ILA Strike Watch: Expect Chaos

With the International Longshoremen’s Association on the verge of its first Maine-to-Texas dock strike since 1977, the shipping industry and its customers are preparing for confusion and chaos.

There will be plenty of both if the ILA strikes on Dec. 30, as now appears likely.

Cargo interests already are cursing the ILA for fouling up their supply chains and holiday vacations. Many shippers padded stockpiles or diverted cargo in advance of the original Sept. 30 expiration of the union’s coastwide master contract with United States Maritime Alliance.

Now they’re having to do it again, on the heels of the eight-day strike by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Office Clerical Union at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

That’s not all. After going 35 years without a coastwide ILA strike, it’s not clear how a strike will play out.  

On the surface, it sounds simple enough: The ILA plans to restrict its strike to containerized cargo. The union says it will exempt breakbulk, nonfrozen perishables, automobiles, containerized mail and military cargo, and cruise ships.

Start poking into details, however, and a number of gray areas emerge.

Old-timers recall that the ILA’s last strike in 1977 also was limited in scope. The union targeted “automated” cargo — container ships; roll-on, roll-off ships; and barge carriers. Chaos ensued when some ILA local officials ignored the memo from headquarters and shut down everything in their ports.

Past performances aren’t necessarily a guide to next week’s threatened strike. The ILA is less wild and wooly than it was 35 years ago. Management organizations are better organized and more cohesive. In 1977, the employers still didn’t have a coastwide bargaining group like USMX.

But a selective strike will be untidy. Officials on both sides are scrambling to figure out how to deal with it.

Planning is complicated by the ILA contract’s two-tier structure, with its coastwide master agreement and supplementary local contracts. There’s no question that container lines that are signatories to the coastwide ILA-USMX contract will be shut down on the East and Gulf coasts.

However, some containers also move on combination container-breakbulk vessels operated by carriers that use ILA labor under local contracts but are not master-contract signatories. The latest word from the ILA is that dockworkers won’t handle containers on those ships.

Complete coverage of ILA-USMX negotiations

Another question involves perishable cargoes, such as bananas, that move in containers on vessels of carriers that aren’t contract signatories. ILA President Harold Daggett’s strike-preparation letter to union locals said the ILA wouldn’t handle containers, but the letter’s next sentence said the union would continue to work nonfrozen perishables. What about perishables in containers?

Automobiles could be another gray area. In many ports along the coast, the ILA has separate local contracts for containers and other cargoes, including autos. But that’s not the case everywhere.

In New York-New Jersey, the ILA and New York Shipping Association have a single contract covering all cargoes, which are mostly containers and autos. The ILA-NYSA contract is a supplementary local agreement to the coastwide pact negotiated by USMX, to which the NYSA belongs.

And speaking of New York-New Jersey, here’s an additional wrinkle to keep an eye on:  Separate from the ILA-NYSA contract, the union has an agreement covering hundreds of equipment maintenance-repair workers employed by members of the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association. The ILA-Metro contract isn’t under the coastwide agreement, and is set to expire at midnight Dec. 31. At this point, there’s no sign that it will be extended.

Bottom line: Expect the situation in East and Gulf Coast ports to remain in flux for the next couple of weeks, and possibly longer. This thing’s already getting messy, and it’s likely to get messier.

Contact Joseph Bonney at and follow him at





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