Failed negotiations on a new labor contract for Atlantic and Gulf Coast dockworkers have exposed sharp union-management differences over the spread of computer-based technology at ports.
Those differences scuttled negotiations last month on a two-year extension to the International Longshoremen’s Association contract that expires Sept. 30, 2010. The ILA sought limits on the introduction of labor-saving technology during the contract extension. Management refused — and said its position won’t change when contract talks reopen, probably next year.
“Our members are adamant that they are not going to allow the ILA to basically veto technology. If that happens, we’re all dead,” said James Capo, chairman and CEO of management’s United States Maritime Alliance. “We cannot and will not agree to that position, ever.”
In offering a two-year contract extension to 2012, USMX sought to narrow the gap between ILA wage tiers, Capo said. But he said management’s offer on technology was the same one it presented to the union last February, “and it’s the same offer we’ll give them next year.”
Harold Daggett, the ILA’s executive vice president, stopped short of saying disagreements over technology could provoke a strike next year. But unless management yields, he said, “there’ll be a lot of ships sitting in the harbor, and I don’t think they want that.”
In adopting a hard line on technology, the ILA and USMX appear to be following a similar path their West Coast brethren — the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association — took in 2002, when contentious talks centering on technology led to work slowdowns, a bitter 10-day lockout of dockworkers and massive cargo backlogs at West Coast ports. The contract that emerged granted management some technology concessions that eliminated union jobs in exchange for large increases in the ILWU pension plan.
The tough talk by the ILA and USMX has been absent from their negotiations on recent contracts, the last two of which were settled months before previous agreements expired. After walking out at every contract expiration from World War II to the 1970s, the ILA hasn’t had a coastwide strike since 1977.
This time, however, the negotiations are complicated by economic uncertainty and union politics.
Rejection of the contract extension by the union’s 200-member wage scale committee was a blow to ILA President Richard Hughes, who declined immediate comment. Hughes had hoped to negotiate a two-year contract extension that would keep shippers from diverting cargo to Canada, Mexico or the West Coast.
Daggett, who plans to seek the ILA presidency in 2011, publicly disagreed with Hughes over the contract extension. So did the Longshore Workers Coalition, an ILA activist group that joined Daggett in opposing an extension and demanding tougher restrictions on technology.
“I’m happy that the extension was turned down,” Daggett said. “Rushing into this was the wrong thing to do. We need to wait and do some studies and get hard facts so that when we negotiate, we aren’t just winging it.”
Daggett said he wants to protect ILA jobs from automated terminals such as APM Terminals’ Portsmouth, Va., facility, which uses automated yard cranes and computer technology to handle work ILA longshoremen and clerks used to do manually.
The existing contract’s technology clause allows employers to introduce new technology on 60 days’ notice but permits the ILA to negotiate the impact on union jobs. The ILA lists 43,500 members, but active membership is believed to be about a third of that.
Tony Perlstein, co-chairman of the LWC and a member of ILA Local 1588 in Bayonne, N.J., said computers could change longshore work as much as containerization did a generation ago, when the ILA negotiated pay guarantees and other provisions to ease the adjustment to mechanization.
“We want to control the implementation of technology — not to stop it altogether, but to have a say in how it is used, and to protect the workers and their families in the foreseeable future,” Perlstein said.
He said that future extends beyond the current recession. “We can’t bargain based on the current crisis. We have to bargain based on the employers’ business plan,” he said. “The employers’ business plan is pretty clear. Major carriers and major terminals all expect growth.”
The carriers who dominate USMX have immediate problems. Drewry Shipping Consultants recently estimated container lines would lose $20 billion this year. Despite staff layoffs, ship layups and recent increases from rock-bottom rate levels, carriers’ red ink is expected to spread into next year or even longer.
Capo said USMX’s offer sought to address ILA demands on wages and distribution of carrier-paid container royalties while minimizing cost increases and buying time for economic conditions to settle. “We thought it was a fair and generous offer given the times we’re in,” he said.
Management’s proposal would have boosted new pay and narrowed the gap between wage tiers. The changes would have been funded by delaying a raise scheduled for Oct. 1, the start of the existing six-year contract’s last year, and by shifting about $50 million a year from royalty programs that have surpluses and by increasing carriers’ contributions to the funds.
Union critics objected to delaying next month’s pay raise and to transferring surpluses from royalty funds that support the ILA’s coastwide medical program and other benefits. “By shifting the money around, they’re basically asking us to subsidize the implementation of technology that is going to replace jobs,” Perlstein said.
The extension offer would have immediately boosted new hires’ $16 hourly wage to $20. Next month’s scheduled increase from $31 to $32 in top-scale wages would have been pushed back to 2012. Additional changes would have narrowed the gap between wage tiers that are based on workers’ experience. Hourly pay would have gone from $20 to $23 for workers with three years of experience, $22 to $27 with five years, $24 to $30 with seven years, and $28 to $32 with 11 years.
The increases for lower-tier ILA members would have represented 25 to 100 percent of the difference between their current wages and top-scale pay — a schedule USMX said would have been continued in subsequent contracts. “If I were a member and saw what they gave up, I’d be asking, ‘For what?’ ” Capo said.
Contact Joseph Bonney at email@example.com.