Crowd Pleaser

Maybe it was the Southern California setting, but Harold Daggett’s performance at last week’s Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference left me thinking: The guy could have made it big in the theatrical world.

As a showman, he’s a natural. TPM wasn’t a sympathetic crowd, but the International Longshoremen’s Association president had the audience roaring at his deftly timed wisecracks. And, like any good performer, Daggett fed off the response.

But the shippers’ laughter had an uneasy tone. With the ILA’s Sept. 30 contract expiration less than six months away, cargo interests are nearing the point of decision on whether to implement contingency plans.

Shippers weren’t reassured when Daggett denounced water-front automation and listed technology, jurisdiction, chassis and overweight containers as potential strike issues. “I’m not threatening to strike, but you’ve got four hurdles to jump over,” he said.

Several shippers told me later they were ready to investigate alternatives that would keep their supply chains moving in case things get dicey on the East and Gulf coasts.

Who could blame them? Longshore work stoppages are serious stuff. Everyone remembers the disruption that accompanied the 2002 West Coast lockout.

With the start of negotiations still a couple of weeks off, it’s too early to predict a similar scenario on the East and Gulf coasts this year. Yes, the negotiations will be tough and things could get ugly. But TPM attendees who listened closely to what Daggett said — and not how he said it — could find reasons for hope.

All but lost amid Daggett’s bluster was his remark that as the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance prepare to open negotiations, “We are going to really try to make it work … We are trying our best not to have a strike.”

Benny Holland, the tactful Texan who serves as the union’s executive vice president, took pains to reassure shippers that while the ILA is united and will drive a hard bargain for its members, it’s not on a suicide mission.

“Keep in mind we haven’t had a strike for 35 years,” he said. “We don’t intend to have a strike, but if we are pushed to the hilt, we will have no choice. But I can tell you it is our intention to keep moving that product from the manufacturer to the consignee and consumer and not to have a labor strike.”

Holland said he’s confident the ILA and USMX will avoid a work stoppage. “I don’t want anyone to leave here thinking they have to divert their cargo,” he told TPM attendees. “We’re going to get over these hurdles.”

That got the biggest applause of all.

-- Contact Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @josephbonney.

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