The ILWU and Panama

Thursday’s announcement that the Panama Canal Pilots Union voted to affiliate with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent shivers down the spines of employers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S., but no further significant developments are anticipated in the sort term.

There are still many unanswered questions involving a partnership between a longshore union that can shut down the entire West Coast and a union in Panama that can choke off direct maritime commerce between Asia and the East Coast.

Will the two unions maintain separate contracts with different start and stop dates? That has certainly been the case with the ILWU and its affiliate north of the border, ILWU Canada. However, shippers with a stake in the movement of goods in both areas can only wonder if affiliation will encourage them to support each other with job actions such as work slowdowns or strikes?

There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to answer such questions.

ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said ILWU and Panama Canal Pilots representatives will work out the details of the relationship in the months ahead and will vote on resolutions at the next ILWU international convention in July 2012 in San Diego.

In a legal sense, the two unions are limited as to what joint actions they can take. The Panama Canal Authority said Panama Canal Authority Organic Law “expressly states the prohibition to strike.”

And, the authority said, “There is no record of a strike of pilots in the Panama Canal under the U.S. stewardship, nor under the administration of the Panama Canal Authority since Dec. 31, 1999.”

Could the ILWU engage in a sympathy strike to support the Panama Canal pilots now that the two unions have a legal affiliation? “It doesn’t matter that they’re affiliated. It would still be a secondary boycott, an illegal work stoppage,” said Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, the employers’ organization in San Francisco that negotiates contracts with the union and administers the waterfront contract.

The ILWU has demonstrated in the past, however, that there serious job actions short of strikes. During recent contract negotiations, the ILWU engaged in work slowdowns that pulled down productivity at West Coast ports to excruciating levels. Some employers consider a slowdown worse than a strike because they are paying ILWU workers while they are going slow.

Employers certainly are not taking this development lightly. McKenna called the partnership a “major coup” for the ILWU, even if it does not produce job actions.

Dock worker unions in the U.S. and in other countries are aware today of the globalization of the maritime industry and they are adjusting their strategies to be more global, McKenna said.

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