February 17, 2010 / 6:26 PM / 10 years ago

Court blocks port strike, union plans another

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s biggest union plans industrial action which threatens operations at the key oil and gas port of Milford Haven from February 23, after a court injunction on Wednesday blocked a strike planned for this week.

The High Court issued an injunction on Wednesday to stop a 48-hour strike over pensions that had been scheduled to start on Thursday morning followed by an indeterminate period of “working to rule” which would have effectively closed the port to big oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers.

Unite now plans a 12-hour strike of about 50 pilots on February 23, when they will start working to rule, meaning they will not guide big ships into the port in south Wales indefinitely.

“It (work to rule) will start on February 23 and be continuous until the matter is resolved,” Unite Regional Officer, Allan Card said.

“We’ll have to wait and see if there’s a challenge to this.”

On Wednesday Justice Sweeney accepted the Milford Haven Port Authority’s (MHPA) argument that this week’s action would be illegal because Unite gave a combined notice to strike for the walkout planned for Thursday and the indefinite period of further action when it had to serve separate notices.

He said Unite had not given enough information about the dates of the industrial action to meet legal requirements and allow the port to make contingency plans to deal with ships stuck out at sea or in the port.

“It was simply not possible for the claimants (MHPA) to deduce with sufficient clarity what is proposed to happen,” Justice Sweeney said in granting the injunction.

In December the High Court issued an injunction against British Airways cabin crew going on a strike organised by Unite over the Christmas holiday period.

“The fundamental issue here is the High Court intervening yet again, as they did in the BA cabin crew dispute, to undermine our members’ democratic decision to take industrial action,” Brendan Gold, Unite’s National Secretary for Docks and Waterways said in reaction to Wednesday’s ruling.

Although Unite has issued the MHPA with seven-days notice that the pilots will strike on February 23, the dispute over plans to move from a non-contributory pension scheme to a contributory one and raise the retirement age to 65 from 60 could be resolved before then.

“Ironically, good progress has been made during the talks with the port authority and the conciliation service, ACAS, on the retirement age and the type of scheme; however the level of contributions and the accrual rates remain the outstanding issues,” Gold said.

“We remain fully committed to resolving this dispute through continued discussion,” the port said in a statement.

Europe’s biggest LNG terminal, South Hook, and the nearby Dragon LNG import terminal at Milford Haven can supply around 7 percent of Britain’s peak winter gas demand.

The High Court ruling means the Qatari LNG tanker Mozah, which AIS Live data on Reuters showed docked at South Hook on Wednesday, should be able to leave the port before next Tuesday’s planned strike, while the Bu Samra has already left to reload.

The next Qatari vessel scheduled to arrive in Britain is expected on February 22.

Editing by Keiron Henderson

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