Mersey Docks says dispute may drag on

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The Independent Online
The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company is meeting Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union, later this month in a bid to resolve its long-running dispute with 329 former dockers it sacked at the end of last year. Mersey warned, however, that it held out little hope of striking a compromise deal with the workers, who have already rejected an offer of pounds 25,000 a head severance pay.

The ongoing costs of the dispute, together with escalating losses at Eurolink, a passenger and freight ferry service between Kent and Holland, lay behind a 17 per cent fall in pre-tax profits at the port operator in the six months to June. The company said yesterday that it had taken the decision within the last month to close the passenger side of Eurolink, which started only two years ago, and attempt to sell the remaining freight operation.

Gordon Waddell, chairman, said Mersey Docks was keen to resolve the running dispute at Liverpool Port because it was thought likely to jeopardise the company's attempts to attract new business to the port. Earlier this summer, Mersey's largest container customer, Atlantic Container Line, transferred its custom to Thamesport, although it subsequently returned to Liverpool, giving Mersey what an analyst described as "one last chance".

The dispute started when 329 Mersey employees refused to cross a picket line set up by 80 workers at an independent stevedoring company who had lost their jobs. Mersey sacked the whole workforce and replaced them with new staff who, it claims, are working up to 45 per cent more productively.

Initially the company made an offer to reinstate 100 of the men and pay the rest pounds 25,000 in compensation, but it withdrew its offer when ACL moved its trade to Thamesport. Despite the return of ACL last month, the company now says there is no prospect of it re-employing any of the sacked workers.

Although the dispute cast a cloud over Mersey's interim figures, they were hit much harder by a pounds 4.5m loss from Eurolink, which was the largest factor in a decline in group profits from pounds 16.8m to pounds 13.9m in the half year. Earnings per share fell from 12.6p to 10.7p. The dividend, reflecting the company's belief that this year's problems were mainly one-offs, increased 10 per cent to 4p (3.65p).

The company pointed to increased competition on the Irish Sea where sharp price erosion led to attributable losses of pounds 633,000 at Merchant Ferries, in which Mersey has a 50 per cent stake. But it said the core port operations at both Liverpool and Medway continued to grow.

At Liverpool, total port cargo handled increased by 800,000 tonnes to 15.1m tonnes.

Investment column, page 20