Commentary: Longshore Unions Digging In on Jurisdiction

In no way can it be said this is a quiet summer for longshore labor in the United States. As longshoremen and employers on the East and Gulf coasts entered crucial negotiations last week in Florida, other disputes were either festering or have exploded.

Coming on the heels of a destructive grain terminal showdown in Longview, Wash., early this year, ultimately won by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and a recent dustup in Coos Bay, Ore., involving ILWU members trying to prevent nonunion work at a lumber barge slip — and other developments — one might ask whether a new phase of U.S. longshore activism and work disruption is emerging.

On one level, each of the recent protests can be seen as isolated actions. In Portland, Ore., a Hanjin trans-Pacific service has bypassed the port in favor of Seattle on three or four occasions during the past several weeks to avoid a jurisdictional dispute. That dispute, between the ILWU and electrical workers over who plugs in reefer containers, stems from the port leasing its Terminal 6 container facility to an independent terminal operator. The Port of Portland no longer runs the terminal directly as it had for years.

Because the private terminal operator, Philippines-based ICTSI, is a member of the Pacific Maritime Association — unlike the port in its previous role as operator — the ILWU feels the reefer work belongs to its members, even though the work has been performed by electrical workers since the terminal opened in the 1970s. The dispute has led to slowdowns, vandalism and a flurry of litigation that as of last week was looking more favorable to the port and the electrical workers, but it still may not be resolved for months.

In Coos Bay, Ore., this month, ILWU members picketed a barge terminal, protesting a lumber company’s use of non-ILWU labor. The union previously loaded barges at the dock when the port authority operated the facility.

With longshore labor relations almost completely independent of the West Coast, the East and Gulf Coast issues are more traditional: pay, terminal automation and the International Longshoremen’s Association’s share of benefits. New on the East and Gulf coasts this year is the acrimony that accompanied the negotiations.

But if there’s a theme running through all this activity, it’s jurisdiction. It’s less an issue of nonunion workers taking over union work than one of work possibly being transferred to other unions. The longshore unions, the ILWU on the West Coast and the ILA on the East and Gulf coasts, appear increasingly concerned.

In Portland, when the port leased Terminal 6 to ICTSI in 2010, it retained direct supervision over the reefer work to honor its existing contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The ILWU and the PMA have challenged that jurisdiction, an example of the uncomfortable (for the ILWU) reality of non-ILWU workers — although unionized — performing certain types of work at terminals up and down the West Coast.

At Longview, the EGT grain terminal sought to have ships worked by a contractor that uses labor supplied by the International Union of Operating Engineers.

On the East Coast, a major point of contention has been the ILA’s desire to protect its jurisdiction over intermodal equipment, such as chassis being sold off by carriers to leasing companies as ocean carriers withdraw from providing chassis in the U.S. market.

Bill Wyatt, the Port of Portland’s executive director, characterizes the Portland issue as stemming “from the same kind of jurisdiction challenge that the industry is experiencing along the waterfront on both coasts.”

The issue of jurisdiction has prompted discussion between the ILA and ILWU about the prospect of an alliance of sorts to protect the unions’ work from incursions from other unions. The prospect of an alliance stems from perceived indifference from the national AFL-CIO. “We would form a maritime alliance to do what the AFL-CIO is afraid to do,” ILA President Harold Daggett said in an address in June to an ILWU conference in Coronado, Calif.

Reflecting the tensions between longhore workers and the AFL-CIO, which the longshoremen see as failing to protect their jurisdiction, ILWU President Bob McEllrath lashed out at the umbrella labor group in a speech at the same conference.

Referring to the EGT dispute, he said, “This fight was won by ILWU members who stood on the tracks, those who were prepared to come and stand behind them, and by union members around the world. But where was the AFL-CIO when the ILWU was fighting for its existence? It was absent. Its leadership was actively asking the state federations in Washington and Oregon not to pass resolutions supporting us, calling the International Transport Workers Federation and asking them to stay out of this fight.”

Longshore unions see automation as inevitable, and know they will ultimately lose some jobs in the process. But it’s creating instability manifested in skirmishes over jurisdiction. We’re likely to see more of this in the future.

Peter Tirschwell is senior vice president of strategy at UBM Global Trade. Contact him at, and follow him at

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