then, in the third or fourth round of negotiations, the employers made an offer that the trade union’s Federal Collective Bargaining Commission accepted. Workers criticised the deal as too low; they had expected there to be at least one more warning strike – and that didn’t happen.
I think one of the keys to success was the video clip that went around on various social media channels before Pentecost, especially on Whatsapp, where someone sent it to you every five minutes. In the video 20 people say one by one why they are not going to work in the port on Whit Monday. From young to old, one at the pool, the other somewhere else… It was Corona time, and everyone felt a sense of community. This self-confidence hadn’t existed for a long time, and now it was suddenly back. This has a tremendous mobilising effect in every conflict: “Together we are strong and nothing can happen to us.” That is our strength and we want to use it. That’s why we want to strike now, and we want to show to the bosses: “don’t take on some more stupid [automation-] projects, but we are there and we are standing together.” That’s the desire, why people want to strike.
Last year, when people were engaging in work-to-rule and refusing the attractive overtime, there was alarm at the port! Regardless of Corona or that stranded ship in the Suez Canal, ships were then stuck in traffic. And that is even worse now! That’s why there’s a lot more power behind it now.
At that time, the union’s Federal Collective Bargaining Commission asked why not a single container crane was working at the Tollerort terminal. That was before the Whit Monday action! It was not possible to unload the ship because there were not enough people. This is a phenomenon at the Tollerort terminal. At the moment, it is only possible to cover the second shift if the staff on the first shift work four hours of overtime and the staff on the night shift work four hours of overtime. This principle is currently being used because Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) and GHB (Gesamthafenbetriebs-GmbH) have far too few staff to handle the ships.
Obviously, the pain threshold has not yet been reached, where the bosses would cave in and change things. The port is still making enough profit and they don’t need to hire new people.
You have to see that in this whole crisis of the ports and the whole world logistics, everybody is making a buck except the consumer who has to pay for it through inflation. Shippers are making huge profits because containers are in short supply. There are full ships everywhere that cannot be handled. The container services earn themselves silly because they have agreed in their contracts that a container that stands for more than two days costs storage money. At the moment, all containers are standing longer. Normally, such a large COSCO ship is processed in Tollerort in two and a half days. We can do it in five now. The last one took six. There’s a 400-metre ship in port right now – we’d need two and a half days with normally 6000 movements. That’s a fixed schedule. We have two or three COSCO ships every week. Now they’re just lying around forever. The next one is waiting again.
Management used to say that if we needed three days to unload such a ship, no shipping line would ever come to Hamburg again because we were far too unproductive. Now you call COSCO and say, “I’m sorry, we probably won’t finish again because we had those two containers yesterday…”. Before, you couldn’t do that to the customer.
Now it’s like only 24 hours before the ship arrives that the truck or freight operator gets the green signal to deliver the containers to the port. Before, you could always deliver – the container was packed and it could be put on the port terminal. But then the facilities broke down. When containers are on the docks for too long, it blocks productivity – and on top of that, there are loads that are not picked up at all. Then there is also “Russian cargo”, of which no one knows when, where and how. That is also becoming more and more. Nobody knows what’s going on anymore.
However, HHLA is not only making high “storage revenues” from the above-average length of time that containers remain in storage. At the same time, the rail freight subsidiary Metrans is enormously profitable – where they employ train drivers without collective agreements. With the core business of container handling, they are currently making high losses – so they are building up great pressure to restructure and automate.
What do your colleagues say about automation? Is that another reason for the high level of willingness to strike?
I feel this very strongly at Burchardkai, which is in this process of transformation, where precisely this world and way of working that people have settled into – in which they live very well – is in danger. Because the corporation is not able to explain its project CTX. They have just called the managers together again in training seminars and tried to get them to understand, for the umpteenth time, how important, how good, and how everything else this project is. But this project is hovering over their heads, initially only at the management level. There is a threat in it. It creates this anger, a kind of powerlessness – that this corporation is not able to present this project accurately. It can’t even work out exactly how many people are “redundant” or whether any people at all are “redundant” because it has completely misjudged the whole economic situation, as it has so many times before. And in this situation, colleagues are insanely frustrated.
It is also hard to understand: who are the automation stooges? They’re running around everywhere, constant new faces, highly educated, smartly dressed, but very different from the dock worker in the fancy hoodie: with designer suits! In the meantime, one has the feeling that these types control the future of the entire HHLA Group.
