Shippers and carriers view this year’s East and Gulf Coast longshore labor negotiations with a sense of trepidation and an eye on the calendar.
The coastwide contract between the International Longshoremen’s Association and United States Maritime Alliance expires Sept. 30. As the union and employers prepare for negotiations this spring on a new agreement, cargo interests are tweaking contingency plans.
At this point, it’s watchful waiting. But if the ILA and USMX don’t show progress by midsummer, some importers may begin trying to line up alternative gateways, as they did a decade ago on the West Coast when negotiations got sticky before a 10-day lockout of International Longshore and Warehouse Union members.
The big question: What does Harold want?
This year’s ILA negotiations will be the union’s first under its new president, Harold Daggett. His election last July coincided with growing signs of militancy by the ILA, which hasn’t had a coastwide strike since 1977.
Cargo interests’ nervousness increased last summer when Daggett told ILA convention delegates he was “against automation” and would resist job cuts resulting from labor-saving technology.
The current ILA-USMX contract frees companies to introduce technology with six months’ notice, but allows the union to negotiate the impact on jobs. That process is occurring now at Global Terminal, which plans to install remote-controlled yard cranes and truck-gate scanners as part of an expansion of its Bayonne, N.J., terminal.
Port employers are adamant about not allowing the ILA to veto new technology needed to keep pace with rising cargo volume.
In a statement this month, Daggett acknowledged the inevitability of technology, but called for job guarantees in exchange for its introduction. He cited contracts negotiated by Local 1804-1, which he previously headed, and Local 1964, which has organized vessel planners and other carrier employees in New Jersey.
“We know technology is coming, and we know we can’t stop it forever, but we will not be deterred from protecting our work and our jurisdiction,” Daggett said. “Companies will want technology that makes them more efficient and profitable, but the ILA will make sure that such technology does not adversely affect our work force and our members.”
Technology is only one of several likely bargaining issues. Although neither side has detailed its bargaining position, employers hope to use the coastwide master contract and local contract negotiations to secure productivity gains and control costs.
The current contract was revised and extended in 2009. It reduced carriers’ costs in the first year, but provided back-loaded wage increases and eliminated caps on carriers’ tonnage-based container royalties, which fund annual bonuses and other ILA benefits. As cargo volume has recovered from the recession, carriers’ container royalty payments have soared.
The shape of contract negotiations will become clearer in the next several weeks. The ILA’s 200-member wage scale committee will meet in late March to hash out initial proposals and hear from USMX representatives. Formal negotiations are expected to follow in April.