Fire and Smoke

When shippers hear the word “strike,” they have the same reaction as when someone yells “fire.” That goes double when they hear it from someone like the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

ILA President Harold Daggett rattled cargo interests at this week’s Trans-Pacific Maritime conference when he identified automation, jurisdiction, chassis and overweight containers as four potential strike issues in this fall’s negotiations. He even suggested that if pushed, the ILA would consider a “selective strike” targeting large carriers.

It wasn’t what shippers were hoping to hear. Many left the conference hall talking about contingency plans in case East and Gulf ports face a work stoppage this fall.

They’re right to be concerned, and to be thinking about alternatives. That’s what logistics managers do. Even a brief strike or lockout ripples quickly through today’s tight supply chains, and logisticians must anticipate surprises.

Before running to the exits, however, a few points are worth remembering.

First, there are still six months left until the ILA contract expires Sept. 30. The clock is ticking but the situation could change quickly after the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance start negotiations at the end of the month.

A second point was made eloquently at TPM by Benny Holland, the ILA’s executive vice president. Holland noted that the ILA hasn’t called a coast-wide strike in 35 years, and he said the union isn’t looking for one now. He didn’t minimize the difficulty of this year’s negotiations but said he’s confident the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance will work out a deal both can accept.

A final point to remember is this: What’s said in a panel discussion at a conference usually includes a measure of posturing and hyperbole, and isn’t necessarily a reliable guide to what happens in the give-and-take of negotiations. Real-world bargaining tends to force the parties to clear the smoke and focus on the issues at hand.

Daggett’s bombastic comments unnerved shippers who heard him – for most, the first time – at TPM. But anyone listening carefully to his remarks also heard him say at least twice during the question-and-answer session that he and the ILA will work hard to reach a strike-free agreement.

As USMX Chairman/CEO James Capo noted at TPM, labor contract negotiations are a process and “you have to let the process work. You have to give it some time.”

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