Which companies are they from? From automation companies?
They are HHLA employees. They are IT staff. HHLA is looking for IT people without end, there are not enough. All these problems with the databases, etc. Everywhere you need people who can master this at some point, all these things don’t work. Also these automation things – there’s again a problem here and a problem there and “oh, we didn’t think about that and we didn’t think about that and this doesn’t work…” You need people who have the know-how to do that. That’s why they buy start-ups that develop just about anything for anything to do with automation stuff….
They even have a working system that they could use – the block storage system at CTA [Container Terminal Altenwerder]. When they wanted to introduce that at Burchardkai, management said, “Nah, we’ll do something of our own.” Then it took them two or three years to get anything going at all.
I call that “Hanseatic megalomania,” where something new has to be developed all the time. There’s always someone who says they have a better idea. Then he comes along and it goes down the drain – which always costs a lot of money. Or the big-size fetish: HHLA’s highly productive terminal, which has always been productive – highly automated and state of the art, of course – is unfortunately located behind the Köhlbrand Bridge. The problem is that the big ships are so big that they can’t fit under this bridge. HHLA has done a great job of that again! Now the big ships have to be unloaded on our old facilities, rather than on the more automated ones.
Impressions from Hamburg of the largest port workers’ demonstration since 1978
The first warning strike in the North German ports of Hamburg, Bremen, Bremerhaven, Emden and Brake was on the 9th of June, 2022 and lasted four and a half hours. The second on the 23rd of June lasted 24 hours. According to ver.di, over 8,000 workers took part.
That was an impressive action by the dock workers on Thursday morning. The trade union Ver.di had hoped to mobilise 3,000 workers for the strike demonstration from Sandtorkai. That’s how many there may have been when the demo started at 9 o’clock. Afterwards, however, people poured in from all directions, and in the end there were well over 4,000.
At the beginning there were a lot of Bengal fires and many, many Ver.di flags. The organisers announced over the loudspeaker that people should stop the fireworks because of the conditions agreed with the police. But this could not be enforced. Especially at the Jungfernstieg (shopping mile of the high earners) and in front of the main station fireworks kept on banging and fogging. Here, the police blocked the demonstration with a motorcycle cohort and a hundred-strong squad and threatened to break it up.
Workers from other areas in the port, which are formally outsourced (e.g. company maintenance crews, mooring workers, who work in separate bargaining units but whose contracts are “tied” to the ver.di collective contract after the strikes of spring 2021), also participated in the demo. There were also vests with company inscriptions, which I didn’t know at all. Also many white-collar workers who fear restructuring.
The speeches were very emotionally charged. Owed seemingly also to the fact that so many came and didn’t bow down to the police instructions. Some of the organisers had “tears in their eyes”. They were overwhelmed by their task of keeping the demo in check and the spontaneity of the masses. It was not an orderly demonstration, but a mass that pushed its way through the streets and, when there was the possibility, took up all the available space, footpaths and opposite lanes.
At an intermediate rally, it was pointed out that this was the largest dockworkers’ strike since 1978. It would also have great significance for other areas, for the entire logistics sector, if it were successful. It could be a sign of workers’ resistance to inflation and low wages. At the final rally, a shop steward (I can’t remember which company) said that “we workers” could paralyse the whole of Germany and turn this low-wage country back into a country with decent wages.
Very verbally radical all that. For me, the question arose later to what extent the warning strike with the nevertheless powerful demo could not have been just a letting off steam and whether the dockers can really enforce the ambitious goals (inflation compensation) by going on strike, only relying on the Ver.di shop steward network in the companies. The trade union’s federal department for the ports, which is also leading the negotiations, is very much oriented toward social partnership and was rather pushed into the warning strikes by the local or company committees that are ready for conflict and that also sit on the collective bargaining committees.
There is a pamphlet about the dockworkers’ strike in January 1978 by the group “Alternative” – to be found on the net at: www.mao-projekt.de.
P.S.: Shortly before going to press, we hear that Ver.di and the Central Association of German Seaport Operators have reached an agreement. Backdated to 1st of July, 2022, wages in “full container operations” will rise by 9.4 percent; in conventional and general cargo port operations by 7.9 percent. From 1st of June 2023, by a further 4.4 percent; with higher inflation up to 5.5 percent. There is no more talk of the 1.20 euros per hour for everyone! Ver.di will conclude the agreement just when the international strike wave picks up speed!
