International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Robert McEllrath on Tuesday issued a strong statement supporting U.S. East and Gulf coast dockworkers in their talks with maritime employers, saying the two unions have similar goals and depend on solidarity to ensure strong contracts on both coasts.
The International Longshoremen's Association and the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX), representing terminal operators and ocean carriers in collective bargaining, are negotiating a new multiyear contract. The current contract expires Sept. 30.
ILA President Harold Daggett warned at an industry conference in March that the 15,000-strong union would strike if management tries to fully automate piers, doesn't allow longshore labor continued responsibility for maintaining chassis, and doesn't address safety and royalty losses due to overweight containers. The USMX is interested in controlling labor costs, which have risen sharply in recent years after a two-tier wage scale and container royalty caps were eliminated in the current contract.
Shippers are worried that a breakdown in talks could result in a port shutdown that leaves cargo stranded and forces them to reroute other freight. Many companies are believed to be making contingency plans to shift ocean freight to West Coast or Canadian ports.
The worst case scenario for shippers, and the U.S. economy, would be a national work stoppage or slowdown.
McEllrath said recent media reports suggesting that the ILWU would only provide token support to the ILA are misguided.
"No one should listen to the recent hum of industry executives suggesting they know what dockworkers on the West Coast will or won’t do in support of our East Coast brothers and sisters. The fact is that we have their back in the fight to protect work and jurisdiction; their fight is our fight,” he said.
In an interview
with American Shipper
last month, Port of Long Beach executive Sean Strawbridge expressed confidence that the ILWU wouldn't engage in sympathy action that disrupts port business because it understood the lessons of the 2001 West Coast labor dispute that resulted in a damaging 10-day lockout. He said terminal operators and the union have a good working relationship today and that they are collaborating to increase productivity so West Coast ports can attract more cargo.
Strawbridge is an observer of the labor situation since the port authority has no role in governing employment conditions for longshoremen.
Once Long Beach completes redevelopment of its Middle Harbor redevelopment project, the Long Beach Container Terminal plans to install semi-automated, electric rail-mounted gantry cranes to move containers between storage positions, trucks and railcars before or after they are handled by the ship cranes, according to Strawbridge.
Mark Jurisic, an officer for ILWU Local 13, said at the time that LBCT and ILWU officials have to discuss how to implement any planned technology, but that he expected the process would go smoothly.
"Just like the ILA, we know that automation is coming. In fact, the ILWU has a long history, beginning in the 1960s, of accepting automation provided that all associated work is assigned to the ILWU. But, in the latest wave of terminal automation, it remains to be seen whether our employers are willing to assign us that work,” McEllrath said.
Long Beach port officials say the technology is designed to enhance the longshoremen's efficiency and safety, without displacing workers.
The ILWU said the ILA's battle to control the introduction of technology has implications for its members too. It said the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents maritime employers on the West Coast, still refuses to honor the union's jurisdiction over jobs diverted by technology, forcing the union to go to arbitration to protect jobs.
"As a result, the ILWU expects a significant struggle over the introduction of fully mechanized and automated cargo handling equipment technology, putting the ILWU and ILA in lockstep on this issue," the ILWU statement said. - Eric Kulisch