The job security of unionized longshoremen in the South has improved noticeably overall since the watershed year of 1986, but pockets of weakness still exist.
Five years ago, the outlook for the International Longshoremen's Association in the South was shaky at best, especially along the Gulf Coast.Shipping lines bound by contract to employ ILA labor were dropping Gulf port calls in favor of intermodal service, while non-union stevedoring companies were eroding rapidly the ILA's hold on breakbulk general cargo and
bulk commodities. ILA locals in the Northeast didn't face problems of that magnitude.
Also feeling the pinch were ILA employers in the South that pulled out of the talks to negotiate on their own after deciding their interests wouldn't be represented in a traditional coastwide master contract negotiation.
The late J.H. "Buddy" Raspberry, then president of the ILA South Atlantic and Gulf Coast district, also recognized his district's special problems.
Mr. Raspberry took the unprecedented step of shuttling virtually non-stop throughout the South in 1986, hammering out contracts with individual employer groups.
Those contracts reduced wages and gang sizes for dockworkers handling breakbulk and bulk cargoes and for those working small containerships.
The concessions accomplished what the union and the employers wanted, said Benny Holland Jr., current president of the ILA's Southern district, based in Galveston, Texas.
"The union has made some big turnarounds in the South," Mr. Holland said in a recent telephone interview. ILA employers have recaptured work lost to non-union companies, resulting in increases in man-hours worked since 1986, he said.
The labor leader's assessment was echoed by John H. Leeper, president of the transportation consulting firm Leeper, Cambridge & Campbell Inc., Alexandria, Va.
Mr. Leeper said the ILA and its employers are reclaiming previously lost work by providing greater stability, productivity, flexibility and discipline than the union showed in the past or than many non-union operations can offer now.
Out of necessity, the ILA's willingness to compete with non-union operations has continued in the years since that 1986 breakthrough.
The union must stay on its toes, Mr. Holland acknowledged, because it isn't out of the woods yet. "There are still problems, no question about it," he said.
For instance, in such ports as Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., the work provided by union stevedores has dwindled to such an extent that ILA members are forced to work for non-union companies to make ends meet.
Right now, the ILA Southern district is developing a program intended to combat that continuing threat to union jobs.
The program is expected to be approved by the executive board and implemented shortly after this week's (week of July 22) ILA convention, Mr. Holland said.
Mr. Holland doesn't expect the ILA to lose strength in the South as containerization grows in the region.
Most of the containers are handled by stevedores and carriers that are ILA contract signatories, so "we'll be a big part of that," he explained.
To boost ILA productivity and to ensure that the union's hold over containerized cargo doesn't slip, the contract signed late last year increased the amount of money the employers contribute for worker education and training, such as the new simulated crane operation programs in use, he said.
The flip side to that is that automation reduces the jobs required, so Mr. Holland doesn't foresee his membership increasing in the future.
To keep it from shrinking, the union is emphasizing retraining in such areas as computer operation and container repair for workers cut out by automation.