The bargaining commission decides on the 5th of September, then the members will decide whether or not to accept the agreement.
Railway to hell
Things don’t look any better for the railroads. While railroad bosses have shrunk the German rail network by 15 percent since 1995, passenger traffic on the tracks has increased by 43 percent and freight traffic by 83 percent. Behind the current “rail chaos” are decades of underfunding, privatisation and ignoring wear and tear. When it comes to the accidents that are predictable and predicted by some rail workers – especially at bottlenecks – Deutsche Bahn then looks for scapegoats, preferably at the lowest level. Workers have been given more and more tasks in recent years. For example, employees in the signal control centres are responsible for up to 400 kilometres of track, and thanks to the switch to electronic control centres, dispatchers are responsible for stations that are hundreds of kilometres away and thus not visible to the naked eye.
The proportion of freight transported by rail in Germany is less than 20 percent, and has even fallen in recent years. In 1950, this share was still at 50 percent. Estimates suggest that over 50 billion euros would be needed to expand the network so that a quarter of all goods could be transported by rail by 2030. The two largest rail projects, Stuttgart 21 and a second S-Bahn tunnel in Munich, are becoming increasingly expensive and are delayed by years. The largest European project, the Brenner Base Tunnel, will probably not be able to go into full operation until ten years later because the feeder lines near Rosenheim have not even been planned yet. In England, rail companies are even trying to push through a drastic cutback program – 34 percent are to be “saved” in infrastructure maintenance alone.
For capital, labour costs on the rails are higher than for trucks. Freight cars have to be picked up individually or in small groups, then uncoupled at special shunting yards and brought to their destination. There are still many different railcars for different bulk commodities – so they are working on containerization, which would reduce coupling operations. Coupling is still done by hand – here they are working more on “Digital Automatic Coupling ” .
Six years ago, the then DB CEO Grube predicted “fully automatic” locomotives in 2022 – but in 2022 trains are cancelled because there are far too few train drivers.
“Staff shortage” is the common thread in the following excerpts from conversations with a freight train driver and a worker in a control centre. They took place in the first half of July.
Freight train driver in northern Germany
In recent decades, enormous sums have been invested in “infrastructure”, including the railroads, if we think, for example, of the eleven billion that have so far been poured into the down-sizing of the station in Stuttgart. At the same time, the rail network has become worse and worse. Are they just spending the money wrongly or do they no longer have the people to make fundamental improvements? Or is it possible that both are true?
Both. Due to the low level of investment, the rail construction companies have probably become smaller and smaller over the last few decades. Their main problem, in my opinion, was that they never got all the needed trades together in order to work on a track in one go! What the Minister of Transport, Wissing, is now announcing concerning the many investments that are supposed to improve the infrastructure, they have been announcing the same thing for the last ten years. In the meantime they have always had to patch things up.
In a creeping process, the rail infrastructure deteriorated more and more. Can you say which political decisions caused major cuts in this process?
In the East, it was clearly the impact of the re-unification in the early 1990s. In the West, every switch and every branch line was constantly checked for profitability from the 1960s onward. Privatisation has accelerated this process.
On the contrary, when it comes to road traffic, it is not the case that every secondary road is checked for its economic viability; it is simply clear that everyone tends to have the right to a paved road on their doorstep. In the 1980s, they focused on the high-speed rail lines (Hanover-Würzburg), but that was still rather a slow-going process. Privatisation was a turning-point that, first and foremost, targeted the workers.
The business economists never understood that a functioning rail network requires a certain size with a certain flexibility; at least if you want more from the railroad than to use high-speed rail lines in order to compete with air-traffic. That was Mehdorn’s [former Deutsche Bahn boss] task, and he fulfilled it quite successfully. Everything else was just ballast for him.
Things have been getting steadily worse for about five years. Currently, you can clearly see that they are building and that the condition of the tracks is improving. What is still missing, however, are additional tracks that would actually eliminate the bottlenecks. They’re not making any progress there.
What are they doing about the staff shortage?
