As worries increase again about the potential for labor action that could disrupt ports on the East and West coasts, the head of the nation's second largest container port recently declared that employers who operate marine terminals and the union representing longshoremen are working hand-in-hand in Southern California to maximize efficiency of cargo flows.
"I can tell you right now, I see the best relations between the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) and management than I've ever seen. And I think it's getting better," Chris Lytle, executive director at the Port of Long Beach, said during a wide-ranging panel discussion Nov. 12 at the National Industrial Transportation League's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.
His comments came a week before animosity between the International Longshoremen's Association and representatives for ocean carriers and terminal operators on the East Coast spilled into the open
despite a gag order on public comments requested by a federal mediator assisting negotiations on a long-term master contract. The lack of agreement on key issues, such as automation, manning levels, work guarantees, and container royalties, has raised concerns about a possible strike or lockout at the end of the year. Both sides agreed two months ago to extend the existing contract, which was scheduled to expire at the end of September, for an additional three months to allow negotiations to continue.
Lytle's positive characterization of labor-management relations also preceded news that talks have broken down between the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association and clerical workers
represented by the ILWU's Local 63 Office Clerical Unit.
The OCU workers perform clerical work inside the offices of terminals and liner carriers, and are not involved directly in loading or unloading ships, but do fall under the ILWU's umbrella.
Ten years ago, marine terminal operators locked out longshoremen on the West Coast for 10 days, causing a massive backlog of cargo and costing shippers several billion dollars in storage, alternate transport, assembly line disruptions and lost sales. The main sticking point at the time was the use of more technology, such as bar code readers, GPS and information systems to track cargo. In two subsequent contracts, the ILWU has agreed in principle to the introduction of technology as long as technology-related jobs are unionized.
Lytle characterized the ILWU as an organization that has evolved into a business partner for the stevedoring companies and steamship lines that manage the terminals.
"I think the workforce understands, that business can go elsewhere. It can go to Mexico, it can go to Canada. Clearly, there is a desire by labor to get flexible and to listen to management," the veteran maritime executive said.
There is give and take on both sides, he added, to raise productivity levels in a fair way. Last spring, one of Lytle's lieutenants told American Shipper
the ILA and ILWU have a different attitude about whether technology displaces jobs
and it was unlikely the ILWU would engage in sympathy strikes or work slowdowns if the ILA walked out in a contract dispute.
The technology concessions by the ILWU, however, are tempered by contract language that requires the union to sign off on each new case of technology deployment.
Lytle said liner carrier OOCL's agreement early this year to lease the Middle Harbor Terminal, now in the process of a 10-year redevelopment, for $4.6 billion over 40 years, was made possible by the ILWU's embrace of automation.
The facility will have semi-automated stacking cranes in the yard, among many enhancements, that will help increase productivity from about 30 lifts per hour to more than 35 per hour.
OOCL officials committed to a huge investment and stringent minimum requirements for throughput, because "they were very confident that they could work with the ILWU and come up with a very mutually beneficial agreement," Lytle said. "And, when we went to Hong Kong to sign that document, guess who was there? The president of the ILWU and three vice presidents and the heads of all three of the main locals."
ILWU President Robert McEllrath stated his support for the project and promised to make it a success at the formal signing ceremony several weeks later in Long Beach.
"So, I don't think you can really ask for better cooperation than we're getting right now from the ILWU," Lytle said. - Eric Kulisch