The massive staffing problem arose because they had so little training. They are currently trying to get people in through short training courses, e.g. by training them to operate a single type of locomotive. But they are very inflexible because they haven’t learned everything! Then they would have to send them for further training, for example for other types of rail engines – but they don’t have time for that because they need us in ongoing operations. I’ve been on the job for a long time myself, but I’ve lost a lot of route knowledge in the last few years because they constantly need you somewhere to fill gaps and there’s no time for further training. (Advanced training means driving a route three times during the day and three times at night with a trainer, only then are you allowed to drive the route yourself; if you haven’t driven the route for two years, you have to do it all over again). I only acquire route knowledge “spontaneously” now, due to the many diversions due to track closure.
Has it become more stressful?
Overall, I have the impression that since the shortage of train drivers has become so obvious, the proliferation of badly paying outsourced companies has decreased quite a bit.
Compared to truck drivers, we have a pretty well-paid job and little stress, even at the private rail company where I work. What annoys people the most is that the shifts are so hard to plan. With all these cancellations and postponements, you can hardly tell when you’ll be home, always have to factor in the day and a half after your shift.
But it has become much more ineffective! The network is completely busy – even at night. And things often go wrong: When you start work, the train isn’t there; either because it hasn’t crossed the border or because it hasn’t finished loading and has to wait for an important container. Sometimes the locomotive is also missing. I would say that at the moment only one out of five shifts is running normally.
What does a shift like that look like?
As soon as the train arrives and I have ensured that the locomotive is in working order, I report to the dispatcher. He then informs the operations centre. Most of the time, the timetables are wastepaper; the trains don’t run according to schedule. If you are 23 hours late, you can still drive, but if you are 24 hours late, you get a new timetable. They do everything they can to let you go first, because they want you out of the station and because there are too few tracks. If things get stuck, they put you on a waiting track on the line. But once you’re running, they usually get you through. Even in normal operation, you have to let an ICE [high-speed train] overtake every now and then, and these spots where to stop and wait constantly shift. There has to be a big problem for you to have to wait an hour. Stop and go, on the other hand, is an everyday occurrence, especially at the important rail junctions.
… which, of course, is a disaster from an ecological point of view!
Sure. One tries to drive perhaps at 40 km/h, so that it rolls to some extent and to avoid stop-and-go. I would wish for much more information: What is there in front of me? So that I can adjust to it. But DB Netz [network] no longer has the people; they have a massive staffing problem. Recently, this has increasingly led to the timetables not being ready – and without a timetable we can’t leave, even if everything else is cleared!
Do you often have to break rules to get your work done at all?
There are more and more attempts to make us extend our working hours beyond the already extremely flexible working time laws so that a train can still arrive. The minimum regulations in the Working Times Act are themselves actually far too crass: 14-hour shift times out of which ten hours can be driving, and even that may be extended if there are company agreements on the matter. Sometimes I go along with it when it suits me, for example when a night shift becomes a relaxed day shift due to a delay. Then the original shift is paid full as a cancelled shift, even if you were actually waiting – asleep, but with your phone on loud.
There are many colleagues who want to hoard hours without consideration. This is a good idea if you have a long-distance job because you won’t get home anyway. This is not the case with Deutsche Bahn, where trains are parked somewhere and cabs are called to bring you home. They are usually closer to home than we are.
And if something happens, it’s always the people’s fault! Like in Garmisch [rail accident] – is there an increasing “culture of fear” at DB?
Yes, but that’s also why I have the impression that people are pretty cautious, because it’s clear to everyone that, in case of doubt, you will be made responsible for accidents. The EBA (Federal Railway Authority), however, is also on the case, but quite understaffed. As soon as they get tips, they’re pretty much breathing down the companies’ necks.
How do you talk among yourselves about the chaos?
It’s more a general shaking of heads. It’s rarely discussed politically.
How are your colleagues dealing with the situation? Are there any resignations, or do people leave the job?
I’m noticing that more and more colleagues are reducing their hours; others are going into passenger transport because it’s easier to plan. It’s rare for people to turn their backs on the railroad directly. Some try to get away from the tracks by becoming trainers. Many, like me, come from crappier jobs and stay. Especially in freight transport, it is becoming more and more common for total individualists to do the job: no family, hardly socially integrated…
Rail control centre worker in Austria
What does your job roughly look like?
What was a big surprise for me: we have a twelve-hour day. The day shift goes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the night shift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.. You have to be very punctual, also for labour law reasons; a regulation stipulates personal shift handover.
I sit at the computer with eleven screens showing me tracks, switches, trains, communication channels, etc. I have to communicate a lot. I radio the train drivers. They check in with me with “Ready to shunt!” Then I say, “Okay, go there.” The shunter radios in, “Locomotive go!” I radio the freight coordinator, “I have locomotive 55076.” He says, “Yeah, come in!” I have to set switches and signals, i.e., the shunting path. The trains then go to the receiving building of the shunting yard. There they get further orders. Then, I’m responsible for coordinating my shunting runs. I have to coordinate with the neighbouring areas. I guide the locomotives and discuss with my colleagues which locomotive is coming.
How often do you have a break? With all those screens in front of you, don’t you get tired more quickly? Are there legally prescribed rest periods in a twelve-hour shift?
That’s a funny story. In theory, of course. In practice, no. There are days, for example when there are a lot of construction sites, when you work from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m without a break. You actually have to be at work all the time. There are no coffee or meal breaks.
Is there any relief?
No. Most of the time, though, it’s like you have gaps in your shift – over time, you know when those are around and you can go smoke, for example. Also, we only do three shifts a week per person. Everyone appreciates that you only go into work three times a week. When we discuss that twelve hours is too long, the only thing that comes to management’s mind is to move to a five-day week – and nobody wants that.
What about automation?
About 15 years ago, there was an announcement that we will have to streamline and automate. There was the idea of a decentralised system. That didn’t happen; the centralised idea prevailed. Train traffic in Austria is to be controlled from five locations – from the BFZs, the operations control centres. The centre where I work was rebuilt in 2008. Until then, there were still switchmen who adjusted the switches by hand. The job in the shunting department, which I now do alone, was done by five people until 2008. And in the past, you were only responsible for your own rail station. Today, your colleague doesn’t have just one station. If it’s larger stations, they will have to operate three; if they are smaller, they will have five or six. That’s about the dimension of automation – five to one.
Are ÖBB’s [Austrian Railway] profits an issue?
Everyone says, “We’re a state-owned enterprise.” If I compare it to my previous job in a sales warehouse: When they started making cuts, I could easily point out the contradiction that they had made record profits the year before and now they want to cut people. At ÖBB, on the other hand, everyone says that the state pays a lot of money anyway and it doesn’t matter whether we make a profit or a loss. So to speak: “We are public infrastructure, we have to exist anyway! Now even more so because of the climate crisis.” That doesn’t translate into higher wage demands.
Do you guys feel a shortage of staff?
In the Omicron wave, it was totally on the edge. It was close to the breaking point. There were a bunch of people doing “red shifts” [worker-speak for extra shifts], which somehow saved the day. With our two control centres, there are now nine of us on two shifts, but we need at least ten.
How high were the sickness rates during Omicron?
It was probably 40 percent. There was one week that was just within the bounds of labour law. During one week I was in every day from Friday to Friday, working 80 hours that week.
How is that compensated?
As extra pay. There used to be overtime 20 years ago. People worked a lot in the winter to get rid of the overtime in the summer, as paid time off. In the new system, you only get extra pay. They make sure that nobody accumulates a lot of overtime. Elsewhere, colleagues organise themselves quite cleverly and manage to grab 500-600 euros more in bonuses per month.
How much is your salary?
I earn 2400 gross per month, the older ones have 3800 gross.
I’m in the new EU collective agreement, which is much, much worse. They introduced that with the big reforms 20 years ago. With the older employees, it was usually the case that they joined the railroad at the age of 18, 19, 20. After 35 years of service, they could retire. It’s a famous story that these people retired at 53. That was the motivation of certainly half the people who started then. The first thing they told me when I started was that, actually, they had been retired for two years now.
You used to earn very little and retire with full benefits. A year before you retired, you were promoted to the next pay grade and got a higher pension. Then, under the ÖVP-FPÖ government at the beginning of the noughties, the change came about that you had to work until the age of 61.5.
There was a strike against this new law in 2003, which began shortly before a weekend. Trains were at a standstill from Italy all the way up to Hamburg. On Monday, factories would have been at a standstill. Then negotiations were held and the strike was called off by the union. As is always the case, of course, the ÖGB [general trade union association] proclaimed it a great victory. That was the decisive moment. The wishes of the workers who had thought so far ahead were shattered. Is it still talked about today?
Not really. There is extremely strong co-management. When you start, the HR manager comes and tells you basic things. Then the works council comes right in and gives you the union membership forms. Of course, almost everyone signs. The personnel manager and the works council are total buddies. In the collective memory, the strike is not an issue. The break at the beginning of the noughties is permanently the topic, especially among the old generation.
There have been no new hires for a long time.
In total, ÖBB employs just over 40,000 people. Because staff cuts have been going on for a long time, the workforce is outdated. At the same time, there is massive expansion. If you look at karriere.oebb.at, there are 1,300 jobs advertised throughout Austria. For some jobs, they’re looking for five people in one place. Currently, they are probably looking for a total of 2,000 people. The estimates are for about 10,000 retirements in the near future. At the same time, they want to continue to electrify, to expand the supply. There is a massive shortage of train drivers in particular. They will be looking for even more people in the future. 
 Here’s a nice video of an Amazon worker: https://www.tiktok.com/@nikkithecreative/video/7120298046381903146
 See Wildcat 94, Spring 2013 for more detail.
 Shanghai – Rotterdam, Rotterdam – Shanghai, Shanghai – Genoa, Shanghai – Los Angeles, Los Angeles – Shanghai, Shanghai – New York, New York – Rotterdam, Rotterdam – New York.
 Christoph Koch: Kein Schiff wird kommen
Kein Schiff wird kommen [No Ship Will Come], www.brandeins.de, 12.11.2021
 Alexandra Stühff, Maximilian Mann: Stau vor dem Hamburger Hafen: «Du kannst dich auf nichts mehr verlassen», sagt die Schiffsplanerin, [Congestion in front of the Port of Hamburg: “You can’t rely on anything anymore,” says ship planner], www.nzz.ch, 27.5.2022
 Christian Müssgen, Jonas Jansen, Christoph Hein: Versinken in der Containerflut [Sinking in the Container Flood], www.faz.net, 19.10.2021
 Sources: Measuring Port Performance 2015, www.theloadster.com and Container Port Performance Index 2021, www.ihsmarkit.com
 Michael Machatschke: Cash aus der Kiste [Cash out of the Box], www.manager-magazin.de, 19.3.2021
 Based on the prices of 20 deep-sea transport routes for coal, iron ore, grain, etc. – i.e., feedstocks for production. If fewer raw materials are ordered, then less is transported, then the price falls and so does the index. Thus, a drop in the BDI a few months in advance heralds lower utilisation of production resources – and therefore, with high probability, an economic crisis.
 Blackstone CEO Jonathan Gray: »Wir setzen auf Lagerhäuser« [“We’re betting on warehouses,”] www.faz.net, 6/25/2022.: “We started buying warehouses a little over a decade ago… In almost every country in the world, the frequency with which people order online is increasing. And those goods have to be stored somewhere. There was a little exaggeration in the segment because of Corona, yet the trend will stay with us. Because warehouses are also important for a second reason. Companies have learned that they can no longer produce ‘just in time’ in times of supply bottlenecks – in other words, they can no longer produce without warehousing. No, ‘just in case’ production is now the order of the day, i.e. preparation for all eventualities. For this, you need goods in stock. And for that you need storage space. Blackstone, with an investment volume of a good $200 billion, is now the largest owner of warehouses in the world.”
 Christoph Hein: DHL fordert ein radikales Umdenken der Industrie [DHL calls for radical industry rethink], www.faz.net, Jan. 27, 2022.
 Peter Stäuber: »Mein ganzes Leben habe ich darauf gewartet« [“All my life I’ve been waiting for this,”] www.woz.ch, 6/16/2022.
 Thiemo Heeg: Digitale Kupplung: Eine Revolution im Güterzugverkehr, [Digital Coupling: A Revolution in Freight Train Transport], www.faz.net, 23.1.2022.
 At the beginning of August, ÖBB published the figures: “A total of 42,000 people work for Postbus and Bahn, a quarter of whom will retire in the next few years, i.e. more than 10,000. In addition, there are 2000 apprentices. Across Austria, therefore, 3,000 new employees are needed every year. … In Vienna, a total of more than 6,500 new employees will be needed by 2027. In Upper Austria there will be a good 2000 by then (around 340 annually), in Tyrol almost 2000 (around 330 annually), in Styria around 1740 (290 annually), in Salzburg 1440 (240), Lower Austria 1380 (230), Carinthia 1080 (180), Vorarlberg 810 (135) and Burgenland 66 (11). Austria-wide, about 600 new apprentices start each year.” ORF, 7.8.2022.